Before a man studies Zen, to him mountains are mountains and waters are waters; after he gets an insight into the truth of Zen through the instruction of a good master, mountains to him are not mountains and waters are not waters; but after this when he really attains to the abode of rest, mountains are once more mountains and waters are waters. (Chingyuan)

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New Faculty Seminar: Fall Semester Syllabus

There are many who seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge: that is curiosity. There are others who desire to know in order that they may themselves be known: that is vanity. Others seek knowledge in order to sell it: that is dishonorable. But there are some who seek knowledge in order to edify others: that is love.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux


Session 1:  Past, Present, and a Precarious Future

Guests: Sue Hammersmith and Ginny Arthur

“A Riverboat Gambler’s Utopian Experiment,” Monte Bute

“Vision, Mission & Core Values Statements”

“Extraordinary Education at Metropolitan State University: Report on Spring 2012 Faculty Forums,” Ginny Arthur

“College at Risk,” Andrew Delbanco


Session 2:  IFO Contract and Criteria for Tenure and Promotion

Guests: Nancy Black and Lawrence Moe

“2011-13 IFO/MnSCU Contract”

“How Far is Distance Learning from Education?” Hubert L. Dreyfus [Intriguing model of skill development that is quite applicable to Metro State faculty]


Session 3:  Why We Teach

Discussion Facilitators: Monte Bute and Tom O’Connell

“Why We Teach: Scholastics, Partisans, Socratics, and Communitarians,” Tom O’Connell and Monte Bute (table)

Exemplars of the Taxonomy

Tip to Professors: Just Do Your Job,” Stanley Fish

“Toward a Revolutionary Feminist Pedagogy,” bell hooks

“The Answer of Socrates,” Hannah Arendt

“We Teach Who We Are,” Parker Palmer


Session 4How We Teach—Nuts and Bolts

Guests: Panel of Faculty

·                     What do I do with 200 Minutes? The Interactive and Smart Classroom

·                     Teaching Venues: Classroom, Online, Hybrid, Theory Seminar, Prior Competence

·                     Syllabus Construction—applying Aristotle’s Poetics

·                     Selecting Readings—Less is More

·                     Assignments that Foster Higher Order Reading, Thinking, Writing, and Discussion

·                     The Neglected Art and Craft of Honest and Constructive Evaluation

Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education,” Arthur W. Chickering and Zelda F. Gamson

“Designing Education for Understanding,” Howard Gardner


“Embracing Contraries in the Teaching Process,” Peter Elbow



Session 5:  Scholarship and Continued Preparation

Guests: Panel of Faculty

Scholarship Revisited, Ernest L. Boyer


Session 6:  Student Growth and Development

Guests: Doug Knowlton and Tadael Emiru

“Qualities of a Liberally Educated Person,” William Cronon

Principles of Good Practice for Student Affairs”

“’Engagement’ and the Unprepared,” Doug Lederman

“A Letter to a Student of a Certain Class,” Monte Bute


Session 7:  Service to the University and Community

Guests: Panel of Faculty

 “Revising Faculty Service Roles—Is ‘Faculty Service’ a Victim of the Middle Child Syndrome?”  Gayle A. Brazeau

“Rewarding Faculty Professional Service,” KerryAnn O’Meara

“Tales of Western Adventure,” Patricia Nelson Limerick





Along with Powell’s and Strand, the Book House, with 130,000 volumes, is nationally acclaimed as one of America’s premier used academic bookstores. Join me in the battle to save the BOOK HOUSE IN DINKYTOWN!!! “The Book House is an idea that’s bigger than [the] Opus project,” Bute said.

Book House is relocating, but not done fighting

The 37-year-old store will move to a smaller location in Dinkytown.

The Book House stock manager Kevin Sell moves boxes that will be brought to the store’s new locations on May 26, 2013 in Dinkytown. ByBridget Bennett
June 05, 2013

The Book House is relocating to a new home just around the corner, but it’s not done fighting for Dinkytown.

Its large collection of used and rare books will be moving to a small space above Varsity Bike and Transit in Dinkydale Mall. Owner Kristen Eide-Tollefson said they plan to open by mid-July.

Book House employee Matt Hawbaker said the compact space will be about one-third the size of the current store.

The new store will take over the space that the Dinkytown Antiquarian Books bookstore once occupied.

