FUS and distance education: Some doubts

by John F. Crosby

Editor’s Note:
Thanks largely to new technologies, including the internet and satellite hook ups, the idea of “correspondence courses” has expanded into the concept of “distance education.” It is no longer a question of simply giving credit for courses sent by mail, but rather of whether a person need go to college at all in order to receive a college education. It is a question currently before Franciscan University. How necessary is residence in Steubenville to an FUS education? Can modern technology provide an adequate substitute for campus life? Since this is a topic which touches so nearly on the nature of educa- tion, as well as on the mission of Franciscan University, the Concourse thought it would be good to initiate a campus-wide discussion of the pros and cons of distance education. We accordingly solicited articles from a known critic and a known advocate of DE to help us get the conversation off the ground. We welcome further written contributions for subsequent issues.

At the university’s web site you can click on “distance education,” where you learn that the university offers a few courses on audiotape and that you can get academic credit for them. You will also get some misinformation there, namely that Franciscan University degrees based entirely on audiotapes—no residency requirements—are “being established.” The truth is that the possibility of such degrees is being studied, and that some very serious issues have to be worked through before the University could responsibly offer them. I do not know whether I favor such degrees, but I have my doubts, and for the reasons that I will now lay out in the hope of contributing to an important discussion. It is a discussion that takes us back to the question, what does it mean to teach, what does it mean to learn?

Before offering my main concerns I want to raise the question whether DE degrees could have the effect of depreciating our core curriculum. Some of the DE proposals would require only 30 credit hours of DE coursework for a BA degree, the remaining 90 needed for graduation transferring in from other institutions. The 30 hours offered by Steubenville would comprise for the most part the theology major. This means that most of the core requirements (apart from theology requirements) would have to be done elsewhere. But with this Franciscan University seems to say that it does not care too much about its core curriculum and that its main educational product is the theology major. Should we be saying such a thing? Does our Mission Statement allow us to say it?

As for my major concerns, I will group them under two headings.

1. DE degrees, at least as they are anticipated on our web site, could be earned by students who have had no direct contact, person to person, with their Steubenville teachers. In this sense the education of our DE students would be depersonalized. The great Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, author of the classic, I and Thou, used to insist at his public lectures that the people asking questions come forward so that he could see them face to face. It is impossible to practice this pedagogical wisdom of Buber in the setting of DE, where there is no face to face.

Let us go back to Socrates, one of the greatest educators of all time. He understood himself as an intellectual midwife in relation to his students. He would question each of them with a view to “delivering” the insights that were straining to be born in them. He did not aim at depositing information in their heads; he would not have needed his Socratic dialectic for so modest a task, which would have hardly qualified as education. He rather aimed at stimulating new understanding in them. At least some of the education we offer at Franciscan University should be based on Socratic midwifery; in seminars we can sometimes teach our students in this Socratic way. Precisely philosophy and theology would seem to require a large Socratic component. But, of course, there can be no Socratic relation to students who only listen to our voices on an audiotape and ask us questions by e-mail. We have to be together with our students, as Socrates was with his, if we are going to put probing questions to them and challenge their answers.

This calls to mind the “intellectual virtues” to which our Philosophy of the Curriculum—an important official document of the University—commits us. How can you cultivate virtue in someone whom you do not know personally, whom you cannot see face to face? Virtue is stimulated in another by example; the Philosophy of the Curriculum recognizes this in connection with one of the intellectual virtues: “for the imparting to our students of this spirit of just judgment, nothing is as important as the personal example of the professors who practice just and balanced judgment in all their teaching, writing, and professional practice.” Doesn’t this imbibing of the personal example of a teacher require that the teacher and student know each other personally? Sometimes special relations of friendship and mentorship arise between them; this is the best possible setting in which a student might pattern himself or herself on the intellectual habits of the teacher. It is the best possible setting, and it is completely excluded in an education in which teacher and student are connected only by audiotapes and e-mail.

