Secret Origins: Large Lecture Edition

When progressives talk about the affordability of higher education, they normally focus on the idea of having the federal government give middle class families more money or more generous loan terms with which to pay the tuition bills. And that’s fine, laudable even. But also a process whose logic is a little self-limiting. If college tuition is going to get dramatically more expensive in real terms every year then it’s going to be very difficult over the long run to substantially increase the proportion of the population acquiring higher education no matter how we shift around the responsibility. At some point you need to tackle the root of the problem, which is that the productivity of our institutions of higher education isn’t increasing at all. That means subjecting our existing institutions to more scrutiny than they’re comfortable with is probably going to be necessary, and it also means the revisiting first principles, as Brad DeLong does in an excellent post on the origins of the large lecture course, is a good idea. He observes that large lectures had a compelling logic in the pre-Gutenberg universe:

— Universities have their origins in the medieval need of the powerful to train theologians (for the church) and to train judges (for the emperor and the kings of France, England, Castile, and other kingdoms.

— A manuscript hand-copied book back in 1000 cost roughly the same share of average annual income as $50,000 is today.

— Hence if you have a “normal” college — eight semesters, four courses a semester — and demand that people buy and read one book a course, you are talking the equivalent of $1.6M in book outlay. Can’t be done.


— Hence you assemble the hundred or so people who want to read Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy in a room, and have the professor read to them — hence lecture, lecturer, from the Latin lector, reader — while they frantically take notes because they are likely to never see a copy of that book again once they are out in the world administering justice in Wuerzburg or wherever.

Modern practice, by contrast, is a bit puzzling. If this is a useful way of instructing people, it seems that perhaps lectures should be much bigger with modern information technology allowing thousands of people — millions even — to listen to a single highly skilled lecturer, much as tens of millions of Americans will tune in tonight to listen to Barack Obama. And if it isn’t a useful way of instructing people, then it seems like we shouldn’t do it at all and ought, instead, to do something more useful with our educational resources.