A lot of questions are being raised during the current virus situation about the value of a college education. Education feels like an optional activity, one that can be delayed and postponed until it is safer for such non-essential activities. Amid this squishiness of sentiment toward education, particularly college eduction, we have a mass exodus from the college classroom into the online, virtual environment. Many courses are already taught online, so it is a natural choice when the virus is spreading person-to-person to stop meeting in-person. In the end, one is left wondering why we do face-to-face at all, given its being less convenient than online coursework and at the end of the day not terribly important to do. Even if online does offer less of various intangibles that are only available in the face-to-face lecture, does the benefit of these things amount to tradition for tradition’s sake, and if so, should it be forced upon a generation of future professionals that are trying to avoid a mountain of student debt and in general to pursue happiness on a day-to-day basis with the fewest encumbrances possible?
If college is just about the delivery of information that is stored in textbooks, then it would seem true that the great tides of change will before we know it wash away the traditional college classroom. Before we allow that to happen, however, we should ask ourselves what else might be lost. Is factual information delivery what college, in its highest idealized form, is entirely about, or even just most importantly about? I have my doubts, and I am fearful for how upcoming generations of professionals will mature, what they will grow into, and how they will perform as the future leaders across our culture and government, if they come to significantly lack, much more than previous generations, what the best college experience is capable of providing.
So, what else is there to college? A similar question, I believe, was once posed concerning monasteries. If monasteries are valuable because they are little prayer factories, well, we now know how to pray ourselves and have discovered that we like comparison shopping for the best prayers and prayer leaders and innovative prayerful practices; yoga, for example. We don’t need monasteries for those things, anymore. How about how monasteries used to provide charity to their local communities, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, treating the sick? Well, we figured out how to do that in a more secular fashion, through our governments. The praying and the charity once done by monasteries is now viewed as wholly inefficient, excessively inconvenient, and actually holding back individuals and communities finding new ways to perform these functions much better.
Perhaps I am contorting this presentation of the demise of monasteries’ popularity a bit, but if I am then I doubt it is by very much. There are a lot of similarities here, and if you think about it (as many have in the following fashion), the traditional college is structured in a manner resembling the old monastery. The environment is inward looking and segregated from larger society. The faculty live lives of contemplation under the direction of a dean. (The very word dean was applied to monastic leaders that guided 10 monks, if I am not mistaken.) The dormitory quad set up resembles the monks’ cells that are in proximity to common areas, and so forth. I also believe that some monasteries provided educational instruction in reading and writing for young people. I’m no expert in monasteries, as is likely obvious at this point, but I recently have discovered these things while doing some research. They resemble our colleges, and vice-versa, in structure and also in the criticisms they faced and are facing amid technological advance and a general sense of progress.
I believe what we did when we turned away from honoring monasteries is we to a certain extent disembodied, and by extension dehumanized, both prayer and charity in their idealized form. With the monks, you have people who have sacrificed their lives, their liberty, their peace and happiness, their possessions, their families, their possibility of children, everything, in the name of this ideal of piety that they are living out. They are not people who are just like you but just like praying more. They are different than you, and with respect to the standard they are living their lives by, better than you. They therefore add to humanity’s glory, and can do things to you, can change you, just by the way that they do things for you. When what a person has to offer you most importantly and most valuably is not just a service or a factual answer to a question, but is actually their very presence in all of its wretchedly beautiful humanity, you have to go to them. You don’t call, you don’t write (or text), you don’t social media share — you go to them. Like the presence of a lover, you have to be in their presence and bask in that presence as their beloved, because the loves of the heart are exactly what we are talking about here. Our hearts love virtue, they love beauty and goodness and truth, and they love love itself, all of these things in their purest possible forms. You need to be with your family, your pet, you have to go to the zoo and see the animals, you have to travel and see the architecture, the oceans and the valleys and the mountains. Our hearts, and by extension our souls, will never be properly enriched, as far as I can see, without these encounters.
So what of your poor college professor, standing in front of the lecture hall, waiting for students to finish taking their seats? Is this just about the delivery of information from the textbook? Should this activity everywhere be migrated to an on-line environment? I would say no to both questions, and here’s why: That professor at the moment embodies in your presence the ideal of the contemplative life, and by humanly embodying it, he or she humanizes it, and we need to see that the contemplative life is at least necessary if not paramount to a full human experience, in all of its beauty and struggle and sacrifice and growth. Without significant time spent and real engagement with such people on the part of our society’s future leaders, we close them and our society off from yet another facet to humanity’s uniqueness and complexity. If we feel that in our endeavors to attain more efficiency we are producing more simplicity, it should give us serious pause. We don’t miss the monks today. Maybe we won’t miss the professors tomorrow. We think we can acquire their benefits, and still value them in disembodied form, but where does it stop? Should we stop missing our mountains and streams, because we can? How about our children and pets, our lovers and friends, our music and art? If we discover more convenient replicas of all of these things’ tangible benefits, should we consider adopting those new techniques, too?
Final comment: I am probably going to soon end up switching my current face-to-face courses to an online format. I think it makes sense to limit the spread of the virus, and we’re at a crucial moment with it. But needless to say, when the virus is gone I hope it doesn’t take any of the really good stuff from the normal college experience with it.