Because of the tighter space, the Dinkydale Mall location will be a more curated collection of books, and they’ll be focusing on more online sales, Hawbaker said.

Employee Kevin Sell said they previously considered moving to Prospect Park but decided to stay nearby because “they are an essential part of Dinkytown.”

Eide-Tollefson said the store needs to be out of its current 14th Avenue location by the end of June. The Opus Group plans to break ground on a 140-unit apartment building there in August.

Monte Bute — who’s been coming to the Book House once a week since the first day they opened in 1976 — said he’ll continue going to the new location, but he’s sad about the move.

“Book House is one of the anchors of Dinkytown,” Bute said. “What you find here is serendipity.”

The new location will allow the Book House to have a more selective stock, Eide-Tollefson said. But the new space may not be permanent.

Hawbaker said the Book House hopes to move back into a larger place in the future, but it seems unlikely if Fifth Street is rezoned for new construction, as Opus has proposed.

Developers open spaces in Dinkytown for their offices, he said, and small-business owners can’t afford the higher prices.

Although Book House employees said they’re happy the store will stay in Dinkytown, they’ll still be fighting against the development of the Opus project.

“This deal is not done,” Hawbaker said.

Community group Save Dinkytown’s petition for an environmental assessment of the Opus apartment project will be addressed at the zoning and planning committee’s June 6 meeting. The city of Minneapolis denied the application for an assessment, saying the group didn’t provide enough evidence that the project would negatively impact the environment.

There won’t be a public hearing, but a Save Dinkytown representative will have an opportunity to address the committee, according to the meeting agenda online.

Bute said these wars with developers aren’t new and Opus doesn’t understand the culture of Dinkytown.

“The Book House is an idea that’s bigger than [the] Opus project,” Bute said.

About Contexts

Contexts is a quarterly magazine that makes cutting-edge social research accessible to general readers. We’re the public face of sociology.


A Populist Sociology

A few years back, I was on a prestigious Centennial Panel at the American Sociological Association’s (ASA) 100th birthday party. The topic was public sociology. When I first saw the distinguished academic pedigree of my fellow panelists, I imagined myself cast in a theatrical adaptation of American novelist William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. I was playing a member of the Snopes clan, someone mistakenly seated at the head table of the plantation owners’ annual banquet. If you are unfamiliar with the little hamlet of Frenchmen’s Bend in Faulkner’s mythological Mississippi, the Snopeses belong to the “white trash” stratum.

I did forewarn the panelists and audience that we Snopeses ain’t been fully housebroken and that in addressing the polite subject of public sociology, I was compelled to also expose our profession’s dirty little secret: There is no discipline so sensitive to social inequality, or as rigorous at unmasking the social machinations that create and perpetuate those inequities. Conversely, there is no profession more insensitive to status inequality within its own ranks, or as inept at recognizing how taken-for-granted practices create and perpetuate this peculiar caste system. Sociology itself is in need of a populist insurgency.

Crème de la crème sociology denotes the esoteric scholarship and rampant careerism that permeate the 25 top-ranked sociology departments at esteemed research universities, as well as the higher circles of the American Sociological Association, the American Sociological Review, the American Journal of Sociology, Social Forces, and Social Problems. This royal court has created estates of lords and commoners for both departments and individuals.

How do we combat this elitist paradigm of practice that legitimizes our in-house inequalities? In Sister Outsider, activist Audre Lorde cautions us about what not to do: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”

We need to debunk crème de la crème sociology. Just because these ideas and behaviors are ubiquitous within the profession’s dominant institutions, it does not make them “The Good, The True, and The Beautiful.” Conventional wisdom may hold that scholarly productivity is what confers prestige upon departments and individual sociologists. However, as sociologist Val Burris persuasively argues in a 2004 ASR article, when it comes to prestige ranking, social capital often trumps intellectual capital. In other words, academic status is really as much about whom you know as what you know.

Sociologists at more than 3,000 institutions chafe under the hegemony of crème de la crème sociology and its royal court. How do we organize and give voice to the profession’s peasantry who toil under a more populist paradigm of practice? Our grievances have had no manifesto.

