As professors and students valiantly adapt to the virtualization of campus life, administrative pressures to expand online learning will likely intensify once the COVID-19 crisis abates. Of course, we need to make the best of our sub-optimal circumstances and embrace online learning during these strange times. However, its utility during the crisis does not prove its ongoing utility once we return to normal. The long-term implications of online learning for the social sciences and humanities should give educators pause. The purpose of a university is to provide students with an intellectual community, a point often missed by bottom-line oriented administrators, comfortably accustoming themselves to the cost-efficacy of the virtual classroom; or, by academics who anticipate a future comfortably working from home.
The debate has grown more sophisticated since the advent of COVID-19, with a growing number of scholars evoking principles of student self-reliance and social equality to argue in favour of online learning. This article considers these perspectives through the lens of Plato’s Republic—a powerful metaphor for higher learning, whose reading constitutes a central pillar of one’s liberal arts education. I will draw from my experience as both a student and professor to emphasize the intangible qualities that make a liberal arts university a superior and more egalitarian conveyor of independent student learning.
I had the good fortune to read Plato’s Republic in a first-year philosophy class at Mount Allison University, a quintessential liberal arts college in the bucolic town of Sackville, New Brunswick.
It was a life-changer.
As an educator, I now enjoy the privilege of witnessing students undergo a similar transformative experience when reading Republic. In a recent course, I encountered a student enamored with Plato’s ideas concerning education, but disturbed that his own education might have robbed him of the possibility to live a happy, rigorous and philosophical life. Questions such as “Oh God…am I in the cave? What is Good? What is valuable? Do I really want to be a lawyer or a stockbroker?” gnawed at him. Plato similarly induced my first panic attack in university—a rite of passage supported by an organic intellectual community of friends in the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities. Our discussions were mediated by professors who took part in our weekly sessions of beer materialism. Such rituals gave them the opportunity to know their students, and to offer helpful interjections, assuring them for instance that clinical psychology has disproven many of Plato’s assumptions concerning the human psyche!
My student was the type of person Plato had in mind when writing about Glaucon in Republic: an ambitious young man drawn to the glitzes and glamour of high Athenian life. Glaucon is destined for either statesmanship or philosophy, but needs Socrates’ mentorship within a safe intellectual community to mediate the development of his character. Today, the physical environment of a small liberal arts college best approximates these circumstances. However, as modern-day technology fosters distraction both in and out of the classroom, the possibilities for a well-rounded liberal arts education have diminished.
Most academics, already overburdened with administrative minutiae, embrace online platforms like Blackboard and Canvas. These platforms facilitate daily course logistics, yielding more time for meaningful face-to-face interactions in the classroom. With the introduction of Zoom and Webex, however, a growing number of academics now share university administrators’ enthusiasm for a virtual academy. In their view, these innovations have proven our technical mastery over online learning, enabling us to engineer an environment that both supports independent intellectual growth and makes a liberal arts education more widely accessible. In the next section, I draw from my experience teaching the ‘Great Books’ of the Western Canon to respond to two arguments in favor of permanently transitioning to online learning.
- “When it comes to reading the ‘Great Books,’ real learning happens when students independently engage with the material. Since students need to do the intellectual legwork anyway, the virtual classroom sufficiently accommodates the professor’s role in the learning experience.”
Yes, students need to grapple with the primary material independently. It is critical to their intellectual formation. However, the argument presumes that intellectual growth depends on a student’s proverbial commitment to don Machiavelli’s “regal and courtly robes,” something that could take place under any set of circumstances. Expecting students to rely on their Promethean intellectual labors for achieving higher learning smacks of both elitism and intellectual hubris. It reflects one’s greater desire to anoint oneself than to give the text its due. Plato anticipates these failings during one’s education, and offers clues throughout Republic about the difficulties associated with higher understanding: the blinding effects of the sun, the dragging out of the Cave, the character of Thrasymachus who possesses all the ‘techniques’ of philosophy (to list a few) each present a warning of how it could all go awry!
Plato’s Republic exemplifies the perils of engaging with the ‘Great Books’ in physical isolation. The dialogical writing style urges us to ponder what is good, but in a way where we encounter characters who accord with people we know. That is how personalized the style is. We all know the person whose sense of self-worth is derived from their wealth, or the person who has a Thrasymachian penchant for weaponizing philosophy and likes to ‘own you’ in argumentation for sport. Readers might then conclude that everything around them is pathological once they put the book down. On the one hand, we get a seductive account of what the just, happy, flourishing soul is while in the company of Socrates in Kallipolis; but on the other, when we return to our world, we might look around and say, “oh my God… everything around me is so rotten!”
