The major pro of the shift to online classes during the coronavirus pandemic was our being together, even though we were isolated at our homes away from campus. But the proposal being entertained by some in higher ed to begin the fall semester online has one very glaring con: Starting classes online cold from day one will be nothing like what we just experienced.

On Friday, March 13, 2020 I taught my classes and wished my students a nice spring break; there was apprehension in the air, though, as the lockdown status of life had just begun. That day I also explained my plans for the online iteration of our courses scheduled for March 23rd through April 8th. The University Administration tentatively suggested we would be able to return Easter Monday and begin normal classes on April 13th. That plan never materialized; instead, spring break was extended an extra week in order that faculty could retool all their courses to online versions, and on March 30th we began the permanent online Spring semester of 2020. The following is a recrafted and updated version of an internal essay I submitted April 18, 2020 after faculty at Salve Regina University in Newport RI, were asked to reflect on the pros and cons of our online educational experience midstream.[1] I offer these reflections as a contribution to the growing and highly interesting discussion currently happening in the blogosphere.

A Pro and A Con

The major pro of the shift to online classes during the coronavirus pandemic was our being together, even though we were isolated at our homes away from campus. Students found this form of learning odd and difficult; nonetheless, they were happy to see each other again . . . as well as their professors! I am referring to those classes that met in the live synchronous video format, rather than individually watching prerecorded lectures (the so-called asynchronous format). As grateful as we should be for the technology that made all of this possible, I don’t think we can take it as an unalloyed blessing. The positive feeling of being together during the live synchronous classes happened because of the two-thirds of the semester we had already spent together in each other’s physical presence getting to know each other so well; in other words, this was a surprising instance of the truth of the dictum: absence makes the heart grow fonder, and we are lucky to have had modern technology to provide this bit of connectedness during such a trying time. But it was a connectedness that had been formed in the classroom, not online.

Having said that, the proposal being entertained by some in higher ed to begin the fall semester online has one very glaring con: Starting classes online cold from day one will be nothing like what we just experienced. We will not have had time in each other’s physical presence to develop relationships vital enough to be sustained in the less fertile ground of online learning. There will have been no preceding presence which is necessary for the fondness of absence to come into existence. For that reason, every effort must be made to avoid this eventuality. Not only will that classroom presence never have come into existence, but the entire community dimension of campus life will be dissolved: from the beauty of nature surrounding us, to the daily random interactions, to the smiles, chats, and laughs—all gone. Many higher ed administrators have begun to see how dismal the prospect of an online fall is—as well as what it would portend for enrollment. I will comment on a recently proposed “solution” to this dilemma in the concluding section below.

Emotions and Teaching in the Classroom

In defense of my negative assessment of starting a semester online, I would like to reflect first on the nature of education in general and how online classes contradict it, even if online teaching accomplishes the transfer of some information. John Henry Newman, recently declared a saint, who wrote a wonderful book titled, The Idea of a University [2] (and in the grip of our current debates, just the thing for us to read and reread), holds the view that the person of the professor and the empathetic relations between professor and student are more important for learning than even the particular subject matter of the course. [3] Let me explain what seem to me to be various factors to this point. The emotions that happen in the classroom are very important for learning. I distinguish, of course, between genuine emotions that arise in the normal course of human relating and the crudeness of emotional manipulation, which has no place in education, and should have no place in life, as it is disconnected from and in violation of reason. What are the genuine emotions so necessary for learning? They include the student “catching” the love of the professor for his or her material; they inform and arise in gestures and expressions of the professor given along with the presentation of the material and bringing the various aspects of the material to life. The ways these emotions come through in presenting material are as varied as the range of personality types among professors; the common element is the depth of knowledge of and love for the material.