We need a lucid and persuasive representation of what teaching, scholarship, and service might look like as a more populist sociology:

  1. Students are not means to an end but are ends in themselves. We take pride in teaching undergraduates, fostering a sociological imagination in students who may never take another course in the discipline.
  2. We are public teachers, using all available venues to profess an edifying sociology to diverse communities of citizens.
  3. We primarily practice the scholarships of integration, application, and teaching. Our priority is sharing these findings with students, well-informed citizens, and practitioners in the field.
  4. Service to our home institutions, local communities, and provincial professional associations is a preeminent value. These local loyalties diminish the self-aggrandizing behavior of hyper-professionalism and contribute to the public good.
  5. We maintain that sociology is not a career but a calling.

There is also the matter of getting right with our ancestors. We need to rediscover our founders’ forgotten practices of public teaching and grassroots activism. Perhaps then, young sociologists will have the feasible option of looking to the likes of Anna Julia Cooper, Jane Addams, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Charles Ellwood for inspiration.

What social scientists William Buxton and Stephen P. Turner in Sociology and its Publics called “the trained incapacities of disciplinary sociologists to communicate to wider audiences” is the curse that the crème de la crème heritage has bestowed upon contemporary sociologists. It is implausible to believe that a citizen-friendly sociology will emerge from academia’s gated communities.

Any reasonably objective observer would be hard-pressed to deny that status inequality occurs within our ranks. Most investigators would further conclude that our taken-for-granted practices create and perpetuate this caste system. What are the implications of these findings for the profession? My argument has been unabashedly normative and polemical. I seek the demise of inequality within our field and the proliferation of a more populist sociology.

about the author

Monte Bute is in the social science department at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is action coordinator for the faculty union at Minnesota state universities.

Touch of Evil, Orson Welles
Wild Strawberries, Ingmar Bergman
Wings of Desire, Wim Wenders
Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard.
Umberto D, Vittorio De Sica
Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Werner Herzog
To Live, Zhang Yimou
Rashomon, Akira Kurasawa
Three Colours Trilogy, Krzysztof Kieślowski
400 Blows, François Truffaut

Former students are always asking me for reading suggestions to continue their lifelong learning. This list is random, composed primarily of fiction and essays. I will periodically add new lists in case you run out of things to read. I will follow up this reading list with a list of films not to be missed–however, be ready to read subtitles!

On Kindness

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Twenty Years at Hull House

Invisible Man

Man’s Search for Meaning

Tell Me a Riddle

Why Societies Need Dissent

Cat’s Cradle

Learning to Drive

A Pen Warmed in Hell

The Grapes of Wrath

Notes of a Native Son


The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness

The Road

Liquid Modernity

Go Down Moses

A Gathering of Old Men

Facing Unpleasant Facts

Fierce Attachments


The Long Haul

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

Under the Glacier

Bread Givers

The White Album 

Absalom, Absalom!

A book review I wrote in 2008 contrasting academic writing with literary essays


“There are many who seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge: that is curiosity. There are others who desire to know in order that they may themselves be known: that is vanity. Others seek knowledge in order to sell it: that is dishonorable. But there are some who seek knowledge in order to edify others: that is love.”
Bernard of Clairvaux

The New Republic

MARCH 31, 2013

MOOCs of Hazard: Will online education dampen the college experience? Yes. Will it be worth it? Well…


In the spring of 2011, Sebastian Thrun was having doubts about whether the classroom was really the right place to teach his course on artificial intelligence. Thrun, a computer-science professor at Stanford, had been inspired by Salman Khan, the founder of the online Khan Academy, whose videos and discussion groups have been used by millions to learn about everything from arithmetic to history. And so that summer, Thrun announced he would offer his fall course on Stanford’s website for free. He reorganized it into short segments rather than hour-long lectures, included problem sets and quizzes, and added a virtual office hour via Google Hangout. Enrollment jumped from 200 Stanford undergraduates to 160,000 students around the world (only 30 remained in the classroom). A few months later, he founded an online for-profit company called Udacity; his course, along with many others, is now available to anyone with a fast Internet connection.

Meanwhile, two of Thrun’s Stanford colleagues, Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, founded another for-profit company, Coursera, that posts courses taught by faculty from leading universities such as Prince- ton, Michigan, Duke, and Penn. Three million students have signed on. Not to be outdone, Harvard and MIT announced last spring their own online partnership, edX, a nonprofit with an initial investment of $60 million. A new phenomenon requires a new name, and so MOOC—massive open online course—has now entered the lexicon. So far, MOOCs have been true to the first “o” in the acronym: Anyone can take these courses for free.

