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Today, Ned Ludd and his followers are best known from the term Luddite: a much needed contribution to the English language that expresses fear or hatred of technology. But while the word has since taken on the connotations of a back-to-nature, Druidic-like disdain for modernity, it should be remembered that the original motivations for the Luddite movement were purely economic. The textile artisans saw their livelihood threatened by advances in mechanization, and lashed out to protect their own interests.
Thankfully, the Luddites were doomed to failure and as a result we can enjoy the convenience of readily available and inexpensive fabrics, but the mentality of obstructing progress in the name of protectionism is, sadly, alive and well.
Apart from the Gutenberg printing press, no technological innovation has had as great or as far reaching an impact on modern life as the Internet. The potential for improving labor productivity and increasing global wealth has still yet to be fully realized. Yet that same potential is also a threat to those entrenched in the old way of doing things, and where better to turn for assistance than the federal government?
When Amazon.com found a better way of delivering products to consumers, retailers attempted to shackle it with The Marketplace Fairness Act. When clever entrepreneurs discovered that selling food out of mobile trucks was a good business model, brick and mortar restaurants howled for more regulations. Now, innovations in online schooling are meeting stiff resistance from teachers’ unions.
The lobbies who oppose online education will try to convince you that they are motivated purely by concern for the well-being of students, but the reality is that they are just looking out for their own jobs. If students can learn everything they need to know from a computer, many teachers, especially those that function more as glorified babysitters than actual educators, will find their skills redundant. The faculty of UC Berkeley recently started a petition against a bill that would allow students to get college credit through online courses.
“This bill will lower academic standards (particularly in key skills such as writing, math, and basic analysis), augment the educational divide along socioeconomic lines, and diminish the ability for underrepresented minorities to excel in higher education,” claims the petition, ignoring the fact that most California universities have long waitlists of students who are prevented from obtaining any educational credentials at all. It should be abundantly clear that concern for the students is not the primary motivation behind such attacks.
Education is one of those rare issues on which everyone can agree: the status quo isn’t working. There may be differences of opinion on how to solve the problems with the system, but using regulations to shoot down any innovative alternatives is a sure sign that the teachers’ unions are less interested in problem solving than in protecting their own.
Technology marches on, and efforts to resist progress are as futile as they are misguided, but in the short term the neo-Luddite faction can do great harm both to individual innovators and to the economy as a whole. It is not now, nor has it ever been, the job of Congress to protect industry dinosaurs from their younger, more agile competitors.