Education

Republican Senator Suggests Replacing Professors With Movies

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Blake Neff Reporter

Republican Sen. Ron Johnson has irritated some academics by suggesting their jobs could in many places be replaced by documentary films.

Johnson, who is facing a tough reelection battle in Wisconsin against Former Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold, was at a Milwaukee question-and-answer session when he turned to the subject of steadily increasing college costs (the exchange is about 28 minutes into the audio recording). One way to slash expenses at American schools, Johnson said, may be to rely on movies and videotaped lectures instead of flesh-and-blood instructors.

“We’ve got the Internet — you have so much information available,” Johnson said. “Why do you have to keep paying different lecturers to teach the same course? [Why not] get one solid lecturer and put it up online and have everybody available to that knowledge for a whole lot cheaper?”

Johnson used the works of documentary filmmaker Ken Burns as an example of what could theoretically replace professors.

“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, who, you know, kind of know the subject?” he said. “Or would you be better off popping in 14 hours of Ken Burns’ Civil War tape and having those teachers proctor based on that excellent video production already done? You keep duplicating that over all these different subject areas.”

Johnson said “destructive technology” was the key to fixing higher ed, but added the real barrier was was human rather than technological.

“That doesn’t play very well to tenured professors in the higher education cartel,” he said.

Unsurprisingly, some educators are irate about Johnson so casually dismissing their craft.

“Leave it to someone from a party led by a reality TV star to confuse videotape with the learning experience of a classroom,” American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten said in a statement to Inside Higher Ed. “What Ron Johnson doesn’t get is that education happens when teachers can listen to students and engage them to think for themselves — and that can include using Ken Burns’s masterful work. But this is typical for a party with an education agenda as out-of-date as Johnson’s Blockbuster Video card.”

Johnson’s idea was also ridiculed on Twitter by Feingold, who suggested Johnson wanted to dispense with teachers and have them replaced by “videotapes.”

But Johnson’s core idea isn’t necessarily appalling. More and more educational resources are moving online, and it’s been speculated for some time that this trend will marginalize the role of in-class instructors.

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