Many people outside academia—including New York Times columnists David Brooks and Thomas L. Friedman—are gushing that MOOCs are the best thing to happen to learning since movable type. Inside academia, however, they have been met with widespread skepticism. As Joseph Harris, a writing professor at Duke, recently remarked in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “I don’t see how a MOOC can be much more than a digitized textbook.”

In fact, MOOCs are the latest in a long series of efforts to use technology to make education more accessible. Sixty years ago, the Ford Foundation funded a group of academics to study what was then a cutting-edge technology: television. In language almost identical to that used today, a report on the project announced that television had the power to drive down costs, enable the collection of data on how students learn, and extend “the reach of the superior teacher to greater num- bers of students.” From 1957 to 1982, the local CBS channel in New York City broadcast a morning program of college lectures called “Sunrise Semester.” But the sun never rose on television as an educational “delivery system.”

In the 1990s, my own university, Columbia, started a venture called Fathom, using the relatively new technology of the Web. The idea was to sell online courses taught by star faculty such as Simon Schama and Brian Greene to throngs of supposedly eager customers. But the paying consumers never showed up in the anticipated numbers, and by the time it was shut down, Fathom had cost Columbia, according to some estimates, at least $20 million. Looking back, the project’s director, Ann Kirschner, concluded that she and her colleagues had arrived too soon—“pre-broadband, pre-videocasting and iPods, and all the rest.”

Of course, we will always be pre-something. Former University of Michigan President James Duderstadt foresees a technology that will be “totally immersive in all our senses”—something like the “feelies” that Aldous Huxley, in Brave New World, imagined would render the “talkies” obsolete. The MIT Media Lab has already developed a vest that gives you a hug when a friend “likes” something you have posted on Facebook. It may not be long before we can log onto a Shakespeare course taught by, say, Stephen Greenblatt and feel the spray of his saliva as he recites “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.” Such technologies will likely find their biggest market through the pornography industry, but there’s no reason to doubt that academia will adopt and adapt them.

The Luddite in me is inclined to think that the techno-dreamers are headed for another disappointment. But this time around, something does seem different—and it’s not just that the MOOC pioneers have an infectious excitement rarely found in a typical faculty meeting. They also have a striking public-spiritedness. Koller sees a future in which a math prodigy in a developing country might nurture his or her gifts online and then, having been identified by a leading university, enroll in person—on a scholarship, one might imagine, funded by income derived from Coursera. This idea of using online courses as a detection tool is a reprise (on a much larger scale) of the one that spurred the development of standardized tests in the mid-twentieth century, such as the SAT, which was originally envisioned as a means for finding gifted students outside the usual Ivy League “feeder” schools.

Koller speaks with genuine passion about the universal human craving for learning and sees in Internet education a social good that reminds me of Thomas Jefferson’s dream of geniuses being “raked from the rubbish”—by which he meant to affirm the existence of a “natural aristocracy” to be nurtured for the sake of humankind. No one knows whether the MOOCs will achieve any of these things, but many academic leaders are certain that, as Stanford President John Hennessy predicts, higher education is about to be hit by a “tsunami.”

What’s driving all this risk-taking and excitement? Many people are convinced that the MOOCs can rein in the rising costs of colleges and universities. For decades, the price of tuition has outstripped the pace of inflation. Over the past ten years, the average sticker price at private colleges has increased by almost 30 percent (though net tuition has risen less because financial aid has grown even faster). At state universities, the problem has been exacerbated by public disinvestment. For example, less than 6 percent of the annual budget of the University of Virginia is covered by state funds. Last fall, I heard the chief financial officer of an urban public university put the matter succinctly: The difficulty, he said, is not so much the cost of college, but the shift of the financial burden from the state to the student.

There are many reasons why college costs continue to soar: the expense of outfitting high-tech science labs, the premium placed on research that lures faculty out of the classroom (and, in turn, requires hiring more faculty to teach classes), the proliferation of staff for everything from handling government regulation to counseling increasingly stressed students. At some institutions, there are also less defensible reasons, such as wasteful duplication, lavish amenities, and excessive pay and perks for top administrators and faculty.

