Great America

We Shouldn’t Celebrate the COVID-19-induced Move to Online Classes

Real education only takes place when people share a space in real time—just as we’d expect, given our nature as embodied persons.

There is much chatter, worry, and prognostication these days about how the “coronacrisis” will change the world—about how life as we know it will never be the same after we’ve brought COVID-19 to heel. Already, this so-called emergency situation has begun to feel somewhat normal, and as we settle into what now seems weirdly ordinary, we rightly wonder if our society will indeed “snap back” to normal—and whether, at least in some respects, such a return would even be desirable.

It seems likely that some key features of our pre-coronavirus world will change; for example, medical supply chains for pharmaceuticals, ventilators, and the like will probably return home, or at a minimum not remain housed in China, a country controlled by a hostile, truth-and-America-hating regime of Communist imperialists. In all likelihood, we will take pandemic preparedness more seriously.

On the other hand, and more worryingly, there is an inchoate, growing concern that government executives around the country—having drunk deeply from the well of prolonged, near-plenary authority essentially to rule by decree in an emergency—will seek to extend that sort of rule even after the global crisis has ended and things return to “normal.”

Importantly, how the world will look after we’ve synthesized a vaccine is largely up to us; we control our fate. And one of the areas we should think long and hard about is education. Though I share many of the concerns and much of the anger of certain higher-ed skeptics, I worry that we are drawing the wrong lessons from this pandemic.

At present, there is a weakly detectable ire directed at the higher-education establishment bubbling up in some corners of the political Right; this group sees in this current crisis a favorable moment to bring the hammer down on bloated, SJW-infested universities. They cite the reality that virtually all, if not all, universities have moved classes online for the remainder of the academic year as proof that it can be done—and for a fraction of the price. With respect to education they argue in the same way hoplophobic progressives will surely be tempted to argue for with respect to guns when the dust settles: Entrenching “emergency logic” as the new default position.

We should resist this.

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. So it’s strange to see people arguing for extending “emergency logic” beyond the life of this crisis, in “well-if-it’s-good-enough-for-an-emergency-then-it-should-be-good-enough-for-when-it’s-over” fashion.

Emergency measures are inherently time-limited, instituted to preserve the goods we held valuable before disaster struck because necessity is the mother of political action—Salus populi suprema lex esto. But they are rightly scaled back upon normalcy’s return, as they do more harm than good in the long run.

Even if this weren’t a general truth about constructing a political system vis-á-vis crises, extending indefinitely “emergency logic” specifically in the realm of higher education would have negative effects that would far outweigh whatever perceived benefits there are to delivering instructional content via Zoom.

This pandemic has plainly

reveal[ed] that all our technology . . . is insufficient, just a stopgap. . . . In this situation, we both depend more on our technology and more deeply know its limits. As useful as it is (email, live-streaming, posted videos, etc.), it cannot actually put us in touch with one another. It only tides us over until authentic human communication—unmediated, face-to-face, person-to-person—can be recovered.

We now viscerally grasp the limits of a video conference convened to discuss The Republic, or “flipped classrooms” to work through assigned organic chemistry problem sets, even as disengagement and distraction reign. Genuine interpersonal human connection is the best context in which to educate. Indeed, real education only takes place when people share a space in real-time—just as we’d expect, given our nature as embodied persons.

To reiterate: I share the frustrations many on the Right have with the college cartel. I, too, believe it to be hostile to truth, inimical to flourishing intellectual lives, and downright dangerous to the long-term health of America. Even so, it matters how we go about not wasting a good crisis.

The natural effect of the pandemic will be to cull the herd, closing the more sickly among our nation’s colleges. It will also shatter some of higher education’s unwarranted mystique, as parents see their adult children learning without all the country club-esque trappings of an Ivy League campus.

But even so, we cannot replace the real contact needed for a true education, generated semester after semester, in untold seminars, office-hours appointments, and discussion sections.

As for me, the move to online classes has made law school simply less productive and useful to myself and my peers; lecture-style classes—in which professors cold-call students Socratic-style to teach the material—have largely moved to asynchronous recordings. And discussion-based classes are clunkier and less illuminating when each person has to click “raise hand” in order to offer his or her perspective on the readings for the day.

My own hope is that this crisis will reveal the waste and ideological foolishness that are endemic to the university system as it’s currently constituted—in particular the law-school system. For a large chunk of Anglo-American history, lawyers were formed through apprenticeships; even today, any law student will tell you candidly that he has learned more about being a lawyer in each of his two, 10-week summer internships than in three years of law school—and it isn’t close, shamefully.

If it was good enough for Abraham Lincoln, it should be good enough for us.

What we should not do, however, is succumb to coronavirus-generated madness. We should keep our wits about us and not institute a “cure”—fully online universities—that winds up being worse than the disease. What we need is a way to reorder education to individuals’ flourishing and the common good.

Let’s not waste this moment; let’s plan to do just that.