Let’s say you’re invited to make a savory but unusual choice. Each night, you may get a fine four-course steak dinner from a drive-thru and eat it in your car on the way home. Or, you may elect to have burgers at home in the company of your family and friends. Taken alone, the four-course dinner may be more delicious and more nutritive, unquestionably the better assortment of consumable items. But is the meal better? Meal begins to sound like an ambiguous term. What do we mean by meal? Is a meal a social experience or an object we consume? These days we are asking the same of university classes.
There is no hotter topic in higher education today than online learning. This summer, online courses helped fuel a firestorm at our own University of Virginia. The Board of Visitors offered several vague reasons for President Teresa Sullivan’s ouster, but one rang clear enough: in the rector’s eyes, UVa had fallen behind its peer institutions by failing to develop a greater online presence. Since Sullivan’s reinstatement, the administration has rushed to show that this is not the case. The University recently announced that it would join peer institutions like Berkeley, Michigan, Princeton, and Stanford in offering free online classes through Coursera.
Online education is promising in a number of ways. Massive open online courses (MOOCs), such as those offered by Coursera, are particularly intriguing in that they help democratize education. Anyone with an Internet connection, language fluency, and enough free time can listen to lectures by great scholar-teachers at the world’s greatest universities. These courses help make elite universities less elitist. In the case of public universities, they help make more broadly available the education their citizens’ tax dollars fund.
Still, there is much to be said in defense of the real-world classroom, especially in the humanities and social sciences. UVa English Professor Mark Edmundson recently published a New York Times op-ed titled “The Trouble With Online Education.” He argues that online education “tends to be a monologue and not a real dialogue. The Internet teacher, even one who responds to students via e-mail, can never have the immediacy of contact that the teacher on the scene can, with his sensitivity to unspoken moods and enthusiasms.”
Edmundson focuses on one important value of a teacher present in a classroom full of students: the possibility of dialogue. Those who disagree might propose technological solutions for obstacles to dialogue, for instance online videoconferencing. We may wonder if online classes merely approximate or could replace the physical classroom altogether. The question long pondered by undergraduate students finds a serious forum for the first time. Is there any intrinsic value to being bodily present in the classroom?
Online education seems to involve a sort of Cartesian exchange. It splits body and mind, assuming that it is enough to relay data, mind to mind, across the Internet. But all of our learning is embodied, even if we are sitting in front of a computer screen. There may be something very important, then, about actual bodies being together in a classroom. But the exact advantage seems vague, or at least extremely difficult to articulate.
Still, it is something that we have all felt. Examples from daily life demonstrate the unique richness of present-at-hand communication. Exchanging emails is a different experience than meeting a student in person. Talking on the phone is a different experience than enjoying the company of your friend in a coffee shop. Being part of the crowd in the stadium is different than watching the game on television. Your significant other may feel uniquely unfulfilled when you break up with him or her over Skype. Dialogue takes place in eyes and faces, in reading body language, in touch, in smiles or nods and flinches or grimaces.
These examples flesh out a kind of non-conceptual awareness that arises between or among bodies. What is the value of the particular non-conceptual awareness of the embodied Other? Phenomenology might offer some answers, that is if we trust the theoretical language of phenomenology to spell out the ideal structures of vague perceptions. We might turn to the later Husserl, who makes the unmediated encounter of two embodied subjects the starting-point of an intersubjective lifeworld. Husserl’s picture of intersubjectivity is linked to his phenomenological investigations of the body. In his best-known example, my left hand touching my right anticipates the Other’s experience of me. This intersubjective frame allows me to identify the Other empathetically as a fellow embodied subject without collapsing the foreignness of the Other. In The Crisis of the European Sciences (a text Telos founding editor Paul Piccone helped rehabilitate), Husserl argues that scientific objectivity is co-constituted by individuals in intersubjective networks. The ultimate arbiter of objectivity becomes the non-conceptual awareness that embodied subjects share precisely because they are embodied. If encounters between embodied subjects are the root of scientific knowledge, as Husserl proposes, they seem less like embarrassing vestiges of technologically outmoded universities.
Allowing phenomenology to trouble the Cartesian model of learning illuminates some common-sense wisdom about the classroom. We say a class has a great “chemistry,” for instance, because it has become a well-developed ethical space. For Husserl ethics arises from intersubjectivity. Or we might consider Levinas’s reflection that ethics is awakened by the bodily presence—the Face—of the Other. Here, intelligible speech is subtended by the presence of the Other, and our bodies are the nodes from which we are responsible to Others. Perhaps this is illustrated when Internet forums turn to crass vitriol; face-to-face with the Other, one feels an ethical obligation, at minimum, to be civil. Only the non-conceptual awareness that comes from a direct and unmediated encounter with the Other, then, fully activates ethics in the Levinasian sense. Perhaps even videoconferencing, which seems to be far more intimate experience than a text-based forum, can only approximate the classroom as an ethical space.
Liberal arts classrooms ought to be unique places of ethical engagement. Ethical growth is an intersubjective experience. Students learn not only from engaging with ideas, but also by engaging each other. In an intimate seminar, discussions of thorny topics—religion, sexuality, race, politics—are dislocating experiences, but also productive ones. Physical presence makes us “feel” ethical growth. Students form communities around texts over the course of the semester, sharing not only disagreements and difficult discussions but also laughs and moments of discovery. In seminars, seldom do you find you change your mind without a change of heart.
Online education raises exciting possibilities for universities. MOOCs democratize educational access. But democratic education is also about habituating ourselves to encounter our fellow citizens, to disagree passionately and to tolerate disagreement. Traditional liberal arts classrooms democratize education not in quantitative terms, but in quality of access to Others.
The University of Virginia and its peer institutions have come a long way toward their potential to reflect the diversity of our nation, open themselves to the world, and offer world-class educations. At the moment in which we seem to approach that horizon, online education might push democratization beyond the physical limits of our institutions. It would be foolish not to hear the warning as well as the promise in online education. To broaden the classroom infinitely may be to lose it altogether as a physical—and intimately ethical—space.