We teachers have been hearing for years how online learning will soon sweep our worlds away. That’s possible, but my concern is more immediate: that in the rush to put our classes online, we are tempted to create a world of Total School.

I am—genuinely—one of the luckiest people in the whole coronavirus pandemic. With my steady if unspectacular income protected by my tenured position at the University of Dallas, I have the extra great fortune of being on sabbatical this semester, so I haven’t had to scramble to put my classes online. Though the slight chaos of having my older son home since his Spring Break, and my younger son also adapting to school online, both of them puttering around the house asking for food, clean towels, and baking soda (for an experiment in conservation of mass), has made a hash of my writing schedule, I got back to it after a couple of weeks, and that’s little indeed to whine about, when in exchange I can take walks with them and smoke a pork loin and blast Stevie Ray Vaughn in the evenings.

As I watched them go back to school, however, I had some concern, and then ultimately, optimism.

We teachers have been hearing for years how online learning will soon sweep our worlds away, and I have friends and colleagues who warily prophesy the day our classes, once created online, will be taken from us and out-sourced to adjunct (or worse) labor. That’s possible, but as I will suggest later, I do not think it is ultimately likely. My concern is more immediate: that in the rush to put our classes online, we are tempted to create a world of Total School.

I borrow that term with apologies to Josef Pieper’s profound Leisure, the Basis of Culture, where he warned in post-war Europe that we risked creating a world of “total work” where men’s worth would only be measured by their outputs, their immediate utility. His beautiful meditation on the importance—no, the absolute centrality—of leisure to a life well-lived was prophetic, and we saw in the remaining decades of the 20th century this world of work dominate more and more aspects of our lives. Yet Pieper could never have imagined a 21st century world of the internet and smart phones, where everyone in the working world is instantly accessible, and expected to respond and produce, at any hour of the day or night, from any location—a family vacation, a night out with one’s spouse, even, in one instance I heard about, during a funeral. I recently heard deans at my school joking with gallows humor about text and email exchanges; the night owls were on past 1:30 AM, and then the early risers began responding shortly after 5:00 AM. No one was surprised, because all of us professors do the same.

Total School is more recent; it began in my house about seven years ago when my son’s suburban public high school issued over 3000 iPads to the students. Suddenly the school day extended well past the final bell at 3 PM, and I don’t mean just homework. The Flipped Classroom meant he had to “attend” class lecture for an additional 50 minutes each evening—and that was just one class. Group projects meant virtual meetings well into the night. The first time an assignment was due at midnight, I was surprised and annoyed, but soon this became normal. Setting a due date of midnight might seem innocuous—the students could do the work and turn it in earlier, right?—but in practice it creates a world where school is in session long after a high school sophomore should be in bed. Having the ability to extend school well beyond the school day made it inevitable that teachers would so extend it, but it was destroying leisure and trapping my son online the entire day. Now, just a few years later, students and parents accept this as normal.

And I know the pull. Each time I have tried my own hand at online teaching, I was decidedly low-tech, trying to start small, but I wanted so badly to give the students every bit of the class I would have offered in person that, very quickly, the students (and these were grad students, fully expecting a serious amount of work) were groaning under the effort. In an attempt to create interesting, layered, and complex threaded discussions about the material, I had them posting or responding many times a week, absorbing much more time than they would have contributed to a face-to-face class, and they let me know it. I had just wanted them to have a fully demanding and rich class, and yet I was sucking away all of their time from their real jobs, their free time, even—may God forgive me—their spouses and children. As for me, I was spending more time on these classes than my two face-to-face sections combined, as I tried to engage with posts and assignments that came in all hours of the day and night.

So now I watch colleagues, and I see the same thing, only ramped up. They are all working so, so diligently to make up for the disruption that is beyond everyone’s control, but I worry for them, and for the students. Below the college level, where teachers have five, six classes, I just don’t know how one can keep up—and pressures from outside the teachers is more stringent. I hear of a headmaster so worried about state pressure on his charter school that he is demanding his teachers out-do the local public school district, which has vastly more IT resources. I hear of middle school teachers told to contact their students by video or phone—individually—every week, or three times a week, or even every day. (Do the numbers—five or six classes with 25-30 students each. Who can make that many contacts by video or phone?) Teachers are having to track their time with online tools to show they are really working, as if teachers’ previous invisible long hours of dedication are somehow suspect in this new world. It’s understandable that there will be a lot of work ramping up to online, but I worry about teacher burn-out, and then student burn-out, as both, without meaning to, totalize school, taking it from a regular day to virtually 24/7. If in a mistaken attempt we create a take-home exam that absorbs 20 hours of work, as I saw recently, we have overshot in our desire to convey an equivalent learning experience to the face-to-face version. We will not be educating for eudamoinia, that Greek term for “the good life,” if students and teachers alike spend their entire day and night online, then collapse and wake up to do it again. I know I’m the lucky one, so I hope I do not sound like I am hectoring from my Olympian heights of sabbatical leisure. But I hope my colleagues in this crazy enterprise are able to start small, to build in increments, and to ask themselves and their students constantly if they are building in time to take a walk, to cook a dinner, to listen to a little Bach, to have a little day at the end of each day’s school.

My other son’s charter school was inadvertently blessed by having almost no technology previously in place. He received a physical packet of assignments the first two weeks back to school: some Calculus explanations and problems, the Agamemnon to read and annotate, a beautifully hand-written set of pages on Momentum by his engaging Physics teacher, witty Greek assignments. He loved it, said he “got to” create contour sketches for his Art class, and was done at a reasonable 3 PM or so each day, after which he did some woodworking and practiced his blues guitar licks or put finishing touches on his Eagle Scout project. He’s learning; he’s happy. Even when Google Classroom was rolled out, the school had the wisdom to continue in this low-tech packet way. Some days he wakes up and does his woodworking first, and works into the night, and other days he does his work in segments, broken up with those guitar licks. It’s a human way to engage, responsibly, in a work/life balance.

I suspect that when we begin to open up again—and I pray that goes well—many businesses will like this work-from-home thing—why pay to lease vast floors of cubicles when workers can use a spare bedroom as an office and Zoom their way to meetings? The employees themselves may well decide it’s better as well: why spend the gasoline, time, wear and tear, and hassle commuting each day to exist in a sterile cubicle? Why not see one’s kids more often, take a walk around the neighborhood on the lunch hour?

But I suspect that the opposite will happen in education, as students realize the nirvana they have long been promised by online learning robs them of the very human and humane interactions that they now realize are the fundamental grounds of a real education. We have no choice but to use online learning right now, of course. And it might be necessary from time to time, for students unable to attend regular classes, separated by time and space or disability or other needs. But I suspect this vast experiment will convince most students and professors that, for most of their education, they really love the embodied, face-to-face version. Students of all ages—even those who sit in a lecture hall at large state universities—will, I suspect, conclude that online learning cannot on a regular basis match the humane, rich interactions that happen when teachers and students see one another in the flesh, have a moment on the commons for that fascinating question that did not come up in class, or get to sit with friends well after class, talking and arguing and laughing. And we might even see a surge in students wanting to be—be still my heart!—liberally educated, as they want to know what it all means, and why learning in this embodied way the great questions of life is suddenly important to them. I suspect they will flock back to campus, eager to get back to books and friends and dorm rooms and lousy cafeteria food and class discussions and late-night b.s. sessions and even that weird shaved-head goatee’d pain-in-the-butt prof who’s always yammering about Chaucer. (Okay, probably not the latter.) By then my sabbatical will be over—with, I hope, a book or two off to the publisher—and I’ll be there waiting, eager to see them, face to face.

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