The starting point for thinkers such as Plato, Rousseau, and Nietzsche, among others is that “culture around us itself is a sick pathology.” The dramatic style of writing may amplify such a feeling among readers. We need to be aware that the disgust which even Plato’s critique can incite may lead readers down dangerous avenues, when in combination with a political vision that accords privilege to reason and philosophy for establishing good politics. The more one finds oneself looking for pathologies of liberalism and combines that feeling of disgust with an uncompromising impulse for truth (objective in the case of Plato, or self-generated in the case of Nietzsche and his disciples) one’s solution to the problems of modernity is in real danger of matching the magnitude of disgust against the current order of things.
The ‘Great Books’ encourage us to think critically about our norms and question beliefs we take for granted. But, in a manner that does not constantly disenchant us with the superficiality of life. As educators, we have a responsibility to preserve an academic environment that mitigates against such disenchantment. We must play an active role in the rituals, institutions, and intellectual traditions that constitute a wholesome university life.
Today, we throw material at students in large class sizes. Some may immediately grasp the profundity of these works by reading carefully on their own, but possibly in an environment that forces them to process the material in the company of whichever deranged puppeteer they find lurking in whatever dark, unsavory corner of the internet. Such intellectual engagement is unnatural. Important philosophical and normative questions need to be worked through in the form of a dynamic dialogue within the physical setting of a university community.
Some will argue that online learning encourages students to self-motivate and develop organization skills that will confer professional success later in life. However, students more reliably habituate these virtues within a university that offers a breadth of extra-curriculars and peer-mentorship opportunities. Such an academic culture encourages self-motivation while mitigating against the aforementioned dangers of higher learning, which the virtual academy amplifies.
- “Online learning promotes social equality. It makes a liberal arts education more widely accessible.”
Online learning exacerbates the difficult inequalities that already exist in the academy. It is great for adults who already passed that critical stage in their intellectual development, but not for introducing people to the life of scholarship. Consider the impact it might have on students from smaller rural towns who arrive at the university with unique, legitimate perspectives on important political and normative issues, but have not developed the confidence to assert themselves because peers and sometimes instructors ridicule their outlook. A student from a course that surveyed America’s famous Constitutional debates comes to mind. Following a seminar on the significance of Benjamin Franklin’s underappreciated “call to prayer” speech at the Federal Convention in 1787, the student welled up in frustration over how much of what gave him meaning and purpose growing up, did not receive standing at the academy. Of course, the point of attending university IS to undergo such jarring experiences, but also to enjoy a dignified intellectual space that fosters the critical reasoning and communication skills necessary for confidently pursuing one’s intimations, and defending one’s moral and civic outlook. It is critical to maintain such standards to prevent a university from devolving into a culture of unreflective ideology—something that is already happening. Zoom is an accelerant.
The accessibility argument mirrors arguments that embrace social media for enfranchising previously underrepresented groups. However, such modes of civic interaction poison our political discourse without increasing political equality in any meaningful sense. We must then ask ourselves, how much are we willing to debase our most important space for civic education in order to make it formally accessible to a greater number of people? To answer the question, we must first establish the following analogy’s limits:
Online learning is to liberal arts what Twitter is to political debate.
It is well known that a minority of Twitter users produce a majority of its political content, often purporting to speak on behalf of the majority. And in the realm of Twitter one might claim legitimacy in speaking for the downtrodden, those who may not enjoy the leisure or sophisticated social networks to combat their injustice independently. However, the idea of representation substituting for access breaks down in an online learning environment. No equivalent representative dynamic exists in education.