Genuine emotions also include the feelings students have that cause them to raise their hands “in the moment” while the iron is hot; and they include the emotions within the professor in listening to and answering the question, as well as the emotions that arise in students listening, with surprise, to their same age peers who think in ways that have never occurred to them before. The philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand makes the point that in education, the experience in the student of “being affected” is all important. [4] We’ve all experienced those moments of being affectively arrested upon hearing a particularly engaging lecture that deeply and clearly touches on an aspect of life existentially very important to us.

This experience can occur in the learning of any topic, in fact, and can make a deep impression. I had a math teacher in high school, Mr. Clark, and the only way I can explain why I decided to major in mathematics in college is because of being affected deeply by the luminous clarity of mathematics which came through to me not only because of the intelligibility of math itself, but also because of his clear, consistent, and calmly expressive method of bringing those truths to my mind and the naturalness with which they flowed from his own rich, living knowledge of the subject. How, I wondered back then, does he know all this without looking at the book? Newman would say that Mr. Clark not only taught me math, he engendered in me a habit of mind.

In addition to the emotions, there is also the explaining-understanding dynamic of in-class teaching and learning. Consider when a particularly challenging text is covered, one which is difficult for a student to grasp on first reading. It’s not uncommon for students to have the following exchange: A: “Did you do the reading for today?” B: “Yes, I didn’t understand a thing” A: “Me either. He’ll explain it in class.” Then the students go to class looking forward to being able to understand what they tried to read. The interaction between explaining (teaching) by the professor, and then the effort by the students to grasp the explanation, raise questions, and discuss in the room, and, if we’re lucky, even talk about it while walking out of class together: all this is essential to the communal college learning experience. And none of it can be recreated online.

The Communal Experience of Place and the Transformative Power of Beauty

James Bryant Conant observed that “He who enters a university walks on hallowed ground,” and if I may, I’d like to take as an example my campus at Salve Regina University to elucidate what I mean by the communal experience of place and the transformative power of beauty. We are surrounded by magnificent architecture and craftsmanship, old growth specimen trees, and the rugged beauty of the New England coast, all of which elevate the soul to higher things and serve a fundamentally important educational value. In our overly pragmatic world, such values need to be recognized and cherished to train students to be inspired by higher goods. The communal experience of place surrounded by such beauty forms the heart. A communal educational experience in a setting like this is not based merely on “ideas” and “syllogisms.” Living encounters with beauty create, by osmosis if you will, a contemplative inner attitude that deepens the very ability to learn and to receive knowledge; such experience involves a being-affected all its own and engenders a general softening and opening of the soul that accompanies the students into the classroom enabling them to more fully receive transcendent truth in academic pursuits. Natural beauty lifts and lightens the soul, teaching students that a poetic approach to God’s abundant and free gift of creation needs to balance the pragmatic forms of knowledge. It is hard to imagine a better (or easier) way of teaching these things than by means of the hallowed ground and beauty of a college campus. All of that is lost when the educational experience is reduced from a communal experience of place down to isolated individuals starring at screens yearning to be together on campus.

The Roles of Love and Embodiment in Education

Another factor of great significance for education is the mutual love between teacher and students. When John Henry Newman was made a Cardinal in 1879, the motto he chose was Cor ad cor loquitur, heart speaks to heart. The love between teacher and students is a genuine and beautiful love analogous to the love between parent and child (though not the same and not as important as that love). Learning is easier and better when the students know the teacher loves each one of them; it is also easier and better when the teacher knows the students love him or her, as well. This love can only come through so far in an online course, and this is because humans are embodied beings. An online class that begins online contains (and I quite deliberately use the cold word “contain” to contrast it with the communal presence discussed above) people who have never and will never be in each other’s presence; the experience feels disjointed. It would be so very sad to lose the embodied dimension of teaching/learning.