But the most persuasive account of the relentless rise in cost was made nearly 50 years ago by the economist William Baumol and his student William Bowen, who later became president of Princeton. A few months ago, Bowen delivered two lectures in which he revisited his theory of the “cost disease.”1 “In labor-intensive industries,” he explained, “such as the performing arts and education, there is less opportunity than in other sectors to increase productivity by, for example, substituting capital for labor.” Technological advances have allowed the auto industry, for instance, to produce more cars while using fewer workers. Professors, meanwhile, still do things more or less as they have for centuries: talking to, questioning, and evaluating students (ideally in relatively small groups). As the Ohio University economist Richard Vedder likes to joke, “With the possible exception of prostitution . . . teaching is the only profession that has had no productivity advance in the 2,400 years since Socrates.”

This is a true statement—but it unwittingly undercuts its own point: Most people, I suspect, would agree that there are some activities—teaching and prostitution among them—in which improved productivity and economies of scale are not desirable, at least not from the point of view of the consumer.

True believers think that the new digital technologies will finally enable educators to increase productivity by allowing a smaller number of teachers to produce a larger number of “learning outcomes” (today’s term for educated students) than ever before. But it’s too soon to say whether MOOCs will really help cure the cost disease. Their own financial viability is by no means certain. The for-profits must make money for their investors, and the non- profits must return revenue to the universities that give them start-up funds.

Coursera has begun to try out a number of different strategies. It provides a matchmaking service for employers looking to hire people with certain demonstrable skills—a logical extension of a role that colleges already play. When a company expresses interest in a top-performing student, Coursera e-mails the student, offering an introduction, and receives a finder’s fee from the prospective employer. The college that developed the course also receives a cut. As for Udacity, Thrun says only that it charges companies looking for talent “significantly less than you’d pay for a headhunter, but significantly more than what you’d pay for access to LinkedIn.”

A few months ago, Coursera also announced a licensing arrangement with Antioch University, which agreed to pay a fee in return for incorporating selected Coursera offerings into its curriculum. The idea is for students to supplement their online experience by working with on-campus faculty—a practice known as “hybrid” or “blended” learning. The college can expand its course offerings without hiring new faculty, and Coursera can earn income that will be shared by the institutions and professors who develop the courses. So far, however, student interest has been low.

Other possible sources of revenue include selling expertise to universities that want to set up their own MOOCs or partnering with textbook publishers willing to share revenue in exchange for selling to online students. Some MOOCs are also beginning to charge fees for proctored exams (in person or by webcam) for students seeking a certificate marking their successful completion of a course.

If new technologies can cure, or even slow down, the cost disease before it kills the patient, that would be a great public service. The dark side of this bright dream is the fear that online education could burst what appears to be a higher education bubble. Consumers, the argument goes, are already waking up to the fact that they’re paying too much for too little. If they are priced out of, or flee from, the market, they will find new ways to learn outside the brick-and-mortar institutions that, until now, have held a monopoly on providing credentials that certify what graduates have supposedly learned. If that happens, it would be a classic case of “disruptive innovation”—a term popularized by Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen, who argues that, “in industries from computers to cars to steel those entrants that start at the bottom of their markets, selling simple products to less demanding customers and then improving from that foothold, drive the prior leaders into a disruptive demise.”

We’ve already witnessed the first phase of this process. Early consumers of online courses tended to be students with families or jobs for whom full-time attendance at a residential or even a commuter college was out of the question. As underfunded public colleges struggled to meet the needs of such students, private for-profit “universities” such as Phoenix, Kaplan, DeVry, and Strayer emerged. They offer mainly online courses that serve—some would say exploit—an expanding population of consumers (a word increasingly used as a synonym for students). The first time I heard someone commend for-profit universities was five or six years ago, when a savvy investor said to me, “Look at California—the public system can’t meet the demand, so we will step in.” He was making the safe, and sad, assumption that public reinvestment is unlikely to restore what was once an unrivaled system of public higher education. Last August, nearly half a million students found themselves on waiting lists for oversubscribed courses at California’s community colleges.