Online learning promises to reduce tuition and give lower-income students the flexibility to work while attending college from home. But at what cost? Perhaps a wealthier student with parents to engage at the dinner table, who lives in an urban setting and has the leisure to regularly meet friends and discuss philosophy, has a sufficient support network to develop oneself through online learning. By contrast, a student lacking the support at home and social tribe to filter exciting ideas they encounter in the virtual classroom might find themselves at a greater disadvantage. If Twitter sometimes legitimately speaks for the disenfranchised, the affluent student cannot possibly learn for the poor student. One may speak for someone else, but one cannot learn for someone else. Students who classify as borderline cases of rural impoverishment need the organic physical university environment, perhaps more so than any other group. If we are truly serious about increasing accessibility, about the opportunity for self-made scholarship, large universities need to recognize the intrinsic value of a classic liberal arts education, without forcing students to choose between a job in the STEMs that could be secured through online learning, and the privilege to develop one’s character. To their credit, some flagship institutions recognize the civic and market value in preserving both.
Small liberal arts colleges that enjoy large endowments, and have an institutional impulse for the traditional university experience, risk deepening socioeconomic inequality if the education they offer is mostly accessible to the limited demographic that can afford it. The best way to optimize their R.O.I. is through ensuring wider physical accessibility. It is not simply a question of fairness. The quality of the institution is at stake. Consider the student who arrives from a struggling rural community that converges around the pulpit every Sunday to help keep it all together; the inner city African-American who witnesses a parent’s humiliation after getting carded by a police officer; an Israeli-born student raised in a Kibbutz with a unique vantage point for weighing in on discussions concerning the relationship between the communal family and citizenship. Such experiences shape students’ emotional development long before entering the academy. Such experiences might foster a greater emotional receptivity to underappreciated insights contained within the ‘Great Books.’ With the proper scaffolding of a physical liberal arts environment, their perspectives will amplify the intellectual and civic dynamism of a university culture. In failing to give them standing in a manner that encourages critical reflection, universities will fuel a culture of resentment that forges echo-chamber allegiances, further poisoning the civic well. In short, fairness is a windfall gain for a liberal arts college that creates opportunities for underrepresented demographics, and offers a physical space congenial to a diversity of perspectives clashing in a civil and respectful manner. This is when accessibility transforms into real equality, improving the university’s overall quality.
As social media cheapens civic interaction, its effects are observable in the gradual lessening of student confidence to participate in campus life. The solution is not to supplant the classroom with a medium that further atrophies human empathy. The physical classroom is a critical institution for civic learning—an intellectual space that affords the privilege to debate our positions while giving standing to those who have an alternative outlook. A student may enter the classroom with a feeling of trepidation. But over the course of a semester, well-attuned educators will discern her smirk or furrowed eyebrows in reaction to a subtle, but profound theoretical argument. Such moments provide educators high value intelligence to meaningfully engage with that student, to incite her involvement. An instructor’s genuine enthusiasm for the student’s position might be just enough for her to confidently assert herself during class, and perhaps at the local pub in the company of peers who are now more eager to engage with her perspective. It is during those critical moments immediately following an illuminating seminar, when adrenaline levels are still high, that spirited discussions concerning first principles conduce towards enduring, life-enriching friendships. Such camaraderie cannot develop in virtual spaces that inadvertently tempt users to don the proverbial ‘Ring of Gyges’ during their social interactions.
To return to Republic, Glaucon represents the university student: young, ambitious, in need of a community of friends and mentorship. Indeed, an advanced student might grasp theoria in isolation, but what is Glaucon’s ambition and talent without dialogue, without the moderation of a caring, guiding instructor? Glaucon’s significance is not that “such souls exist and now we can equip them with Zoom.” Thrasymachus is Zoom. His Darwinian impulses and ruthless philosophy commensurate with a platform that enables him to assert a form of power masquerading as justice. In promising greater accessibility, online learning offers a false trade-off. A classic liberal arts experience IS the trade-off. On the one hand, academics agree (hopefully) that nobody in our midst approximates Socrates. On the other, a liberal arts university casts a wider net, reaching beyond elites destined to enjoy either a life of power or philosophy. Market and technological forces often betray the trade-off and inadvertently perpetuate elitism and inequality in the academy. We might feel the urge to Tweet and signal our commitments to justice, but our privileged access to the physical classroom itself provides ample opportunity to push the yardsticks towards greater equality. Our guidance and mentorship to students will meaningfully expand accessibility. In an age of “Ok Boomer,” such a clarion call might seem quixotic, but the physical environment of an organic university community itself will nourish the empathy we need in order to gain our students’ trust.
Constantine Vassiliou, PhD, is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Kinder Institute on Constitutional Democracy. This article is based on a collaborative book project, which considers the current-day value of a classic liberal arts education and its challenges.