Good news, my fellow aristocrats of the Higher Education Cartel!

If you’re like me, you’re neck-deep in preparation for the new academic year right now. I’m meeting with advisees this morning, and have lab stuff to order and more tweaking of my syllabus to do.

Relax! Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin has an answer for us all. Pop a VHS cassette into the tape player and let that do the teaching for you!

We’ve got the internet — you have so much information available. Why do you have to keep paying different lecturers to teach the same course? You get one solid lecturer and put it up online and have everybody available to that knowledge for a whole lot cheaper? But that doesn’t play very well to tenured professors in the higher education cartel. So again, we need destructive technology for our higher education system, he said.
Johnson added, One of the examples I always used — if you want to teach the Civil War across the country, are you better off having, I don’t know, tens of thousands of history teachers that kind of know the subject, or would you be better off popping in 14 hours of Ken Burns’s Civil War tape and then have those teachers proctor based on that excellent video production already done? You keep duplicating that over all these different subject areas.

Ooooh, I’m in a higher education cartel? I had no idea. I thought it was more of a syndicate, or mob, or gang. It does not surprise me, though, that a Republican wants to destroy our mafia.

His idea of just acting as a proctor for a series of videos intrigues me, though — it sure would be a lot less work than reading all those papers and textbooks, distilling them down into presentations, and trying to draw out students into interacting with you and the material. I use short video segments to illustrate concepts already — but nowadays we go to online digital sources rather than these mysterious “tapes” — but hey, if I could just show videos for the class hour for a couple of weeks, that would definitely take a load off my back.

Although…I did once have a class that was taught that way, back in junior high school. It was our health course, “taught” by the PE coach, who basically knew nothing about the subject, but could run a film strip or an 8mm projector (Mr Johnson is truly with it — he could have recommended even older technologies) just fine. The thing is, it was a terrible, crappy course, and I learned nothing, other than that the instructor was an ignorant dumbass.

But maybe the technology is greatly improved. Burns’ series is well done, and students would learn some things from it.

Is there also a video series that teaches how to compare and assess multiple sources? I wouldn’t want students to think there is only one true story about the Civil War.

Is there a video for every possible question my students might ask? You never know what might pop into their heads, and the instructor has to be prepared to answer…or at least, explain how to find the answer.

When a student shows up at my office with a question about some complicated figure in a paper, is there a tape I can show them? I hate just sitting there, looking blank, and being able to shuffle through a gigantic stack of tapes at least gives me something useful to do.

I mentioned I’m have an advising meeting soon. Is there tape for that?

Currently, Ron Johnson is stuck in a difficult re-election campaign. Does he have a tape that explains how to win? Maybe he should sit down and watch it a couple of times.

While he’s doing that, every citizen in his electorate who knows anything about teaching — which definitely does not include Ron Johnson — will be voting for Russ Feingold, so at least he’s made that decision even easier.


  1. chigau (違う) says

    Don’t really need all those elected officials, either.
    Just send the POTUS an email.

  2. davidnangle says

    Just imagine the Texas School Board picking out all the videotapes for the country… It won’t be Ken Burns teaching the Civil War, it will be Rhett Butler. And D. W. Griffith teaching about the Reconstruction.

  3. brett says

    If Ron Johnson was right, then even the videos are an unnecessary expense. Just give those kids some library cards, and tell them they’ve got to learn about the American Civil War before taking a test at the end of the school year. Ugh. I don’t care much for Freddie DeBoer as a writer, but he wrote an excellent response to Ron Johnson’s type of thinking on education.

  4. Russell Glasser says

    I used to carpool with a libertarian who thought this sort of thing was an awesome idea. We got in some pretty spirited arguments, because I always felt that my most memorable knowledge came from inspiring, engaged teachers who could answer my questions. He didn’t seem to have had ANY positive experiences with education that he could remember. It was infuriating to talk to him because it seemed impossible to find any common ground.

  5. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    VHS? RLY? How ’90’s.
    Ever hear of DVDs Mr. Johnson, or is that too new fashioned, “millenial”, for ya? (ya know, VHS is formally obsolete, as the very last VHS VCR mfg has ceased production.)
    ugh, *cough*.
    as much as I too think Burn’s Civil War was a masterpiece of information about the War, I still don’t think it could replace an entire class with a teacher.
    quoting Johnson:

    I don’t know, tens of thousands of history teachers that kind of know the subject

    emphasis added.
    Clearly he doesn’t know nuthin. As for the History teachers, ones who “kinda know” the subject would be adequate when using a textbook. TextBook! Ever hear of those Johnson??? Sounds like you can’t even read, feeding off VHS tapes.