Many online students meet the low-income eligibility threshold for federal Pell grants—a ripe market for the for-profit universities. These institutions offer cheaper courses than traditional private colleges, usually in practical or technical subjects such as cosmetology or computer programming. Their business model depends heavily on faculty who receive low compensation and on students with high loan obligations. It’s a system that works well for investors. (In 2009, the CEO of Strayer University collected a cool $42 million, mainly in stock options.) How well it works for students is another question. Last summer, a U.S. Senate committee noted that for-profit universities spend more on advertising and recruiting than on instruction and that, without significant reform, they “will continue to turn out hundreds of thousands of students with debt but no degree.”

So far, the for-profit sector has been regarded with disdain or indifference by established universities. This fits the Christensen theory of “disruptive innovation”: The leap by low-end products into higher- end markets is sudden and surprising because the higher-ups have been lulled into thinking their place in the pecking order is unassailable. What has happened to newspapers and publishing are obvious examples. Suddenly everything changes, and the old is swept away by the new.

Because of the durable value of prestige, it will be a long time before Harvard has to fear for its existence. But one reason to think we’re on the cusp of major change is that online courses are particularly well- suited to the new rhythms of student life. On traditional campuses, many students already regard time offline as a form of solitary confinement. Classrooms have become battlegrounds where professors struggle to distract students from their smartphones and laptops. Office hours are giving way to e-mail. To the millions who have used sites such as the Khan Academy, the idea of hour-long lectures spread out over 15-week semesters is already anachronistic. “Disruptive innovation” is a variant of Joseph Schumpeter’s famous declaration that capitalism works by “creative destruction.” What will be innovated and created in our colleges and universities, and what will be disrupted and destroyed?

One vulnerable structure is the faculty itself, which is already in a fragile state. This is especially true of those who teach subjects such as literature, history, and the arts. The humanities account for a static or declining percentage of all degrees conferred, partly because students often doubt their real-world value. And as humanities departments shrink, some institutions are collaborating to shrink them faster (or close them altogether) in order to avoid duplicative hiring in subjects with low student demand. For example, Columbia, Yale, and Cornell have announced a collaboration whereby certain languages—such as Romanian, Tamil, or Yoruba—will be taught via teleconferencing. This is good for students, since the subjects will still be available. But it’s bad for aspiring faculty—as the number of positions dwindles, research and scholarship in these fields will dry up.

MOOCs also seem likely to spur more demand for celebrity professors in a teaching system that is already highly stratified. Among tenured faculty, there is currently a small cadre of stars and a smaller one of superstars—and the MOOCs are creating megastars. Michael Sandel, for example, who teaches a famous course on justice at Harvard, has become a global figure with millions of followers, notably in Asia, since his lectures became available online through Harvard’s website and at a site called Academic Earth. A few months ago, Harvard announced that Sandel had signed up with edX. Sandel is an exceptional educator, but as master-teachers go global, lesser-known colleagues fear being relegated to a supporting role as glorified teaching assistants.

In some respects, this is the latest chapter in an old story of faculty entrepreneurship. By the mid-twentieth century, the president of the University of California, Clark Kerr, was already describing the Berkeley faculty as “individual entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance over parking.” Today, as star professors increasingly work for themselves, more faculty members at less prestigious institutions face low wages, meager benefits, and—since many lack tenure—minimal job security. But if the new technology threatens some professors with obscurity, others face obsolescence. Language instructors may someday be replaced by multilingual versions of Siri on your iPhone. One of my colleagues speaks of the imminent “evisceration” of graduate study, once young people who might have pursued an academic career are deterred as it becomes harder and harder to find a dignified job after years of training.

These prospects raise many pressing questions—not just speculative ones about the future, but actionable ones about the present. What, if anything, can universities do to formulate new rules governing conflicts of interest? As faculty stars relocate to cyberspace, how can institutions sustain the community of teachers and students that has been the essence of the university for a thousand years? (The pacesetting Thrun, who is a vice president of Google, resigned from his tenured teaching post at Stanford, though he remains a “research professor.”) In this brave new world, how can the teaching profession, already well on its way to “adjunctification,” attract young people with a pastoral impulse to awaken and encourage students one by one?

There are also unanswered questions about how much students actually learn from MOOCs. Coursera recently withdrew one course at Georgia Tech because of student discontent and another, at the University of California, Irvine, because the professor disputed how much students were really learning.

