Katharine Hepburn as Jo in Little Women (1933)
Katharine Hepburn as Jo in the 1933 film version of Little Women – Wikimedia

In this turbulent year, when the most pessimistic corners of my mind conjure scenarios in which schools like my employer go under, I’ve occasionally imagined what it would look like to start a new Christian liberal arts college from scratch. For some reason, my imagination keeps turning to the end of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, a sentimental favorite of mine since childhood, in which Jo inherits Plumfield, the estate of her Aunt March. Jo’s friend Laurie assumes that she’ll sell it, but she has other plans in mind:

“…I want to open a school for little lads—a good, happy, homelike school, with me to take care of them and Fritz to teach them.”

“That’s a truly Joian plan for you! Isn’t that just like her?” cried Laurie, appealing to the family, who looked as much surprised as he.

“I like it,” said Mrs. March decidedly.

“So do I,” added her husband, who welcomed the thought of a chance for trying the Socratic method of education on modern youth.

I’m interested in teaching lads (and lasses) older than the students featured in Alcott’s sequels (Little Men and Jo’s Boys), but I can’t shake this image of myself as something like Jo’s beloved Prof. Bhaer, teaching a small group of students a wide array of subjects. (Not sure that my wife is on board with this dream…)

At its best, I think my version could never aspire to success greater than that which Alcott gave her “Bhaer-garten”: “It never was a fashionable school, and the Professor did not lay up a fortune, but it was just what Jo intended it to be….”

But perhaps there’s a greater market for 19th century models of education than I imagined. If you haven’t read it yet, spend some time with Hollis Robbins’ recent proposal for a postsecondary version of homeschooling:

“Maybe you should home-college,” I joked to a highly educated Ph.D. friend—doctorate in medieval history, two master’s, several years of adjunct teaching experience in three fields. She was worried about how she would pay for her own offspring’s eventual college education on her tiny salary, if she did not soon land a full-time job, preferably on the tenure track.

As the words hung in the air, the idea’s utility seemed obvious. Thousands of qualified, trained, energetic, and underemployed Ph.D.s are struggling to find stable teaching jobs. Tens of thousands of parents are struggling to pay for a good college education for their children. Home-schooling at the secondary-school level has proved itself an adequate substitute for public or private high school. Could a private home-college arrangement work as a kind of Airbnb or Uber for higher education?

German tutor with children, ca. 1820
Tutor in Germany, ca. 1820 – German History in Documents and Images

Robbins (humanities chair as Johns Hopkins University’s Peabody Institute) continues by contrasting the “home-college arrangement” with my least favorite “disruptive innovation”:

If MOOCs offer a high-tech alternative approach to brick-and-mortar higher education, home-colleging represents a radically different, more human approach.  The instructor would be a new iteration of the old-fashioned tutor: a highly educated personal instructor to the offspring of royalty, aristocracy, and gentry in centuries past.

Elitist as that sounds, she suggests that a model in which one highly-trained professor could offer a first year experience to a consortium of six families “at a cost much lower than six private-college tuitions, and at the level of a real salary for a good sole-proprietor professor.”

While Leah Libresco admits the appeal of an “apprenticeship” model — “restoring an intimate, vertical relationship between teacher and student,” among other things — she also values the “lateral relationships between students on campus.” For example, “conversations with classmates have the potential for fruitful disruption, as the students review and reevaluate the material together and bring their questions and concerns back to the professor and the traditional academic discussion.”

In the end, she suspects that innovations as unlike each other as MOOCs and Robbins’ “home-college” may simply underscore the value of “traditional” models:

The disruptive reforms of MOOCs and tutors are forcing us to reevaluate our expectations about education. As innovators try to unbundle the different goals of college, we have a chance to find better, cheaper solutions, but we also may wind up strengthening traditional institutes of learning, once the debate has helped us disambiguate what we desire for our children besides “a diploma.”

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