Imagine if you yourself were told that for the rest of your life you would have to relate to your family members from a different location and only through a computer screen. Why is such a thought so painful? It is because of the importance of our embodiment for human relationships. Teaching and learning is a human relationship, and to be true and full it must happen within this embodiment. In online relating, direct eye contact is not possible. You also do not see the whole body of the other, losing thereby fully embodied gestures. (Christina Cauterucci at Slate has strikingly analyzed the eye contact issue, and also expressed well the depressing feature of online video anything with respect to the embodiment issue.[5]) There is a reason why the phrase “talking heads” is a derogatory one, and it is not only because news reporters have a robotic parroting appearance; even if they related differently than they do, we would still only see a head talking. This is not normal. This is not fully human. A plastic screen is not an embodied human person. The direct physical object of our relating, that to which our eyes are directed, is a piece of plastic. This is not normal. This is not fully human. Teachers in this system get reduced to one more anonymous talking head on a screen who merely imparts information. But teaching is much more than the handing on of information. Two excellent recent pieces developing profoundly the essential relation between embodiment and education are by Randall Smith at Catholic World Report and Carson Halloway at Public Discourse.[6]

In a friendly but critical reply to Dr. Smith in defense of online education, Michael Patrick Barber distinguishes between undergraduate and graduate education, making the point that graduate students have more educational training and can retain focus-motivation in ways that undergraduates are still learning.[7] This is a good distinction, and if I read him correctly, I think he would agree that on-campus education is essential to undergraduate learning. Furthermore, having myself taught working adults in the fully online setting, I grant that some level of learning and personal influence can occur. Nonetheless, the title of Dr. Barber’s response to Dr. Smith, “Education is personal, not just embodied,” contains hints of what I call in my classes “separation dualism,” a problematic view of human persons according to which a person is his soul and not his body. This exclusive emphasis on the soul ignores the embodied dimension of human existence and with it the necessity of embodied experience for a complete education at every level, not just the undergraduate. We human persons are embodied and communal by nature, and experiences between human beings are not fully personal unless they are embodied in a physical communal setting.

Looking to the Coming Fall Semester

Glenn Moots at Public Discourse, in a piece titled, “The End of Campus Education? Virtually Impossible,” offers an excellent analysis of the situation.[8] His students tell him “how much they miss what they had on campus,” and he notes that “Self-improvement, maturity, mentoring, and professional development require more than wifi and a laptop.” Many university administrators, aware of all this, have developed arguments for restarting on campus this fall. Christina Paxson, President of Brown University, penned a NY Times opinion piece titled, “College Campuses Must Reopen in the Fall. Here’s How We Do It.”[9] Querying the top Rhode Island higher ed administrators, the Providence Journal published, “R.I. college leaders: Pandemic has affirmed value of campus life,” in which my own University President, Kelli Armstrong, said of the shift to remote online learning: “In a way that has been heartening, this experience has been kind of a blessing. It’s been an affirmation of why it’s important to live in community.”[10] In the same vein, Dr. Moots continues: “For the moment, at least, four-year colleges and universities have decided that a semester of masks, social distancing, and a thousand other nuisances is preferable to a predictable collapse of enrollment by twenty percent or more.” But, I think that could be a miscalculation: The thought of having to come back to college masked, straining to hear the muffled voices of masked professors and fellow students, listening to half of the lectures online from a dorm room (alternating with the other half of the class so as to practice social distancing in the class room), navigating strategies for distancing at meals—and who knows what else will be in the new rules’ description sent out to parents and students—seems unbearable. For some, these rules are sure to be just as off-putting as an all online semester from home.

I understand that a COVID-19-based hybrid model is a response to the desire to be back on campus, a desire well expressed in a petition of Harvard undergraduates, and that that effort is an attempt to keep the drop in enrollment to lower than the predicted high of 20%.[11] Nonetheless, that description of campus life does not inspire joy, and that is because it doesn’t fulfill the desire for living in a natural and free community. And though the good that has come from this crisis can and should be pondered along with the bad, these lingering, potentially long-lasting blocks to normal human communal connection are by no means trivial.[12] They are disjointing and harmful to human psychological and spiritual well-being, indeed even to physical health.[13] Have you noticed how in a masked encounter both people tend to look away, not to mention the disappearance of smiles? Rather than excitement at the “solution” of implementing such measures on our campuses, we should be vigilant in looking to minimize and eventually eliminate them altogether. I do not here intend to discuss the curve or a second wave. Instead, I want to draw our attention to the serious dangers to human community and genuine happiness of what we are embarking upon, and to ask everyone to feel and to ponder the wrongness of going down this path. To put the point frankly, what everyone really needs to hear is a joyful announcement that everything is returning to normal; and to come back full force as usual and get back to real life.

