Now it is at its heights that education in universities has been forced to undertake the impossible errand of distance-learning with its virtual classrooms. It is true that there is some remaining love of truth, even in the virtual classroom, but the wine of this love is diluted where the immediate interpersonal bond is broken.

The recent quarantine due to coronavirus threats have caused numerous changes in ordinary American life, from the slight to the serious.  Someplace along this scale lies the contrivance and occupancy of on-line university ‘classrooms.’  ‘Distance learning’ is not new, but the present extent of it is new. My admittedly limited acquaintance with on-line ‘teaching,’ and the few colleagues with whom I’ve shared this to-us-novelty surely handicap my competence to address the general topic, but I do not think I am unable to contribute to a critical discussion that I think is urgent for many reasons.

Here I must also add a preliminary caveat: The expansion of on-line classes today has been motivated by need; I do not assume that the now common cases have been deliberately chosen as though they were an independently and inherently good plan; I am not offering criticism of such measures nor of those who have been forced to them. It remains, however, that we have a specter before our eyes, and that we ought take a warning.

A recent article in National Geographic (24 April ’20) identifies ‘zoom-fatigue’ as the slang name for the disproportionate depletion experienced by teachers after conducting on-line sessions  – a depletion unlike what these experienced teachers have known previously. The zoom classroom and its kin, the article explains, are unlike the in-person three-dimensional classroom of mutually bodily-present persons: The cyber-classroom excludes inter-personal ‘cues’ that make up the more-than-intellectual-only mutual presence of persons. These missing cues include, for examples, the direction of faces (aside or eye-to-eye), breathing, facial expressions of puzzlement, surprise, approval, disapproval, recognition, and gestures. Absent these elements of real persons and inter-personal contact, it is impossible to assemble the peculiar gestalt that is found in real life. The case is analogous to telephone conversation, which we all know to be only a shadow of a real-life conversation, and which for some things we must shun altogether. On-line and at a distance, then, there is a residual expectation of lively connections among persons, but the reality fails, and the net effect is ‘zoom fatigue.’ This I take to be the fact of the matter. The effort to compensate for what is missing requires an unavoidable but futile expenditure of effort, and this is the drain on the teacher – and not improbably the students as well.

My highly critical and mostly negative view depends first on the principle that education is a matter of tradition. By education a civilization hands on its ideas, its ideals, its achievements, its lessons to each successive generation. (Negatively, failure to do this has made of higher education in America a shamble and a charade; that is another story of its own.) This handing-on is just that. In this act of generosity truth is given by hand from the master to the apprentice, and as with manual skills, the knowledge communicated is by no means reducible to mere formulae, but includes what Michael Polanyi named ‘tacit knowledge,’ which is essential to the matter taught, but escapes words. For example, no French chef would dream that there is a verbal recipe that will assure his apprentices about the right way to make omelettes; I suspect no American dad would even attempt to reduce to a list of instructions the ‘how’ of driving a standard transmission car. The same is true even of the fine notions of philosophers and physical scientists. (Recall that Polanyi himself was a physicist!) What happens in all these cases is that there is simultaneous, mutual, immediate, personal, presence. This presence makes a bond that is both forged by the truth that is handed down, and that is in some way imperative because knowledge and sharing of truth is a distinctly human good-to-be-done. Furthermore, the simultaneity of the master-apprentice bond is pre-requisite to the diachronic bond of tradition.

Education fails in any effort toward dis-incarnation; the late John Senior as though with prescience knew this. For Senior, education began with, included, and never lost touch with ‘gymnastic’ experience of, for example, riding horseback, swimming in the ocean, camping in the wild, and star-gazing. Only then was a learner/apprentice ready to continue to the level of poetic knowledge, which of course is impossible without what was acquired beforehand. Only finally might education become ‘scientific,’ i.e., mathematical, philosophical, theological. Senior was not original, but merely giving voice yet again to Aristotle on the primacy of sensory experience in the ascent to wisdom. I wish to draw from John Senior the lesson that education always includes sense, memory, imagination, and emotion, even at its metaphysical heights.

Now it is at its heights that education in universities has been forced to undertake the impossible errand of distance-learning with its virtual classrooms. It is true that there is some remaining love of truth, even in the virtual classroom, but the wine of this love is diluted where the immediate interpersonal bond is broken. Moreover, because the bodily human linkage is severed, and because this human linkage found in education is natural, we must conclude by logic what we also experience quasi-intuitively, that education mediated by the internet is unnatural. Ironically, cyber-connection serves to disconnect the parties of what should be a mutual passion. It remains true, as Matthew Crawford points out, that it is no more possible to hand on the truths on which civilization depends than to ‘hammer a nail over the internet.’

This putative cure is no cure, but only at best a temporary palliative that is only slightly better than the deficiency disease of ignorance. May we all soon return, grateful, to live in-person classrooms.

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