"It profits me but little that a vigilant authority always protects the tranquillity of my pleasures and constantly averts all dangers from my path, without my care or concern, if this same authority is the absolute master of my liberty and my life."

--Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Friday, June 3, 2011

Good Will Kindling

Stay with me, but I have a point later.   There's a cool moment in the otherwise self-indulgent male fantasy by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, Good Will Hunting, where the main character, a Boston townie of super-hero like genius, lectures a Harvard snob that he could have gotten a great education at the public library for a couple of bucks in late charges, rather than blowing $150,000 on a Harvard diploma.  

This has new resonance nowadays, when more and more people are realizing that a college education may not be worth the investment.   This "higher education bubble" has been the subject of a lot of recent discussion on the blogosphere, notably on Glenn Reynolds' great blog, Instapundit, which links to articles on the bursting of the bubble on an almost daily basis.   For instance, see here; and here.   And I have become increasingly convinced that, except for the serious sciences and engineering, and perhaps economics, most of what goes on in college could just as easily be done online, practically for free.   For instance, I have noted for some time with wonder the availability of college-level courses on the Internet at places like the Open Yale Courses site, where you can take Professor Donald Kagan's Greek civilization course for free, or a class on Milton from Professor John Rogers, or a class on the Civil War from Professor David Blight, all of them first-class and nationally-renowned scholars, authors of important works in their fields, etc.   Why would you want to pay for courses from lesser lights at Podunk U?   The same thing is available at MIT:  you can take their freshman physics class from a world-class physicist on-line for free.   Again, why would you want to take a freshman physics lecture anywhere else and pay for the privilege of getting someone who couldn't get a job at MIT?

I was thinking about this last night when I was setting up my wife's new Kindle, which I bought for her.... well, just because she's a great wife and she deserves something nice now and again (particularly since she can't get a do-over and start fresh with a new husband).   Anyway, I managed to download for her in about 15 minutes:

  • the complete works of Jane Austen
  • the complete works of George Eliot
  • the complete works of Leo Tolstoy
  • the complete works of the Bronte sisters (Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, etc.)
  • the complete works of Thomas Hardy
So, without putting too fine a point on it, she now has what would be a decent class in the Nineteenth Century novel, or at least the reading for it, all for about $6.   That's right, because these are all in the public domain and not best-sellers, the download price from Amazon is minimal.  

In law and economics, one of the concepts underlying monopoly power (such that antitrust laws might apply) is the concept of "barriers to entry."   If a particular industry, say, auto manufacturing, has a high barrier of entry (it costs billions to set up plants and distribution networks, it costs billions to research and develop a car, etc.), then the companies in that industry can more easily develop monopoly power.   For years colleges and universities have had monopoly power because they were the only places you could go to get educated (or so they told us), and because the barriers to entry for accessing books and professors and course materials were so high.  You had to go there to get it -- where the professors were, where the libraries were, etc.    Now... not so much.   It's only a matter of time, and quickly accelerating at that, before American parents start thinking to themselves that they can lay out a course of study for their children for practically nothing that will give them the same education they could get for $150,000 or $200,000.   Homeschooling for college... a movement I am predicting will begin to take hold, and very soon.  

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