Disintermediation and the state of higher education


The first time I heard the word “disintermediation” I applied the David Letterman test: “is this something or is it nothing?” I decided it was nothing. Too many syllables for too little concept, I thought, and a word badly in need of a little disintermediation of its own. Surely, de-mediation was sufficient.

Fifteen years later, it’s a term I cannot live without.

Technological disintermediation is, of course, the notion that it is possible to take out parts of the market channel that once saw goods to market. Dell eliminated parts of the distribution chain and the especially retailer.

Cultural disintermediation is the process by which we eliminate mediators that used to stand between us and the larger world of politicians, teachers, doctors, and civil servants. The individual once needed these mediators. They were the conduit by which essential information and services found their way to us. Now we are inclined to throw them off.

Partly, this is a question of self supposed authority. We are suspicious of medical authority. We are consult several authorities and to see remedies not approved by the AMA. The self-help section of the book store is filled with therapeutic and professional advice we once sought from a certified professional. The New Age movement is filled with new kinds of spirituality that could care less for orthodox religious authority. And politicians? Don’t get us started. Everyone knows better than them. In sum, the experts invite more skepticism than reverence. In many cases, we prefer to roll our own.

Some of this must come from the influence of the Reformation. What was this if not a massive disintermediation. At a stroke, we removed popes, cardinals, celestial intermediaries, saints, and the lesser figures in the Catholic hierarchy. The Protestant church made the relationship between man and God more direct and some of more radical versions of the new faith insisted that the individual was the sole arbiter of the relationship and the sole judge of the state of grace. We’re still doing it.

Now we are seeing a disintermediation of the corporate world. The old model ranked and filed the individual, giving him a place in the “corporation,” the body. Labor was divided. Everyone had a small part to play, a narrow band of competence, a little piece of the puzzle. We were in this corporation a little like the tiny figures that make up the body of the monarch on the frontispiece of Hobbes’ Leviathan. We were embedded in what Durkheim called an “organic solidarity.”

Now we live in corporations which, at the bidding of the complexity theorists and Tom Peters, suppose that every individual will, as much as possible, contain all the knowledge and competence contained in the organization. In the new corporation, more intelligence and decision making power is located in a disintermediated individual.

The extreme example was the Silicon Valley start-up where the key players would ‘trade hats” for each new start up, until eventually everyone knew how to do everything. Now anyone could stand in for anyone and everyone. The single individual contained virtually all the knowledge and competence represented by the whole.

Clearly, all three work together. It is because we are technologically enabled that we can contemplate new kinds of cultural and corporation disintermediation. It is because we are culturally disintermediation that we can be engaged in new, more multiple, ways by the corporation. It is because the corporation treats us in a newly disintermediated way that we can contemplate new kinds of cultural disintermediation…and may (and must) embrace new technological enablements.

But finally none of this works unless we have access to a form of education that encourages the particular strengths of selfhood, sharper abilities to be self monitoring and self motivating, an internal complexity and multiplicity, and a certain breadth of interest, exposure, and point of view. And this is the stuff of a liberal arts education. This is where we make every man his own commonwealth.

But the liberal arts education is overwhelmingly in the hands of a teaching professional that is mildly and sometimes deeply hostile to a disintermediated individualism. First of all, university teachers are an imperiled elite that does not take kindly to student choice, challenge or engagement. They will not teach disintermediation in part because they are offended by the very idea that such a thing should be possible. But just as bad, these people are uncomfortable with the freestanding, self invented individual. They continue to treat some individual experimentation as narcissism and much of popular culture as pap (unless of course it is “transgressive”). They treat the marketplace, its disorders and its sometimes frantic liberties, as the very thing that ails us. They prefer collectivist approaches, government management, and state intervention. When they speak of the individual, they prefer a kind of Romantic self-discovery to anything that smacks of world-engagement. Or to put this in the language of Daniel Bell, they insist that expressive individualism should move away from instrumental individualism as briskly as possible. But finally they are suspicious of even of expressive individualism, and prefer that students, and the rest of us, take our lead from our cultural betters. “Just read my book.”

At Harvard, they use the phrase “every tub its own bottom” by which they mean every university department must make its own way. Disintermediated individualism makes every tub its own bottom with new intensity, and a thrilling and sometimes terrifying experiment is upon us.

But academics have other ideas. Generally, they have made themselves the enemies of the experiment and withheld an essential resource required by us. Not content to withhold themselves as part of the solution, they are now unmistakeably part of the problem.

I say, time for new barrel makers.

2 thoughts on “Disintermediation and the state of higher education

  1. Steve Postrel

    I don’t think that specialization is departing the American business scene, or that respect for specialists is on the decline in general. In small firms, it’s normal for lots of people to wear different hats, but when the organization grows, the benefits of specialization become overwhelming. What is true is that in a world of specialists, those who can communicate across the boundaries may be able to profit through intellectual arbitrage. I’m not sure about general cultural disintermediation, either. With the excess of information available to us beyond our attention capacity, we need editors or guides more than ever. We may choose to use a collective mechanism–Google’s algorithms or collaborative filtering– or we may rely on a set of guides with whose judgment we are comfortable (say, favorite bloggers). But some form of intermediation will be more and more necessary simply because of the tsunami of information we face. (Virginia once gave a speech on this topic called “The Age of the Editor”–it has that 90s feel, but it’s still on point.)

  2. BFuniv rector

    The good news is that students can already disintermediate their own education.

    A college degree is losing value as more are manufactured and as bureaucracies implode. This will increasingly free those interested in advanced learning from the strictures of inefficient formal education.

    Empowered individuals can and will, singly and in transient teams, remake education. College will become a personalized service tool rather than the obligatory, industrial age monster it has become.

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