Defending liberal arts from anti-higher ed movements

The 2010’s are an exciting time to attend college. Since I enrolled at Concordia, armies of technocrats have forecast the demise of the American university. In the wake of Mark Zuckerberg’s fame and fortune, the “UnCollege” movement, which encourages young people to question the necessity of higher education, “create[d] a place where people who are misfits in the educational system can be themselves and grow and thrive.” Consider Peter Thiel, the vociferous libertarian entrepreneur who dogmatically criticizes higher education. “If Harvard were really the best education, if it makes that much of a difference, why not franchise it so more people can attend? Why not create 100 Harvard affiliates?” Recall too the undue praise of the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) which were posed as “the future of higher education in America.” Technology, it seemed, would tear down the inefficient and archaic Ivory towers.

Nevertheless, the state of the academy is strong. The MOOC fad has all but passed. While useful for some, the UnCollege movement has yet to spread beyond Palo Alto, and Theil’s companies still find Harvard good enough to recruit from. As the academy has survived these challenges, I cannot help but note how well-poised we are to tackle the premier technological challenge of our time: distraction. (Author’s note: around this time, I should admit I never got around to taking “Media Sociology,” and I will be a bit light on the theory because of it. Author’s postscript: We miss you, Andrew Lindner)

The term du jour for our app-ified world is “the attention economy.” We inundate our lives with “free” devices that purport to improve and connect us. Waiting for friends? Check your Facebook. Doing homework? Maybe Twitter is interesting. Writing an opinion column? I bet Reddit has a new post.

Why don’t these services charge us? Author Tom Chatfield contends, as do many others, it is because we are their product. More to the point, Chatfield writes, “it’s not you, but your behavioural data and the quantifiable facts of your engagement that are constantly blended for sale, with the aggregate of every single interaction (yours included) becoming a mechanism for ever-more-finely tuning the business of attracting and retaining users.” Our data and our attention grease the wheels of the attention economy.

As this attention becomes scarce, companies (and, of course, people) will bolster their fights for it. There is a better term for these markets: “the distraction economy.”

In an outstanding media article for the Guardian last semester, professor Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic outlines the disturbing nature of the distraction economy. Software companies vie for more people to become users and for more clicks from the users they have.  MOOCs and UnCollege attempted to disrupt higher education directly, but Twitter, Facebook and Tinder are disrupting our ability to focus.

These attention trollers even threaten learning. MOOCs offer a digital college course for committed students, but ubiquitous quasi-educational videos dispense byte-sized snippets that are tools for distraction rather than edification. TED talks and other such videos, notes Chamorro-Premuzic, “are threatening to replace books and lectures, turning learning into ‘edutainment’ and celebrating performance and storytelling over factual accuracy.” Edutainment supplants traditional learning to the detriment of students. The academy is the best tool to salvage our attention and our learning.

I am an avid defender of liberal arts colleges, and I believe one of their untapped assets is their ability to mandate concentration. Tackling complicated texts requires focus. Writing a paper on Descartes’ arguments for God’s existence isn’t made any easier with Facebook open. If there is a way to learn calculus while distracted, I have yet to find it. To be frank, I don’t think I could appreciate the value of concentration were it not for my place in a liberal arts college. More to the point, I think this is the premier advantage of a liberal arts degree in a distraction economy: your archaic piece of parchment with Bachelor of Arts on it demonstrates you can focus in an era when that skill is in terrifically short supply.

The strongest argument in favor of focusing is personal – there is something brilliant about clarity of thought. Distancing ourselves from Netflix and WhatsApp long enough to read new ideas or synthesize a new solution is exciting. While it may not be as shiny, unplugging from the distraction economy offers a sense of fulfillment that an app cannot replace. I am not forbidding the use of social media or technology – I, for one, will never stop talking about Twitter (just ask my girlfriend – she’ll confirm it). There is simply a greater value in learning when to unplug. As college students, we have an obligation to embrace our studies with fullness of thought and to opt out of distraction.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *