The Four Horsemen of the Edocalypse
In a lengthy and well-thought-out post on Stratechery Ben Thompson describes the The Four Horsemen of the Tech Recession. Following Thompson's lead Maria Anderson offers a corresponding Four Horsemen of the Higher Ed Crisis. But I found the latter a pale shadow of the former, so I decided to work through the idea for myself.
As Wikipedia explains, "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are figures in the Christian scriptures, first appearing in the Book of Revelation, a piece of apocalypse literature written by John of Patmos." They are described in Chapter 6 as the first four of the seven seals opened at the time of the second coming, apocalypse, and end of the world.
On Thompson's account, the four horsemen appear as follows:
- The white horse, associated with pestilence, and specifically, infectious disease and plague - and for tech specifically, the Covid hangover, which sees a significant retrenchment following years when the industry grew significantly in response to the pandemic.
- The red horse, associated with war - and for tech, not Russia's war on Ukraine, as one might expect, but rather, the hardware cycle, which is also (like war) a zero-sum game, in the sense that once you've invested in hardware (as many of us have recently) you won't invest again for a full cycle.
- The black horse, associated with famine - and for tech, and especially tech companies, which feed on money, the recent rise in interest rates amount to famine, where there isn't easy money from investors any more.
- The pale horse, associated with death (and on my reading, monsters, destruction, disasters, and the like) - and for tech, the end of tracking, which "fundamentally disrupts what I call the 'hub-and-spoke' model of digital advertising, which allows for behavioral profiles of individual users to be developed."
Now we could certainly question some of Thompson's interpretations, both from the perspective of Biblical interpretation and from the perspective of tech industry analysis. Certainly the ebb and flow of cyclic phenomena - like retrenchment after overspending, say, or the cycle of hardware purchases - don't really correspond to the end of the word and death of all things. They're just business as usual. But like I said, the piece is well thought-out and well-argued.
Anderson offers a much lighter account, depicting the four horsemen for higher ed as follows:
- Fewer high school graduates.
- Learning glass castles - ie., "after the pandemic the students can clearly see that many classes are just a zoom class in a classroom and don't find value there."
- The conservative agenda, which she depicts as freedom of speech being under attack.
- Cost vs. value - tuition has gone up and the value of the education has not. And AI.
These four factors are not organized along the 'horsemen' theme nor do they really correspond to the four different aspects of the apocalypse, and two of them (specifically, numbers 2 and 4) are essentially the same point.
But it does make me wonder, what would constitute The End for the higher education sector as we know it, not just in the United States, but globally? And that, for the purposes of this exercise, can be framed in terms of those four horsemen: disease, war, famine, and death.
What does disease look like for higher education? It would be some sort of infection or rotting from within. Knowledge, we could say, is the lifeblood of learning institutions - the creation of the, the preservation of it, the passof of it along. If this becomes corrupted, then the core mission of higher education has come to an end.
In this regard, what Thompson described as 'the conservative agenda' is just one instance of a wider problem which could perhaps be put under the heading of 'the politicization of knowledge'.
Note that I'm not pointing to the idea that truth may be relative or may depend on a point of view. It may well - and that would be something for academics to investigate and come to grips with.
Nor am I pointing to the idea that what one 'knows' might be based on popular conception (ie., 'knowledge as agreement' or 'knowledge as consensus'). Something very much like that probably already does operate in wider academic communities.
Nor even am I pointing to the idea that it might be derived from one's political, or other, affiliation. I think there are very clearly things that could be called 'Christian knowledge' and 'Indigenous knowledge' or 'scientific knowledge', and that these are given different standing in different communities.
No, what I'm thinking of here is more specifically the idea that 'knowledge' is something that one person can impose on another by some sort of political will or force. The moment something becomes knowledge 'because I said so' the ideas of research, teaching and learning are lost.
We know that knowledge has become politicized when the core mission of higher education resembles propaganda more than it does demonstration, apprehension and reason. When the content of learning is designed to 'serve some purpose' - whether to create jobs or support the ruling class or whatever - the end of higher education is near.
Obviously, the enlargement of Russia's war on Ukraine into a global World War III would have a detrimental effect on higher education, but it wouldn't be the end of the idea of higher education, and so long as humans remain, the spark of learning and enlightenment could remain.
But there's a sense of war being the end of higher education if we descend to something deeper than that, to some sort of despair over the idea that knowledge and learning aren't worthwhile at all. I sometimes get a sense of this when people say we should get 'back to basics', or return to 'simpler times', but it's not just this.
