2.20.13.news.leadingvoiceslecture

Jeff Selingo’s new book, College Unbound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students (New Harvest, 2013), finds the editor at large for the Chronicle of Higher Education articulating the challenges to contemporary higher education. He also explores possible new directions for a future in which learning may well be unbundled from many of its traditional structures.

I interviewed Selingo and published a short version of our conversation at the Huffington Post under the title “When the Jobs of Tomorrow Don’t Exist Today: Jeff Selingo on College, Liberal Arts, and the Possible Future.” Here, I let the conversation expand to its full flowering, and then move at its close to issues of contemporary publishing.

I have only one prerequisite for what I consider to be quality television. Be it commercial or full-length programming, it ought to render me speechless. Quality TV, in other words, should shut me up. It should leave my mouth agape and my eyes barely blinking. That is all I ask of television. It’s all my poor wife—who daily puts up with my snarky yapping—asks of television.

Case in point, the new commercial for Kaplan University, a mostly online college based in Davenport, Iowa. The Commercial Which Shut Me Up stars James Avery, who you may remember as Uncle Phil from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. I always thought Avery was a commanding talent in that role, and he is nothing short of terrific in the Kaplan University commercial.

In this particular TV spot, James Avery plays a professor at some anonymous university who stands before an ethnically diverse, tightly packed classroom and tells his class that he has failed them.

He furthermore states that the American college system is “steeped in tradition and old ideas.” It seems like a farewell speech of some kind, and judging by the quizzical looks on the students’ faces one wonders if Uncle Phil is going to pull out a gun and blow out his brains before everyone gets to sign his or her name on the attendance sheet.

But he doesn’t, thankfully, and the inspirational music swells and the lecture hall scene cuts to a montage of seemingly affluent Americans across the nation watching Uncle Phil’s speech on iPhones and laptops, at breakfast tables, on rooftops, and subway platforms. We are all witness (granted, only if you have internet access) to a hope renewed.

“It’s time for a different kind of university,” he says, pausing thoughtfully as professors do. “It’s your time.”

It’s stirring stuff, indeed. Kaplan University means business. Brothers and sisters, the revolution will be televised. And I think I know exactly what Uncle Phil is getting at.

I’ve experienced firsthand how ugly it can be teaching aliterate 18 year old kids sonorous essays by Ruth Benedict or whoever. Not to mention the frustrating distance that is a fact of life between the professor and the 100- or 200-level student. Teaching college is arguably easier than teaching primary or secondary school because you, as teacher, just don’t need to get that involved. They come, they listen, they take notes. If they don’t come or listen or take scrupulous notes that’s their problem.

But I don’t want to delve too deep into a discussion of pedagogical quagmires and thereby sink into the depths of my own horrible tangent. We’ve all got things we love and hate about Academia, to say nothing of the promiscuous foreplay and keggers and awesome tomfoolery.

Generally speaking, it hardly matters which university you attend, but rather how you spend the four or so years there. Because no matter where you go there is ample time between class and the gym and the party to self-educate. Unless, I suppose, you are a non-traditional student, the sort of busybody Kaplan University is looking to attract with its recent ad campaign.

But I cannot fathom a college experience focused on message boards and video tutorials and a dizzying crumbtrail of emails. And no parties? That can barely be called an experience.

What do you think?