The Dematerialization of School
Recently my colleagues and I were sent the following links to the newest wave of the future—online college courses—as recorded in the pages of the newspaper of record for the Manhattan culturati once known as the New York Times and now more appropriately yclept the Senile Gray Lady.1 Here they are for your re-education:
Because some administrators seem to be toying with the idea of imitating this movement at our high school, I would like to say why I think that—except for those too physically disabled to attend live classes—online schooling is a terrible idea.
Years ago my teacher Mary Holmes observed that the world was becoming increasingly dematerialized, more and more human experiences becoming virtual ones. We punched thermostat buttons instead of piling logs in hearths or stoves; we squeezed paint tubes and clicked ball-points instead of grinding colors and ink; we spoke into devices instead of face to face; we went to movies, watched TV, and listened to tapes instead of attending live theater and concerts. To no one’s surprise the process has continued, so that we may now have a vast music collection the size of a credit card, to say nothing of the credit card itself, and find worlds of information on a computer the size of an old ink pad. Without experiencing the sight, hearing, touch, taste, or smell of any natural thing, we can order online our food, clothing, furniture, cars, houses, pets, and bedmates.
It is ironic that in the age of so much concern over the extinction of animal and plant species and the supposedly man-made decay of the condition of earth, air, and water, we are so passionately devoted to living with less and less actual participation in nature, including our own nature. Mary said that anyone who lives without animals and angels—must we now add plants?—lives an impoverished life. Perhaps it is a result of our becoming so completely abstracted from our natural lives that we imagine we are but glorified machines, complex interlocking biochemical computer networks rather than Donne’s “subtle knot”2 of nature and spirit.
Though Mary warned against trusting anyone whose voice could not be heard without the aid of sound amplification, a principle all the more applicable when all we can see of the person is an image on a screen, she would not have said the process of dematerialization was simply bad; much practical advantage has been gained by it. Google Earth technology reduces collateral damage in warfare and gets us to someone else’s church on time. But much is also lost. Let us set aside for the moment the particular losses in my field: the annual reduction in the length of sentences that my sophomore students can understand, and their increasing conviction that grammar and paragraphs that they cannot comprehend instantly they cannot comprehend at all. Considering the efficiency and convenience gained, what is the general educational downside of dematerialization?
The downside is the attempt to reduce the experience of self in the world to bits of information. Despite our prejudices and our abstractions, we are not in fact merely glorified computing machines. We remain natural beings, compounds of soul and body alive in a natural world, requiring meaning to be happy and harmonic psycho-physical experience to find meaning. And, as many believe about other inorganic behaviors (pollution of air, adulteration of food, steroid-enhanced athletics), it is not nice—or safe—to fool with Mother Nature. Just as the picture on the Wheaties box is not breakfast and cyber sex is not love, so the aggregation of online information is not education.
Education involves not merely the transfer of bits of information but the experience of relation—between a learner and a teacher who himself or herself embodies a relation between person and subject, person and skill, life and art, body and mind—in short, the relation between human being and world, including other human beings.
In the 16th century, Montaigne wrote the following:
Those who would divide our two principle parts, and isolate one from the other, are in the wrong. On the contrary, we must reunite them and bring them together. We must command the soul not to draw aside and hold herself apart, not to scorn and abandon the body—which she can only do by some false pretence—but to ally herself with it, help, control, advise, and correct it, and bring it back when it goes astray; in short, marry it and become its partner, so that their actions may not appear diverse and opposed, but harmonious and uniform. . . .
The Peripatetic school [i.e., Aristotle and his followers], of all sects the best adapted to society, assigns to wisdom this sole task, to provide for and procure the common welfare of these two associated halves. And it points out how by paying insufficient attention to the existence of this bond, other schools have taken sides, some for the body and some for the soul, with equal error on both sides; and that they have lost sight of their subject, which is man, and of their guide, which they generally admit to be nature.3
A live teacher engaged with students in conveying a discipline is the embodiment of the fruitfulness of a harmonious natural marriage between body and soul. The dematerialization of learning threatens the fruits with abortion.
What stands to be lost in the online classroom is quality—not merely in the vague sense of a “high quality education,” but in the sense of the very particular quality of an experience, the kind of quality that is irresistibly experienced when in the presence of one who has it or who can convey it—as we experience not only the fact but the feel of a great basketball player’s three-point shot or the uniqueness of soul in a Rembrandt face—the kind of quality that cannot be reduced to bits of information, no matter how powerful the hard drive.
