This essay is part of a mini symposium on the opportunities and challenges educators face in the wake of a year-and-a-half of COVID. You can view all the contributions here.
“I used to think we had to pray for a small catastrophe. But even a pretty big one seems to be teaching us very little.” -Wendell Berry
Black Mountain, NC. When the pandemic first hit, I was optimistic about some changes ahead for higher education. Here’s a time to reflect, to evaluate what truly matters from what’s trivial, to consider what’s lasting to what’s passing away—a time to assess who we want to be in higher education. Surely this is a terrible disease with lasting effects, but part of being a Christian means maintaining a consistent hope even in the ruins.
Quickly, my positivity popped as a balloon—optimistic air swiftly escaping the caverns of my soul. Early on, I heard administrators encouraging a new way to imagine education. This online experiment required by COVID would result in a growing interest in distance and online education. Students will see it’s much the same as in-person learning. This new age the pandemic brings will “streamline” education—make it more “accessible,” “faster,” “mobile,” “efficient”—and other technocratic buzz words. Who can argue with that?
But like most commentators, they can propose these changes because they are removed from what they are commenting on. I don’t know who administrators were talking to. (Probably some finance people or ed-tech consultants, but who knows). They may see the bottom line, but they aren’t involved on the ground—in the day-to-day work of education. My experience was just the opposite: students hated, despised, and grew depressed by online education. To quote one student,which others verbally affirmed, “I felt like I was getting so dumb.”
I spent some time the last few weeks asking different students if the past 18 months of COVID made them think any differently about education. There were some positive comments: an athlete could attend class on their way to a competition in a way they couldn’t pre-pandemic. In some ways, education became more convenient. But by and large, students were exasperated by their online trial. They longed to get back to campus. Their lack of classroom time sparked a love for learning, a new appreciation for classroom education. That’s what they said—not me. But of course, it strangely warmed my professorial heart. Another student expressed how the pandemic made them want to come to class now, and how they’ve grown to cherish classroom time. If colleges make decisions on what is best for students and what students want, it seems like the students are speaking—from both experience and comparison now.
Other students mentioned how transformational this slowing down of life was. A few of my students started reading their Bible in quarantine “because I had nothing better to do.” How’s that for spiritual formation: transformation by boredom. As Blaise Pascal observed 400 years ago, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” That was before the internet, television, smart phones, and video games. How much truer now? It made me consider how often we fill student calendars and activities with “better” things to do that end up being consumeristic, distracting activities. We think there’s nothing better to do because we’ve settled with shallow existence rather than deep experience.
A Personal Anecdote
As you can tell, I am now an enthusiastic proponent of in-person, holistic education. But I have a confession: I am the product of (mostly) online and distance education. In one sense, I’m grateful for my degrees. In another sense, I am almost embarrassed to admit my pedigree.
In my undergraduate days, I spent three semesters at a residential, liberal arts college in the northeast. I had completed most of my degree online apart from a semester abroad. My goals in transferring to this residential college were to play a sport, take some classes, and get a degree. Making friends, developing holistically, and making connections were not my priority. I was a serious person. I had better things to do. By my online experience, I had been habituated to view education as a means to an end—and the end was a degree and a job. These connections got in the way. I wasn’t here to care or contribute or be formed into a different kind of person.
A central aspect of online education is its lack of distinctives. Online education is geared to be a generic class delivered to generic students taught (or more accurately graded) by a generic professor for the sake of financial reward. I hate to put it as crassly as that, but I’m not sure there’s any other way. It doesn’t need to be that way, but it tends that way. As another student reported, “I was just showing up to class to get by rather than get something out of it.”
A particular mode of education nudges you in certain ways. In the online space, I was nudged to be a hard-working, disciplined individual. Sure, there were comment boards with other students. But I didn’t know them. I viewed classmates as the online medium suggests: a mere face and online presence but not a person. Like social media. Those aren’t real people. I’ll get my credit and get out of here. Technological connection replaced relationship.
The Training of Affection
The nudge of residential education is a push toward care. It doesn’t make one care any more than an online education made me view people as less than human. Conversation and deep engagement are possible online, but they are more difficult. Classes are structured to include little to no particularities, and therefore, no hooks by which to engage our affections. But being in a place forms habits of mind and attention. Looking each other in the face without the mediation of a screen has powerful cultivating effects.
In the online world, I use education for what it can give me and move on. Pillage the system and go to what’s next. In the classroom, certain affections tied to a shared place and community take root. When students graduate, there is a celebration of sorts but also a mourning. They have grown to love this place they called home and, in some sense, want to remain here. I’ve never thought about returning to online education or to my technical alma mater. I wouldn’t even know who to see. Affection is tied to a certain kind of embodied remembering.
As Berry has written elsewhere, “Without this love, education is only the importation into the local community of centrally prescribed ‘career preparation’ designed to facilitate the export of young careerists.” Online education has a certain view of education that tends toward exporting young careerists. I’ve experienced it. My students lament it. It’s dehumanizing and boring. Paradoxically, perhaps, when we embrace the limits of our embodied existence and learn with and from particular classmates in a particular place from a particular teacher, affections develop. Imagination stirs. Care begins.
At the end of my three semesters at that northeast college, I longed for more. No, I didn’t want more classes, but I wanted more time with the friends that I had come to love. Being in a particular place with particular faces had taught me to care. It was an invaluable lesson. It turned on affection.