GOP Senator: Ken Burns Documentaries Are Better At Teaching History Than Actual Teachers

"Let's get rid of the higher education cartel."
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) says there is a "cartel" of higher education.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) says there is a "cartel" of higher education.
Jim Watson/Getty Images

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said Thursday that if the nation wants to rein in college costs, it needs to break up the “higher education cartel.” And a key way to do that would be to have more DVDs and fewer teachers.

“We haven’t even come close to taking advantage of the power of technology in education,” Johnson said at a WisPolitics forum. “We’re still working on the exact same model ― almost the exact same model. ... The way to really bust up the higher education cartel is move to a certification process versus a diploma process because a diploma process maintains that cartel within these institutions of higher education.”

Johnson also touted the benefits of online education and suggested that teachers really weren’t all that necessary anymore:

JOHNSON: We’ve got the internet ― you have so much information available. Why do you have to keep paying differently lecturers to teach the same course? You get one solid lecturer and put it up online and have everybody available to that knowledge for a whole lot cheaper? But that doesn’t play very well to tenured professors in the higher education cartel. So again, we need destructive technology for our higher education system.

WISPOLITICS: But online education is missing some facet of a good ―

JOHNSON: Of course, it’s a combination, but prior to my doing this crazy thing [of being in the Senate] ... I was really involved on a volunteer basis in an education system in Oshkosh. And one of things we did in the Catholic school system was we had something called the “academic excellence initiative.” How do you teach more, better, easier?

One of the examples I always used ― 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 that kind of know the subject, or would you be better off popping in 14 hours of Ken Burns Civil War tape and then have those teachers proctor based on that excellent video production already done? You keep duplicating that over all these different subject areas.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers ― a union with more than 1 million members ― sharply criticized Johnson for his remarks.

“Leave it to someone from a party led by a reality TV star to confuse videotape with the learning experience of a classroom,” she said. “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’ masterful work. But this is typical for a party with an education agenda as out of date as Johnson’s Blockbuster Video card.”

“We know Ron Johnson graduated from college 40 years ago, but we assumed it was from a university here on planet Earth,” said Scot Ross, the executive director of the liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now, which flagged Johnson’s remarks. “Not only does Ron Johnson oppose common sense measures like student loan refinancing that would immediately reduce costs for 515,000 hardworking Wisconsin borrowers, but he apparently thinks the solution to the nation’s higher education student debt crisis is getting rid of diplomas and watching more television.”

Johnson is running for re-election against former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), who lost the seat to Johnson in 2010. HuffPost Pollster, which tracks publicly available polling in the race, shows Feingold with a lead:

Johnson has come under scrutiny in the past for his remarks on higher education. In March, he said students were taking longer than four years to graduate because they were able to easily get student loans and it was fun to party.

“Today, there are different studies on this, but somewhere between five and a half to six years is the average length of time it takes somebody to get a four-year degree. Why is that? I’d argue, well, loans are actually pretty easy to get and college is a lot of fun,” Johnson said, noting he had worked his way through school and wanted to be done as soon as possible.

“It’s kind of free money, young people don’t necessarily understand finance,” he added.

Feingold then ran an ad last month going after the senator for those remarks:

“Sen. Johnson’s so extreme that he calls student loans ‘free money’ and would do away with all federal student loans if he had his way. ... The true cartel Wiconsinites face is Sen. Johnson’s blind allegiance to Donald Trump and corporate CEOs, who want him to stay in Washington for another six years to protect their interests,” Feingold spokesman Michael Tyler said in response to the senator’s comments at the WisPolitics forum.

Wages for the typical recent college graduate working full time have risen just 1.6 percent over the last 25 years, while student debt burdens for the typical bachelor’s degree recipient have increased about 163.8 percent. Federal data show that roughly 42 million Americans collectively owe more than $1.3 trillion on their student loans.

UPDATE: Aug. 23 ― Burns tweeted on Tuesday that he disagreed with Johnson’s proposal, saying his work should not replace teachers.

This story has been updated with comment from Weingarten.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said Feingold lost his seat to Johnson in 2012; in fact, it was 2010.

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