Now I'm not referring here to the idea of criticizing the modernist conception of 'progress'. I certainly don't see progress as inevitable nor even universally good. I am an adherent of Kalle Lasn's one-time dictum that "progress is killing the planet". 'Knowledge and learning' is one thing, and 'progress' (and even 'innovation') is another, and the two are very different things.
Nor am I referring to the people who criticize things like artificial intelligence or nuclear power or genetic manipulation and say that there are some things we should simply not pursue. This could very well be true, and even if true, would by no means be the end of higher education institutions.
No, it's more the general malaise of statements questioning the good is learning at all. It's the idea that there's nothing more to life than eating, sleeping, and fighting the war. In a sense, it's the idea that "it will never get better", but even worse, it's the loss of hope, the unwillingness to even try for something better. It's the reduction of all human effort and achievement to innateness, to our physical (or spiritual) nature, absent any value to the idea that it's worth seeing or knowing more.
This, I think, is a part of what Anderson is trying to get at with the question of whether people "value" education - but there is rather more to 'value' than willingness to pay tuition and attend classes. Higher education could withstand the loss of tuition and classes, but it could not withstand the idea that there is no point to it.
Here we are tempted to ask what higher education 'eats' or 'consumes', and the first - and cynical - response would be 'money' and 'students'. Perhaps in that order. But from my perspective, it's the opposite - these are things that higher education produces, not what it consumes.
Taking the broadest possible perspective (and we can narrow it down later if it becomes necessary) I would say that what higher education, when thought of as a whole, consumes is experiences. This comes in a wide variety of forms - the results of experiments, data from statistical agencies, the creative acts of actors and artists and poets, the natural world, and even (if you will) the collective imagination of everyone in society.
The sorts of things that I would think of as a famine for higher education would then be, in one way or another, a dearth of these experiences. This can happen in any number of ways.
If could happen as a result of too strict a diet of only certain types of experiences. The argument that all knowledge should be data-driven or quantified forces a certain kind of starvation on a higher education institution, leaving it lean and gaunt, like a carnivore, but with no hint of joy or empathy in its life.
Or it could be a restriction of the flow of these experiences generally - these experiences, which are encoded as text and audio and other sorts of (what is wrongly called) information, need to be able to flow smoothly from one part of the institution to another, and from one institution to another, and into and out of education as a system.
That's not to say 'anything goes' - the classic mistake of free speech purists lies in the assumption that because eating is good, all eating is good. That's obviously not so, and consequently, there is an important role played by those who select, curate, filter and otherwise manage the flow of experiences in and through the education system. The danger here though is of excessive control, which is again a form of starvation.
The core feature of the fourth horseman, at least as I see it, is that it comes from outside. It arrives in the form of a wild beast, or an earthquake, or fire raining from the heavens. And the death we are concerned about here isn't simply the death of higher education, but the death of everything.
So what do I draw from that? For higher education, the fourth horsemen arrives in the form of a disregard for, or disinterest in, anything that happens outside the institution, which is specifically a failure to recognize that if society end, higher education ends too.
Now this is in no way to be equated with the idea that there should be no academic freedom, nor that higher education institutions should be autonomous and independent. There are sound arguments supporting both of these, for example, as a defense against the politicization of knowledge (referenced above).
But it does reference a phenomenon that I see sometimes where academics display a complete indifference to what is happening outside their own institution, to the point sometimes of defining 'good' as "what's good for the institution", without reference to the needs and interests of the wider community. But the fact is, in my view, higher education needs to remain relevant to the community, and the community to higher ed, in order to ensure the long-term existence of both.
That is not the same as saying that institutions need to respond to specific parochial interests such as the needs of the government of the day, the need of industry for graduates of a certain sort, the need for people of certain means to preserve their place in society.
Higher education needs to distinguish between what it consumes (experiences, data, content, etc) and what it produces (students, wealth, knowledge) from why it exists. It needs to see its own value in something larger than itself in order to remain relevant, viable and sound. A failure of higher education to take at least a passing interest in the world around it, to my mind, simply guarantees that there will be a time when the world is equally indifferent to killing it.
The Four Horsemen of the Edocalypse
So there they are then:
- Disease - the politicization of knowledge
- War - the loss of of value of new knowledge and learning
- Famine - inability to have and share experiences that lead to knowledge and learning
- Death - existing only for the sake of knowledge and learning