  6. Russell Glasser says

    Also from my experiences trying to teach my son computer programming at various ages, let me assure Senator Johnson that it would be FUCKING IMPOSSIBLE to learn programming just from a video. There are many excellent videos available, but I guarantee that every student is going to get stuck somewhere, and the video will not explain the specific reason why they are stuck. You need an experienced person available to discuss the issues you’re having.

    I would venture to say that most knowledge worth learning is not simply memorizing a list of facts, in any field. The challenge of education is in learning how to approach a problem intelligently and synthesize the information available to you. The internet, or a single video, can present you with a bunch of raw data, which is incredibly useful but not enough. The hard part is where you figure out how to skip to the part of the data you need, and understand what to do with it.

  7. says

    I should be surprised. Conservatives are always complaining that science is dehumanizing. But they want to dehumanize the teaching profession.

    On the other hand, I probably shouldn’t be surprised. It is really all about the money.

  8. Just an Organic Regular Expression says

    “So again, we need destructive technology for our higher education system,” he said.

    This tells me that at some point he half-heard some tech hero, maybe Sal Khan, use the phrase “disruptive technology” and got it wrong.

    Or maybe it’s a Freudian slip.

  9. qwints says

    It’s almost as if he’s unaware that virtually every college course already includes information produced by a single or few solid academics massively reproduced with technology. This is a proposal for replacing textbooks – not classroom instruction.

  10. qwints says

    It’s almost as if he’s unaware that virtually every college course already includes information produced by a single or few solid academics massively reproduced with technology. This is a proposal for replacing textbooks – not classroom instruction.

  11. says

    Yeah, the R’s would love to get rid of all the pesky liberal professors who put all that evil stuff in their kids’ brains. And free up money to do some evil of their own.

  12. Bernard Bumner says

    MOOCs are a thing, and we are currently developing one for my field, but they are no substitute for a degree education.

    Using technology to enhance education or disseminate to a wider audience is not a new thing, but the idea that education should be boiled down to a single digital authority is stupid and dangerous. Of all the subjects to choose to illustrate the point, history is one of the worst to suggest, since the subject heavily relies on the interpretation of conflicting, scarce, or esoteric primary sources. The academic field – let alone the teaching of it – has been plagued by ethnocentrism and cultural biases, much to the detriment of public understanding of their own local history, let alone any sort of wider perspective on the past.

    It also neglects the possibility that different students struggle with different type of media – through learning style, because of different abilities and disabilities. Good teachers can adapt their courses – the materials and the delivery – to suit their classes. If you have a relatively advanced group who are already well grounded in the subject, then putting on the video is just a waste of their time. If you have a group who don’t find the video accessible or stimulating, then you’ve already lost them. Ron Johnson may have applied expertise in dish washing, plastics manufacturing, business management and accounting, or possibly politicking, but why does he assume that he knows how to be an effective educator?

    Hasn’t simulation software yet reached the point where CEOs and politicians can be dispensed with? Perhaps one or two experts in Dwarf Fortress could run the whole lot?

  13. EvoMonkey says

    What about grading the students? Why go through all that trouble. Students that want an A will just pay a premium fee for the higher grade. That’s just capitalism.

  14. davidrichardson says

    Actually, Johnson’s idea has already been tried in New York City. Back in the early 1980s (I think it was 1981 or 1982) New York City was having great difficulties recruiting Maths teachers (I’m English+Swedish, so that word has an ‘s’ on the end) to its public schools. So they came up with this great idea: they’d get the best mathematicians they could find to write the world’s best Maths course and then get someone the inner-city kids looked up to to play the role of the Maths teacher. They picked … Arnold Schwarzenegger (!). They installed TVs high on the walls of the classrooms (out of reach of the kids) and covered them with a wire mesh (so they couldn’t throw things at the screen) and the principal put the tapes (probably VHS, but maybe Betamax or Umatic) into his machine in his office … and the kids would learn Maths … Guess what. It didn’t work!