With a grateful hat tip to John Rao, I’d like to end my article with a C.S. Lewis quotation that captures perfectly the concern that is lost on many and deliberately ignored by the media. But before closing with Lewis, I want to recommend Dr. Rao’s two companion pieces in which, while not in “any way wish[ing] to minimize the real suffering and loss that this malady has entailed for many people,” he argues forcefully and convincingly that our leaders and news outlets are “pressing us to destroy everything that we hold dear for the sake of creating an antiseptic, barren, soulless world unfit for human beings to live in—and die in—with dignity.”[14] We all need to take more explicit notice of this. It remains to be seen what will be required of Universities this coming fall, but higher ed leaders should not allow an undue curtailment of normal lively campus life. The current response of the Roman Catholic Bishops and Lutheran leaders to the overbearing government intrusion of the State of Minnesota into matters concerning the practice of religion seems both reasonable and courageous, and can serve as a model for University leaders for defending normal human community, while at the same time respecting reasonable safety guidelines.[15]

Having said all this, we’ll let C.S. Lewis have the last word. It comes from his essay “On Living in an Atomic Age”:

In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.” In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty. This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.[16]

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[1] Salve Regina University’s website can be found here.

[2] John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University, (New York: Chelsea House, 1983).

[3] No better guide to Newman’s teaching on personal influence can be found than John F. Crosby’s The Personalism of John Henry Newman, (Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2014). Christopher Blum gives a wonderful account, full of rich passages, of what Newman would say about distance education.

[4] Dietrich von Hildebrand, Ethics, (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1953), 210.

[5] Christina Cauterucci, “I Will Not Be Attending Your Exhausting Zoom Gathering,” Slate, May 12, 2020.

[6] Randall B. Smith, “Distance education: It’s a long way from a real education,” The Catholic World Report, May 12, 2020; Carson Holloway, “Social, Political Animals: Embodied Learning and the Limits of Online Education,” Public Discourse, May 17, 2020.

[7] Michael Patrick Barber, “Education is personal, not just embodied: A friendly response to Randall Smith,” The Catholic World Report, May 14, 2020.

[8] Glenn Moots, “The End of Campus Education? Virtually Impossible,” Public Discourse, May 10, 2020.

[9] Christina Paxson, “College Campuses Must Reopen in the Fall. Here’s How We Do It,” The New York Times, April 26, 2020.

[10] Linda Borg, “R.I. college leaders: Pandemic has affirmed value of campus life,” Providence Journal, May 8, 2020.

[11] Juliet E. Isselbacher and Amanda Y. Su, “Hundreds of Harvard Undergraduates Petition Against Virtual Fall Semester,” The Harvard Crimson, May 13, 2020.

[12]TheHildebrandLegacy, “Personalism in the Pandemic,” Youtube Video, 55:02, April 25, 2020.

[13] Grace-Marie Turner, “600 Physicians Say Lockdowns Are A ‘Mass Casualty Incident’,” Forbes, May 22, 2020.

[14] John Rao’s essays can be found here and here.

[15] Doug Mainwaring, “Minnesota bishops defy gov’s lockdown order, announce they’ll restart public Masses,” Lifesite, May 21, 2020.

[16] C.S. Lewis, “On Living in an Atomic Age”, in Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays, edited by Walter Hooper, (HarperCollins, 1986), 91 – 92. The parenthetical expression about the microbe is in the original.

The featured image is a photograph of the Salve Regina campus and is courtesy of the author.

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