I’ve not yet decided if I’ve succumbed to despair (a sin) or prudence, but I no longer participate in any of the forums at my campus about online education, MOOCs, virtual office hours, assessment, and the countless other distractions from the reading of books and the teaching of young women and men. The conclusions are already made, in hopes that the budget might be saved with the new technology, and any discussion regarding mission or dignity or education itself is not going to stop the juggernaut.

Perhaps I should write an open letter to Michael Sandel, the justly famous Harvard Professor who teaches “one of the most popular courses in Harvard’s history” in addition to “the right thing to do.” Not too shabby for a MOOC.

Turns out, however, that the course is being developed by edX and rather aggressively marketed (for profit, it seems) to other universities as a cost-saving measure. Why bother spending good money on non-Sandel ethics professors and their costly health benefits when a pittance would bring “one of the most popular courses in Harvard’s history” to campus?

It’s brilliant, of course, and the conclusions are already made, based on hopes that the budget might be saved with the new technology.

But angry philosophers not only drink hemlock, they write letters. Open letters. Letters which defend Socratic education, the knowledge and skill of teachers, and even (gasp) the demands of justice and fairness in education, not only for professors but also for students.

Particularly striking is the argument from diversity: “… the thought of the exact same social justice course being taught in various philosophy departments across the country is downright scary – something out of a dystopian novel. Departments across the country possess unique specializations and character, and should stay that way. Universities tend not to hire their own graduates for a reason. They seek different influences. Diversity in schools of thought and plurality of points of view are at the heart of liberal education.”

Sandel responds, and kindly: “My goal is simply to make an educational resource freely available–a resource that faculty colleagues should be free to use in whole or in part, or not at all, as they see fit.” Further, “The last thing I want is for my online lectures to be used to undermine faculty colleagues at other institutions.”

A defense of colleagues and democratic diversity is lovely, but I was struck by Professor Sandel’s claim of the importance of the inter-personal role of teaching: “I strongly believe that online courses are no substitute for the personal engagement of teachers with students, especially in the humanities.”

A true claim, that, but not at all explained. No reason for “engagement” is given, and I suspect that “engagement” is not going to win the day against the juggernaut.

That battle will need to be a discussion about human nature—what we are determines how we should be taught and in what form. The great Cardinal Newman captures this in Idea of the University and “Rise and Progress of Universities.” For Newman, the activity of the university was distinct from either academy or college. The academy existed to create and advance knowledge, and had very little to do with students. On the other pole, the residential college within the university is home, and provides moral and perhaps religious training, guidance, care, formation, maturation. As Newman puts it, the “the College is for the formation of character, intellectual and moral, for the cultivation of the mind, for the improvement of the individual, for the study of literature, for the classics.”

The university, on the other hand, taught universal knowledge, and what it offered was teachers, for while there was an education through books, university was primarily an education through oral instruction, through the personal influence and exchange of culture from teacher and student. As Michael Buckley puts it, “there are many ways of getting an education, and books do not a university make. Teachers and students … do make a university.” Books can be found in libraries or online, but teachers are found at university, where texts were mediated by the living presence of the teacher and the conversation. Consequently, personal contact, conversation, argument were the sine qua non of the university—even prior to the books and the ideas transmitted. One could perhaps garner the ideas from books on one’s own, but the university is fundamentally intersubjective.

Still, even this seems a little thin to me, for it doesn’t quite capture how the intersubjective passes on culture, primarily because it forgets that human knowledge occurs only because we are lovers before we are thinkers, or at least this is what Steve Cone and I argue in our new book, Authentic Cosmopolitanism.

For those of us, like myself, happily ensconced in the broadly Aristotelian tradition, discussions about the passing on of intellectual culture or virtue is a cause of delight, with attention of the role of virtue in education especially so, and for many reasons. In particular, virtue theory avoids the disembodied rationalism to which modern thought tended by (1) refusing to consider intellectual virtue without also moral virtue, (2) placing the virtue of the individual always within a social and political setting, (3) valuing the body, (4) acknowledging something like the primacy of practical reason—or at least its equality—to theory. Providing an anthropology much less truncated than the “thinking things” so endemic to the tradition, virtue theory also avoids reducing education to the transmission of ideas or worldviews for a thinking thing. Not only theorists, we are engaged agents who seek to instantiate value in our action. Or to put it another way, we are lovers more than we are thinkers.