    There’s a wonderful account in a great book called ‘In Search of the Virtual Class’ by Tiffin and Rajasingham (RKP, 1996) about Tiffin doing research into the Brazilian government’s attempt at video ‘teaching’ out in the Amazon in the 1980s. The Brazilian government dropped TVs off in remote villages, together with a load of books and tried to teach without teachers. Tiffin observed a class having a heated discussion about whether the sides of triangles were curved or not. One girl held out and claimed that the sides had to be straight, if the equations in the books were to make sense, but the rest of the class maintained that they must be curved. They just pointed to the screen of a cathode-ray TV and, look, the lines were curved … and this was coming from the government in Brasilia!

    Yes, I see no problem with Johnson’s ideas (/irony)! However, as a European, I think Johnson should be praised. We need all the help we can get to outcompete you Americans over here and if you keep screwing up your education system with stupid ideas like Johnson’s and Ken Ham’s, it’ll really help us to win!

  15. brucegee1962 says

    Before computers, it was the VCR that was going to make us professors obsolete. Before VCRs, it was cassette tapes. Before that, believe it or not, it was television — remember back in the sixties when there were going to be all sorts of classes available on tv? And before that, in the twenties, it was correspondence courses — anyone could learn anything by mail, without needing actual physical instructors.

    Before that it was public libraries that would educate the nation on the cheap. Maybe it really goes back to Gutenburg — once books became affordable, why should anyone need a teacher?

    And yet, somehow, here we all are every September, writing syllabi and getting our role sheets ready.

  16. multitool says

    Eh, I’ve taken classes which might as well have been taught by a VHS player. With 60+ students, asking questions and getting individual help was a moot point.

    Plus, everything the teacher said was word salad to me; at least a video can let you instant replay. In the end the experience was key to my dropping out of the master’s program.

  17. calgor says

    There have been many attempts to introduce computer based training in the British Military, since it is cheaper to have a computer than an instructor and if it’s online – student could stay at their location and reduce travel costs. Problem is that there were too many incorrect assumptions, such as students still being able to do their military tasks while studying, internet availability and students being able to comprehend the course from a limited point of view from the computer media.
    The reality was that while CBT had its place – it was just that it was part of a more comprehensive teaching system which had a human instructor as its director.

  18. Snidely W says

    So can we now anticipate that all of Gary’s future campaign appearances will be by videotape?

    It’s not like they vary much from speech to speech. And he doesn’t usually take questions either, does he?

    Hell, he could just post it on YouTube, and just put up a link at each campaign spot, and everybody who shows up can all watch it together.

    That would sure cut down on the campaign expenses.

  19. Moggie says

    I guess Bloody Stupid Johnson has one of those worthless degrees which can be taught to idiots by rote.

    Checks wikipedia… ah, “he attended the University of Minnesota while working full-time and graduated in 1977 with a degree in business and accounting”.

  20. multitool says

    Let me expand on that – I don’t know in what kind of idealized environment PZ is teaching, but my experience with higher education has been universally terrible.

    I’ve never seen another situation where people pay exorbitant, life-destroying amounts of money only to be treated as supplicants begging for some kind of help. I’ve had friends spend years taking wrong classes before getting any kind of accurate administrative guidance on where they need to go. If you’re dyslexic, or a slow reader, or a visual learner then you are in fact stupid, and better pack it in and get the hell out. You get more respect at a fucking shoe store.

    My take-home lesson is that universities are primarily a hazing process for people who seek a socioeconomic promotion. The ticket price gets higher every year as the club at the top gets more exclusive.

    Thank glob for libraries, the internet, helpful friends, and curiosity, or I wouldn’t know a damn thing. (Yeah I know – straight line!)

  21. says

    I’m highly in favor of recorded lectures. Being able to miss classes is not good for education. Being required to get up at 6am to travel to class, and sit around all day for my 8pm class wasn’t good for my education or wellness.

    Time spent lecturing the same material each year could be used more productively, with actual interaction between professor and student. Feedback and professional review would enable the lecture videos to get better and better, instead of leaving students stuck with awful communicators. (Or bizarre anti-teachers, like some of my TAs, who seemed to be teaching badly on purpose to either spur complaints or get psychological reactions).

  22. cartomancer says

    Perhaps it’s my experiences with the Oxford tutorial system, but when challenged to define what the heart of teaching is, I tend to say that it’s a partnership between teacher and learner. It’s a journey two people (or more) take together, as guide and guided. It is founded on respect and cooperation. It’s a relationship. It most certainly isn’t something one person does to or at or in front of others.