The other day when a student asked what “skulking in corners” means, I moved over to the corner of the classroom and skulked. Present to the experience, even if they thought I was a nut, my students realized what I was doing, in part by their empathic response to my demeanor before and after the illustration as well as during it. What would it look like on a screen? Would it read? Would the feeling come across? Perhaps the idea of skulking would. But would viewers sense the teacher’s willingness to look like a fool for their sakes? Could they experience the potentially illuminating revelation of the complex relation between word and world?
I don’t mean inordinately to glorify my own teaching or the significance of such an action. I do and say a hundred things a day that are forgettable and are mercifully forgotten. Yet there is a connection between teacher and students in a classroom that cannot be conveyed on a screen. Metaphors for that relation—ambiance, tone, interactive tension, chemistry, electric charge—try to say what there are no words to say. As with the taste of a food—just try to tell someone who doesn’t already know it what the taste of milk is, or of a green pepper—the attempt to convey in words the student’s experience of being in a classroom is hopeless, as is the attempt to characterize the teacher’s experience of the quality of the particular grouping of students that constitutes a class. Yet those experiences are real, and they matter.
My point is that only live experience can yield true knowledge of such qualities, and only one with that knowledge can be the judge of whether a virtual classroom has succeeded in conveying what is valuable in the experience (let alone that such knowledge is often not known to have been gained until many years later). Students treated to online versions of any class will believe they are getting all that matters. But they cannot know whether it is so. Only by experiencing both the unmediated event and the online version could they make a just comparison, and the last time I checked, human beings (as opposed to their disembodied images) still cannot be in two places at once.
If we go down the route of online schooling, we will never know what we have lost, just as, at this very moment, almost none of my students have any idea what it takes to grow a carrot, milk a cow, or shear a sheep, or to cut grass with a scythe, or to wait until the library opens to find a fact in a book. I am not here opposing the valuable conveniences of supermarket, power mower, and Wikipedia. I am trying to express the inexpressible richness of the life that is lost when we substitute virtual experience for real. We divorce our bodies from our minds, as Montaigne warns us not to do, and take disembodied mental experience for authentic natural life. We praise convincing 3-D images in the movies when we’ve never jumped a fence to escape a threatening dog.
When I read poetry aloud, and get my students to recite it, I am trying to do something like magic, to give them the awareness of how in a great poem meaning is incarnated in form. This kind of knowledge can be taught only as a combination of speech and kinesthetic experience. Students need to feel the air vibrations coming from my speaking of the words, not from an electronic speaker reproducing that gesture. And they need to see and feel the visceral awkwardness of other living people when they speak the words badly, and the aha! that fills the room when they speak them well. There can be no such interchange of the living experience of poetry in an online classroom. And the same goes for chemistry experiments and history lessons and math problems solved on a blackboard. Can the particular quality of the movement of a history teacher’s finger on the board from the miracle of 1776 to the disaster of 1789 reach through cyber-space with its true weight and meaning and with the corresponding scintillation of her voice?
All who have ever paid to hear a live concert of their favorite band will agree that there can be no substitute for presence, which ever and always has the potential to burst, as my friend Charles Embree’s Judge Bat Savannah would say, into a Moment of POW, which stands for Presence of WOW, which stands for Wonder of Wonder.
Mary Holmes taught an absolute principle of art: “The greater the work of art, the worse the reproduction.” I think the same applies to the art of teaching. Little may be lost in putting online a class given by an uninspired teacher droning boring facts in a spiritless way to a class of rote learners with no higher aspirations than a grade on a test, though even then I would argue that there is some potential for the students’ boredom to compel the teacher to think twice about what he or she is doing. But when the teacher has any hope to engage, or the students the potential for excitement, or the content any significance at all, the loss in trying to go online—as in any artificial reproduction of the incarnation of meaning in form—will be both literally and figuratively immeasurable.
1. cf., “Pop Goes the Times” in The New Criterion, November 2010.
2. “The Ecstasy,” l. 64.
3. Essays, Book II, Ch. 17: “On Presumption,” tr. J.M. Cohen (Penguin, 1958).