An anthropology acknowledging humans as lovers, with the pedagogy of virtue which follows, seems to suggest two questions which are sometimes overlooked. First, without love (caritas) aren’t all virtues radically inadequate, or worse? Second, doesn’t human disorder render our loves and thus our virtues inadequate?

Ultimately, of course, this requires grace, but grace is mediated, sometimes, perhaps often, through our encounter with others. We learn to love by imitating the love of others. I have a colleague, for instance, who decided to become a teacher after watching, as he describes it, his own teacher “loving a poem” in class.

Teaching is not just data transmission. Not even data transmission from gifted and talented lecturers. Teaching is about sharing of loves so as to reorder the loves of the young.

And that takes a locale, an engagement of persons, and in that engagement is grace.

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R. J. Snell lives and gardens (or at least watches his children garden) just outside of Philadelphia in Havertown, a place where Sinatra, baseball games, and cigar smoke waft from his neighbors' porches onto his own. If Philadelphia had colder and longer winters, as this Canadian thinks natural and fitting, it would be almost perfect. The fact that his four children and wife live there (almost) redeems the overly warm weather. He directs the philosophy program at Eastern University, in St. Davids, PA. He also co-directs the Agora Insitute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good, a research center devoted to understanding and sustaining the virtues and institutions of human flourishing. The author of Through a Glass Darkly: Bernard Lonergan and Richard Rorty on Knowing without a God's-Eye View, and the forthcoming (with Steve Cone) Authentic Cosmopolitanism, he writes and teaches on Thomas Aquinas and contemporary Thomism, Bernard Lonergan, natural law, decent life, and the liberal arts.


  1. The great issue, the great juggernaut, here is, of course, commodification. Such discussions should begin with John Locke’s definition of commodities: “Commodities are moveables, valuable by money, the common measure.” That we’re questioning the complicity by Michael Sandel, author of the very popular What Money Can’t Buy, and one of our most articulate critics of the commodification of everything in that very trend is rather interesting. I would hope he’d welcome engaging in the dialogue and answer your letter!

  2. R. J. Snell writes : “Teaching is about sharing of loves so as to reorder the loves of the young.”

    The authority to teach is a delegated authority coming from the parents who send their children to school, not to have their children reordered, but perfected according to the order previously instilled in them by their parents.

  3. “The authority to teach is a delegated authority coming from the parents who send their children to school, not to have their children reordered, but perfected according to the order previously instilled in them by their parents.”

    Wherever would one find such an omniscient institution able to perceive and cater to the individual notions of order and other whims that must exist among so many different parents?

    Democratic notions when applied to education produce a most reliable mediocrity at best, probably due to the mistaken attitudes regarding authority and its sources inherent in those notions.

    A certain degree of elitism is necessary to the pursuit of excellence.

    Perhaps the hostile elite currently in control of most educational institutions has soured your perspective?

  4. Dispossessed Agrarian writes : “Wherever would one find such an omniscient institution able to perceive and cater to the individual notions of order and other whims that must exist among so many different parents?”

    I first ran across it at my own alma mater when listening to the president in conversation where he said that the school had a duty to care for the students according to the trust delegated to it by the parents.

    The school did not intend to reorder the students, but teach traditional Catholic thought perfecting students insofar as undergrads can be perfected. If students were reordered, then so be it, but that was not the end intended.

  5. Let me clarify. It’s not a matter of the school knowing the whims of parents, but a matter of not intending to reorder students. Parents send their children to a school expecting their authority to be respected. Or at least Catholic parents with sense and experience do so, and so are careful as to where they do send their children.

  6. I was all set to read this article and had in fact begun it with interest.

    But after the second cryptic reference to “MOOC,” my curiosity got the better of me and I opened a new tab to find out what this acronym stands for, on another website. I take it you’re not a journalism professor, Mr. Snell. But, heartbreakingly, even that would not surprise me.

    And now, with my reading momentum interrupted and my distraction complete, I’m off. I’ll be sure to drop back by here in a couple days or weeks.

  7. @Bryan

    Totally agree. Nothing is more annoying than someone dropping an acronym without, at the least once, putting the full title in parentheses. Gah.

  8. Ok, I was wrong. Comment sections that don’t allow editing are even more annoying. Along with duplicated comments.

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