  23. says


    I feel ya, my experience (undergrad) was often pretty terrible too. And more than a year after graduating, my life still looks basically as though it was all just a dream.

  24. qwints says


    I’ve never seen another situation where people pay exorbitant, life-destroying amounts of money only to be treated as supplicants begging for some kind of help.

    The American healthcare system comes to mind.

  25. unclefrogy says

    The challenge of education is in learning how to approach a problem intelligently and synthesize the information available to you.

    there is the problem with most conservatives they live in a world that is strictly defined by religion, politics, strict rules and traditional beliefs, things have one answer all else is false. Education requires thoughtful consideration to be effective and the use of rigorous reason to be truly effective. Education challenges the view of reality as unchanging Hence why spend more money on learning new things it will just make things change mean while the clock just keeps ticking on and on.
    uncle frogy

  26. Tethys says

    So again, we need destructive technology for our higher education system, he said.

    I’m sure he wrote this screed with a quill on parchment, and then rode a horse through idyllic countryside before he posted it in the village square, so as to avoid the evil destructive force of technology.

  27. Menyambal says

    My experience as a substitute teacher is that students ignore videos, and need a teacher keeping them off their phones. I try to coach them through the vids, and to point out the items the regular teacher is wanting them to learn.

    There have been times when a class was droning through a history chapter, and I was learning stuff and getting all enthusiastic, and they caught on to that and we all had a good time learning.

  28. enkidu says

    My name is Ron Johnson
    I come from Wisconsin
    I work in a bullshit mill there

    Repeat until you throw up.

  29. grendelsfather says

    Higher education cartel? We’re an anarcho-syndicalist commune! We’re taking turns to act as a sort of executive-officer-for-the-week– But all the decisions *of* that officer ‘ave to be ratified at a special bi-weekly meeting by a simple majority, in the case of purely internal affairs, but by a two-thirds majority, in the case of more major–

  30. multitool says

    @23 Brian – thanks, I kind of exploded there.
    Yes replacing lectures with media and letting teachers use the lecture time for 2-way communication sounds like a really good idea.

    You had anti-teacher TAs too? I sense a pattern!

  31. Rich Woods says

    You get one solid lecturer and put it up online and have everybody available to that knowledge for a whole lot cheaper?

    I suspect Senator Johnson attended English classes where the only medium of instruction was a VHS tape.

  32. carlie says

    There are some people who can learn from videos, but there are also parts of our attention that shut down when watching something on tape as opposed to in person. It’s just more difficult for a lot of people to learn in a video format. And, of course, the one thing that a video can never do is read the room and regroup/re-explain/change it up when students look confused, or stop to answer questions, etc. I use short video lectures here and there in classes for subjects where I think the video was well-made and the instructor is an expert who is much better at explaining than I am, and I still have to pause it every few minutes to add extra commentary or catch someone who is drifting off etc.

    multitool – I’m sorry you had such a bad experience. Part of the awful budgetary tug of war in higher ed is how much to devote to academic v. student affairs sides of the house, and how much to devote to administration v. feet-on-the-ground, and some places end up being way out of whack in one area or another. But when the area shortchanged is advising, everything goes to hell.

  33. blf says

    I’m one of those people who does largely “shut down” when (trying to) watch a video (with exceptions), albeit that certainly can (and does) happen during lectures as well — the difference seeming to be, in my un-evidenced perception, it’s either more frequent, or more “intense” (longer-lasting?), or possibly both, with a video. Plus the difficulty of getting immediate(-ish) feedback, especially if you’re not quite grokking something. And there’s no index (always?), and either none, or a poor, list of references (with exceptions).

    Or, as in one recent-ish case, when the lecturer is just full of shite, presenting a heavily-discredited model as “state-of-the-art” and saying next-to-nothing on more recent models. I’d taken courses from actual experts in the field, and had assorted books and papers on the subject, and spent most of my time shouting “No! No! Oh for feck’s sake, NO!
    (This was a mandatory online course at my employer, Big DummieCo, produced to try and address an actual problem with Big DummieCo’s products.)

    Unlike some of the other commentators in this thread, I did not have a “terrible” experience of university. It was exhilarating — and intellectually difficult — but it is probable my experience is something of an outlier for multiple reasons — e.g., to address one common(?) complaint, for me the largest classes could not have been more than c.200 students, and essentially all were an order-of-magnitude smaller than that (as an example at the other extreme, at least one scheduled class could squeeze into the professor’s office (c.5 students)).