So far, most testimonials to the value of online learning come from motivated students, often adults, who seek to build on what they have already learned in traditional educational settings. These are people with clear goals and confidence in their abilities. Stanford has even established an online high school “for gifted students” from around the world (a residential program brings them together in the summers). Its medical school has introduced “lecture halls without lectures,” whereby students use short videos to master the material on their own, then converge in class for discussion of clinical applications of what they’ve learned.

And yet it’s one thing to expect brilliant teens or medical students to be self-starters. It’s another to teach students who are in need of close guidance. A recent report from the Community College Research Center at Columbia finds that underprepared students taking online courses are, according to one of the authors, “falling farther behind than if they were taking face-to-face courses.” Michael Crow, one of the architects of Fathom and now president of Arizona State University and certainly no traditionalist, warns against a future in which “rich kids get taught by professors and poor kids get taught by computer.”

Back in the mid-twentieth century, the Ford Foundation report on “telecourses” asked the key question about technology and education: “How effective is this instruction?” When I came upon that sentence, it put me in mind of something Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a long time ago. “Truly speaking,” he said, “it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul.”I first understood this distinction during my own student days, while struggling with the theologian Jonathan Edwards’s predestinarian view of life. Toward the end of the course, my teacher, the scholar of American religion Alan Heimert, looked me in the eye and asked: “What is it that bothers you about Edwards? Is it that he’s so hard on self- deception?” This was more than instruction; it was a true provocation. It came from a teacher who listened closely to his students and tried to grasp who they were and who they were trying to become. He knew the difference between knowledge and information. He understood education in the Socratic sense, as a quest for self-knowledge.

Nearly 40 years later, in my own course on American literature, one of my gifted teaching assistants received an e-mail from a student after a discussion on Emerson:

Hi, I just wanted to let you know that our section meeting tonight had a really profound effect on me. … [T]he way you spoke and the energy our class had really moved me. …I walked the whole way home staring at the sky, a probably unsafe decision, but a worthwhile one nonetheless. I actually cannot wait for next week’s class just so I can dive even further into this. So I just wanted to send you a quick message thanking you, letting you know that this fifty minutes of class has undeniably affected the rest of my life. … [S]ome fire was lit within me tonight, and I guess I’m blowing the smoke towards you a little bit.

No matter how anxious today’s students may be about gaining this or that competence in a ferociously competitive world, many still crave the enlargement of heart as well as mind that is the gift of true education. It’s hard for me to believe that this kind of experience can happen without face-to-face teaching and the physical presence of other students.

Yet I’m convinced that those leading us into the digital future truly want to dispense the gift of learning more widely than ever before. Currently, the six-year graduation rate at America’s public four-year colleges is approximately 58 percent. It would be a great benefit to society if online education can improve on that record—although it should be noted that, so far, the completion rate by students who sign up for MOOCs is even worse—barely 10 percent.

In one experiment, Udacity is providing remedial courses to students at San Jose State for a much lower price than in-person courses. A bill is now under discussion in the California legislature that would require public colleges to offer online courses to students whom they can’t accommodate in their classrooms. If the new technology can bring great teaching to students who would otherwise never encounter it, that could lessen inequities between the haves and have-nots, just as digital technologies now give students and scholars worldwide access to previously locked-up books and documents. But so far, there is scant evidence on which to base these hopes.

Quite apart from the MOOCs, there’s an impressive array of new efforts to serve low-income students—including the online public Western Governors University, which charges around $6,000 in tuition and awards reputable degrees in such fields as information technology and business. Southern New Hampshire University—also a nonprofit—has moved aggressively into online learning, which it combines with on-campus programs; and Carnegie Mellon University has launched an “open learning initiative” that offers non-credit free courses, with substantial interactive capabilities, and seems to be working well in science, math, and introductory languages.

The best of the new education pioneers have a truly Emersonian passion for remaking the world, for rejecting the stale conviction that change always means degradation. I sense in them a fervent concurrence with Emerson’s refusal to believe “that the world was finished a long time ago” and with his insistence that, “as the world was plastic and fluid in the hands of God, so it is ever to so much of his attributes as we bring to it.”

In the face of such exuberance, it feels foolish and futile to demur. In one form or another, the online future is already here. But unless we are uncommonly wise about how we use this new power, we will find ourselves saying, as Emerson’s friend Henry David Thoreau said about an earlier technological revolution, “We do not ride the railroad; it rides upon us.”

Andrew Delbanco’s most recent book, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, will be published in paperback later this month.