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Jules van Schaijik

Education in cyberspace?

Sep. 22, 2010, at 3:14pm

As a parent with two children in college and three to follow soon, I sympathize with Roger Scruton’s recent article in the American Spectator. Given the condition of the average university in America today, one does wonder whether they are worth the money and time they take. And that’s not to mention the moral and religious risks they pose. It is understandable that more and more people are starting to look for alternatives.*

I have doubts, however, that the alternative that Scruton proposes is a good one:

I envisage an experiment in “distance learning,” in which students work from home, and attend lectures, receive tutorials, and engage in discussions through Internet connections. As the Internet becomes more interactive, the need for universities to establish themselves in physical space, rather than in cyberspace, is less evident. Virtual communities of scholarship might be more volatile than real communities of scholars. But they will be far more responsive to the demands of their customers, and far cheaper to run. They could provide most of what is provided by a humanities department, with the added advantage of choosing their professors from all over the world, and paying a proper market price for them.

The advantages of such a university in cyberspace are obvious and enticing. None of them, however, it seems to me, outweighs the huge disadvantage of faculty and students no longer dwelling together in physical proximity. A university education should be so much more than just passing on true information or getting students to understand certain ideas. It should be a formation of the whole person, and especially the whole mind. This kind of education, however, depends to a very large extent on what Newman calls “personal influence.”

In an earlier part of his article (which he seems to have forgotten by the time he gets to the cyberspace vision), Scruton himself quotes Newman on precisely this point: “the general principles of any study you may learn by books at home; but the detail, the colour, the tone, the air, the life which makes it live in us, you must catch all these from those in whom it lives already.”

About decade ago, a very helpful discussion [still available online] on the question of distance learning took place at Franciscan University. In one of his contributions to this discussion, our friend and teacher John Crosby, reflects some more on Newman’s idea of personal influence and the crucial role it plays in education. I’ll end this post with a section from it:

Newman writes of “that which nature prescribes in all education, the personal presence of a teacher, or, in theological language, Oral Tradition.” He goes on for a page or so to speak primarily of religious teaching and catechesis; this passage should be of particular relevance to our discussion since this is exactly the focus of the [distance learning] degrees that are being considered. He says:

It is the living voice, the breathing form, the expressive countenance, which preaches, which catechises. Truth, a subtle, invisible, manifold spirit, is poured into the mind of the scholar by his eyes and ears, through his affections, imagination, and reason; it is poured into his mind and is sealed up there in perpetuity, by propounding and repeating it, by questioning and requestioning, by correcting and explaining, by progressing and then recurring to first principles…

Clearly, if this is the way religious education occurs, if this is the way oral tradition is passed on in a university, then we should not expect much from audiotapes, which will filter out most of the modes of communication mentioned here by Newman.

Let us listen to Newman developing his thought:

No book can convey the special spirit and delicate peculiarities of its subject with that rapidity and certainty which attend on the sympathy of mind with mind, through the eyes, the look, the accent, and the manner, in casual expressions thrown off at the moment, and the unstudied turns of familiar conversation. The general principles of any study you may learn by books at home; but the detail, the colour, the tone, the air, the life which makes it live in us, you must catch all these from those in whom it lives already. You must imitate the student in French or German, who is not content with his grammar, but goes to Paris or Dresden.

In this last sentence Newman is comparing the learning that should take place in a university with the learning of a language. You can study French or German out of books for years; you can supplement your reading with audiotapes as much as you like: you will never learn to speak the language naturally until you go among the native speakers and immerse yourself in the spoken language. With this Newman wants to say that you can study theology or any other university subject out of books all you want, you will never really get initiated into your area of knowledge until you live in a community whose oral traditions convey that deeper knowledge that corresponds to speaking a language fluently.


——
* I should add, perhaps, that my own experience so far has been good. Nothing is perfect in this world, but my oldest two children are certainly getting a good intellectual and moral education. And just as Newman would have predicted, they get this education not only through the material they learn, but even more through the environment in which they live and the people with which they interact. Also, the fact that they are largely “on their own”—that is, out from under daily parental oversight— is crucial.


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