A Middle Path

Thomas K. Lindsay

The online-learning-as-panacea-or-pariah dichotomy has, naturally enough, sparked a debate that is becoming almost as overheated as my ancient desktop. The reigning dichotomy misses the possibilities as well as the limitations of the online learning movement, because the competing camps claim to know more than they probably can at this point.

As one who has taught the humanities and social sciences for several decades—in face-to-face, discussion-intensive seminars limited to no more than twenty students—I was dragged kicking and screaming into giving the case for online learning a fair hearing. It might convey information, to be sure, as does a morning perusal of the news websites, but liberal education is much more than the mere delivery of information. It is the inculcation of a way of life, one that takes its bearings from the Socratic turn to the study of the human things in order to understand not only the cosmos but also man’s place in it.

It is no accident that the word “liberal” in liberal education has the same root as “liberty.” Liberal learning endeavors to prepare more than competent workers. It is an education in and for liberty understood in its three highest manifestations—intellectual, ethical, and political. In this account, the development of the intellectual, ethical, and political virtues takes place best in face-to-face interaction with others. Learning is not to be found simply in books or on one’s computer; it is to be found in face-to-face community.

Accordingly, many of online learning’s most thoughtful critics fear that “distance education”—necessarily more solitary than traditional, face-to-face learning—will only worsen modernity’s atomizing propensities, further shredding community in a world already increasingly inhabited by, in Allan Bloom’s phrase, “social solitaries.” But probity requires us to be critical of our criticism. At least as far back as Aristotle, it has been known that with human progress comes an ineluctable loss of “intimacy,” as he reports in The Politics when describing the genesis of the first village out of the household, and that of the first city out of the village. Each succeeding stage is necessarily less intimate than its predecessor. The Greek noun oikos, translated as “household,” also conveys the sense of “intimacy.” Oikos is likewise the root of “economics,” which for Aristotle means “the management of the household.” If we gauge the distance between the meaning of “economics” then versus now, we appreciate better another dimension of the loss of intimacy supervening progress.

We need no longer travel to Plato’s Cave of “the unexamined life” to tamp down our natural desire to know the whole and our place in it. Now, thanks to cyberspace, we carry our cave with us, in our laptop cases and through our smartphones, always and everywhere. This is especially true of the young, who live increasingly in their cyber-connected heads.

What, then, to do? We cannot put the toothpaste back in the tube, but it is possible that online learning could become much more than a phenomenon to which we indignantly acquiesce—and for reasons weightier than anticipated decreases in costs and increases in access, as important as these might be. Online learning might help us to restore, at least in some quarters, the education in liberty virtually abandoned, because denied, by much of what passes today for higher learning.

Readers of this journal know well that under the sway of moral and cultural relativism, the very possibility of intellectual liberty has not only been jettisoned but condemned by a number of our academic brethren as an “instrument of oppression and hierarchy.” As for an education in political liberty, few universities today require even one course in the moral, political, and philosophic foundations of America’s experiment in self-government, and this is part and parcel of the fifty-year dismemberment of a required core curriculum in the liberal arts and sciences.

Online efforts are underway in some quarters to refill the crater left by relativism’s blast, through providing discussion-driven seminars in the Great Books, whose study forms the core of a genuinely liberal education. Attempting to appraise these efforts, I decided last year to put my teaching where my mouth is by instructing two online courses in the Great Books. One of these was an accredited, doctoral-level seminar in the foundations of social science, in which our ten-student class read and discussed, in real-time, Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, William James, Freud, and others. Using Google Hangouts, all of us could see each other on our computer screens as we engaged in close reading and discussion of the texts. When not meeting “live,” students and professor engaged in an ongoing, near-daily “threaded discussion” of the texts online.

I was pleasantly surprised at the degree of intimacy achievable under the new regime. What didn’t surprise me was the greater workload this entails for professors, who, in online courses, don’t keep “office hours.” They are virtually available all the time to respond to student queries. This makes it much easier for students to get feedback on questions; they are no longer limited to scheduling visits during the typical professor’s three-to-six weekly office hours. Of course, this benefit for the students comes at the expense of the professor’s time and toil, a fact alleged by some as another bit of evidence against the project. Granted, the online courses I have taught are far less than “massive.” No professor can be available to respond to the hundreds and even thousands that are sometimes proposed as the future of online learning. Nor can the discussion-intensive seminar I taught online take place in a “massive” course. To this latter point, I will return shortly.

If teachers must work harder in online classes, so be it. The finding in Academically Adrift that 36 percent of students in traditional classrooms nationwide demonstrate little-to-no increase in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills after four years in college is due in no small part to the decline in faculty time devoted to undergraduate teaching, as documented by William F. Massy and Robert Zemsky.1 All of this is due in part to the efforts by second-, third-, and even fourth-rate institutions to copy the faculty-research-focused model of Harvard, itself a copy of the German university model.

Given the decline in attention to undergraduate teaching over the past several decades, it makes sense that reversing this trend is going to require teachers to work harder at teaching. However, such a redoubling of their efforts hardly requires an online format; it could (and should) take place in physical classrooms also. Moreover, and as detailed above, there are grounds for doubting whether being more available in cyberspace overcomes the fact that online professors are only virtually available, rather than present in the human community of the physical classroom.

But such objections present a false dichotomy—between face-to-face, discussion-intensive seminars and online instruction. The truth is that today, at the vast majority of public universities, which enroll the majority of college students nationwide, face-to-face, discussion-driven seminars do not constitute the majority of students’ college experience. Much of what they study, particularly in their first two years, occurs in cavernous lecture halls, in the well of which stands a distant professor lecturing with a microphone to several hundred students who sit engrossed in… their laptops. Student interaction with an “instructor” under such circumstances takes the form of seeking help from a graduate assistant. Of course, if the online courses are genuinely “massive,” consisting of hundreds or even thousands of students, graduate assistants would be needed for them, too. But do we want to claim a substantive difference between this setting and that which takes place in traditional lecture halls? If anything, studies suggest that the ever-increasing interactivity offered by online courses makes them at least as effective a learning experience as offered by today’s lecture-hall introductory courses.2

The reality of American higher education, then, consists of two facts insufficiently appreciated by those who would condemn online learning outright: (1) much of what passes for higher education today takes place in decidedly “un-intimate” lecture halls, and (2) even those classes conducted as intimate seminars usually fail, intentionally, to provide a genuinely liberal education, due to their adherence to relativism, coupled with their dogmatic conviction regarding our progress beyond all past ages and thinkers.

As a result, too many students today are trapped in traditional college settings, unable to examine seriously their culture’s assumptions regarding who they are, what they might hope for, and in what form their deepest longings might be fulfilled. Such students might stand a far better chance of attaining the intellectual liberation they seek through online learning, despite all the qualifications I’ve noted above and share regarding distance education. As I have argued elsewhere, American higher education today has become so bankrupt that online education, despite the limitations I’ve listed, may come to provide a better opportunity under our present constraints to found separate islands of learning, where seeds may be planted from which liberal education might again flourish.3 Online programs may offer a “way out” for liberal education-starved students. Given higher education’s general debasement, a way out may be students’ only means to a way up.

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