Adversity III: The COVID-19 University



Rather than simply close their doors, universities around the world are attempting to cope with the pandemic largely by opting for what’s called “remote learning,” essentially putting all courses, both undergraduate and graduate, online until it’s possible to return to regular classes, whenever that might be. This move doesn’t come out of nowhere; many university administrators have been promoting online education for years now, for reasons that are not always clear but that have more than a little to do with money. I’ll leave that issue aside and focus on what I see as a couple of the educational consequences of this move. If I were a university student right now, I’d be taking time off until regular classes resume. I am a skeptic of online education, particularly in the humanities, and for more reasons than I have time to go into here. I will be doing my best to put my own courses online in the coming semester, or semesters, and I have taught a few online courses before, all of them in some area of philosophy, and with generally decent results—but it is not the same animal and, in spite of what you might hear from some university administrators and marketers, it’s not going to be.

Let’s remind ourselves of a few fundamentals, beginning with the mission of any university that’s worth attending or working at. That mission is to create and impart knowledge—these two things, and neither takes priority over the other. First, let’s consider knowledge creation, the kind of research that academics in all the disciplines engage in. Research is about half the job of a university professor; it’s the difficult half but also the part of the job that we tend to be the most passionate about. Teaching students is the other half; most of us, I believe, care very much about that too. There’s also what’s called “service”; this consists mostly in sitting on committees, going to meetings, and making sure the wheels of the institution continue to run. Where the business of knowledge creation is concerned, this is largely unaffected by the pandemic. To some extent this depends on one’s field: many scientists require labs or technology that they must travel to, but most academics can do a good deal of our research at home. I do nearly all of mine there. The hard part in the current situation is, of course, teaching. This is conventionally and still largely done in classrooms, but what happens when the classroom and everything that goes on there is moved onto the web? An answer we very often hear is that not much changes or is lost, and nothing essential. What has happened is merely that the curriculum or what is called “content” is transferred to another, and maybe superior, medium. I don’t think so.

Consider the distinction between educational form and content. Pedagogical form can be anything from traditional practices of reading and lecturing to various technological tools. The form is the mode in which the content is “delivered” in the sense of handed over to the students, but of itself it does nothing to alter the content. The same subject matter, it is often said, can be delivered via lecturing or video, reading or gaming. In much of the educational literature, this is asserted across the board, making no distinctions of discipline or educational level. We need to rethink the notion of educational content. The form/content distinction fell on hard times in a good deal of twentieth-century philosophy, however the message has not been received among many educational policymakers. There is nothing surprising in this. The empirically and technologically minded seldom have any interest in philosophy, yet it’s not only philosophers who have advanced critiques of this old dichotomy. Marshall McLuhan is one example of a media and communication theorist who in the 1960s popularized the idea that “the medium is the message.” He went on to say, “This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium—that is, of any extension of ourselves—result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology.” McLuhan exaggerated the point. The medium “is” not the message if we intend by the “is” a relation of identity. Form and content are not simply one, but the idea that he popularized (he didn’t discover it) is that alterations of the former cause alterations of the latter, and in ways that tend to escape our notice. Technologies and experiential media in general, as he put it, “configure the awareness and experience of each one of us,” and “technical change alters not only habits of life, but patterns of thought and valuation.” McLuhan’s observations regarding the “new scale” or configuration of “awareness and experience” that a new technology brings about must be kept in mind. No line neatly separates what we see from how we see, and the constant accompaniment of technological change is an alteration—sometimes a radical one—in the manner of thinking. New media change the content of what is said and introduce a system of valuation that may be entirely antithetical to the content as disclosed in the old medium. A book, it is safe to say, will never contain the same “information” as a spoken or video presentation of the same, and indeed it isn’t and can’t by the nature of the thing be the same. Internet enthusiasts are not wrong to celebrate the access it provides to the various phenomena that are indiscriminately classified as information, but what they need to be aware of is that with this much-celebrated access come a new set of mental habits, a way of reading, and an intellectual comportment that are radically unlike their predecessors. New technologies don’t leave old ways of thinking in place. Technology is itself a way of thinking, and in an age of technology it defines us.

When ideas of the kind that education so often deals with show up in the student’s consciousness no longer in the texts in which their originators placed them but in other media, it’s not only their form that has changed but their meaning. Every literature professor knows that Sparknotes is not Shakespeare and it isn’t going to be. It doesn’t just lose something in translation but is a different animal in virtually every way, and the same can be said of the various other technologies in which so many today place such faith. Darwin’s theories cannot be distilled into Wikipedia. A historian’s, poet’s, or philosopher’s ideas can’t be represented in PowerPoint. A thousand examples illustrate the point, which is that the meaning of an idea changes with the medium of presentation and is often distorted by it. The medium changes not only the idea but the comportment of its recipient. The contemporary term for the latter is “user” and it’s a word that says much. Website material is not written to be read so much as used, where this means consumed, turned to the purpose of its recipient, whatever that may be. Many books are now being written this way as well, including those written for an audience of students and educators. A text that is used, that is even written and published in order to be used, doesn’t change the point of view of its reader, much less its life. The point is not to change anyone’s life but to extract information which may be on the exam or which will be useful in completing an assignment. The comportment of the user is sovereign, strategic, and shrewd. It is oriented not toward what a text has to say but to what utility it offers.

I’m not harkening back to some imagined time when students all read their War and Peace patiently and from cover to cover but drawing attention to the habits of mind that these technologies typically foster, including the capacity of attention itself. Intelligence, whatever it is, crucially bears on the ability to pay attention—to the right things, in the right way, and when necessary for an extended period of time. The ability to concentrate in the sense of focusing the mind upon one thing with some intensity and imagination can be learned and unlearned, and the great teacher is habit. Screen technology trains the attention in a very different way than print technology. There is no necessity here, but typically it habituates its user toward an instrumental comportment, a preoccupation with the small, frequent switching of attention, and haste. Efficient use requires multitasking, a modus operandi of constant juggling and attentional redirection. There is nothing in the nature of the technology to prevent sustained attention, but the problem again is the habits of mind that it tends to promote. Consciousness that is continually overloaded with information, that is unable to be still as it perpetually flits this way and that, is scattered and unthinking. The higher reaches of thought require a kind of tuning in to our object and a simultaneous tuning out of the distractions with which experience is constantly being presented. One doesn’t write poetry while watching TV, listen to more than one person at a time, or read a book while surfing the net, or not in a way that is mindful. Awareness is not unlike a radio that is able to tune into a station only by tuning others out and eliminating noise.

The push for ever increasing use of technology in education is a consequence of the technological age in which we live. In a time when all technology is commonly regarded as good technology on the sole condition that it is new, it’s unsurprising that educational policymakers have become caught up in what may be described as a kind of faith. In her book Questioning Technology: Electronic Technologies and Educational Reform, Karen Fernedine asserts that “technology’s growing presence in schools acts as a form of ‘hidden curriculum,’” and it is an observation that must be taken seriously. What is being inculcated is, in her words, “a technocentric way of knowing and values.” Don’t imagine that the move to remote learning changes nothing or is a substitute for the real thing. In an emergency, we can and will get by this way, but it will be a lesser experience.

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