But teachers can be even more of an example to their students than I have indicated so far. Socrates taught his students, not just through his probing questioning, but through the force of his character and personality. The moral earnestness, the religious passion of a Plato enhanced him as teacher; he sealed his teaching with the witness of his life, and so he taught that much more convincingly. We, too, especially those of us in philosophy and theology, have to seal our teaching with the witness of our lives; our students receive vastly more from us as teachers when they see us striving to live what we teach. But this dimension of our teaching (which extends far beyond the classroom) has no chance to unfold in the setting of DE, where students are beyond the reach of the moral personality of the teacher.

It is not surprising that the supporters of DE acknowledge in their own way the importance of the personal dimension for which I am pleading. Just ask them why they don’t forget about producing audiotapes altogether and do the simpler thing of offering DE based only on reading lists, study guides, and written exams. They will answer that they want to capture something more personal through the voice of the teacher. Exactly; what they overlook is that the personal element that is thereby captured is only a small fragment of the personal element that is available to our resident students.

2. There is a further personalist loss which education suffers when it is transmitted mainly on tape. “Values are not taught but caught.” You catch them by living in and breathing the atmosphere of a community that is built around the values. This supportive milieu, so important for all real learning, cannot be put on an audiotape, not even on a CD-ROM disc; you either live in the midst of it, or you do without it.

My thought here is best clarified by an analogy with the religious life of the campus. No one would say that you have only to listen to the right set of audiotapes in order to receive the same deepening in your faith that can be received by living on campus and participating in all the opportunities of religious formation. We all understand that living in a supportive religious community is indispensable for the Steubenville faith experience. Well, then, it is not so hard to understand that living in a supportive intellectual community is just as indispensable for the Steubenville learning experience.

Cardinal Newman, perhaps the greatest authority on Catholic higher education, understood this well. In his Idea of a University he says that if he were asked which of these two universities would more effectively educate, either the one “which dispensed with residence and tutorial superintendence, and gave its degrees to any person who passed an examination” [sound familiar?], or the one “which had no professors or examinations at all, but merely brought a number of young men together for three or four years,” he would unhesitatingly choose the latter. Newman explains: “When a multitude of young men, keen, open-hearted, sympathetic, and observant, as young men are, come together and freely mix with each other, they are sure to learn one from another, even if there be no one to teach them; the conversation of all is a series of lectures to each, and they gain for themselves new ideas and views, fresh matter of thought, and distinct principles for judging and acting, day by day.” Newman thinks that the learning that will take place in this society of young students will be much greater than the learning that occurs in students who, separated from all such society, study for examinations. But this social milieu that Newman so prizes for real learning is just what gets cut out in DE. There can be little doubt about the lack of enthusiasm that Newman, himself a great educator, would have felt towards DE.

You might at this point ask me why, if so much is lost in DE, so many people not only in our university community but also outside of it are so eager to set up DE programs. A partial answer I think is this. The devotees of DE commonly misconceive the nature of genuine education; they tend to think that it is largely a matter of transmitting information from the mind of the teacher into the mind of the student. They rightly say that such transmission does not have to occur person to person, it can as well be done electronically. You will recall how flight attendants used to explain personally the safety features on board to the passengers; now at the beginning of each flight we all watch a video that explains everything better than they did. If education is nothing but the depositing of information in the minds of students, then it can conceivably be improved by electronic delivery, thus rendering obsolete things like campuses and university communities.

But authentic education, as I have been saying, involves vastly more than information; it involves formation. It also involves intellectual virtues, as well as mentorship and discipleship; it should culminate in wisdom. It immeasurably exceeds the mere transmission of information; this is why it exceeds the capabilities of DE as envisioned here at Steubenville.

By the way, I see in my students just how deeply rooted the informational model of education has become. Most of them do not know how to talk about the content of the course except in terms of information. They cannot help so talking, even after I have warned them against it. They are bewildered when I tell them, as I do in certain courses, that I do not want to give them a single piece of information but rather to encourage them to think in a disciplined way about first things.

You may want at this point to challenge me by saying that audiotapes can convey far more than information. You may remind me of the famous tapes of Scott Hahn that have reached and benefitted so many people. On hearing them people often go away deeply challenged, thus showing that they have received far more than information. You may want to tell me about some great book that you “read” on a trip by listening to it on tapes. This is all true and I gratefully recognize it. But an entire education sealed with a university degree is something more. Can we dispense with all face-to-face encounter with teachers, can we dispense with community among the learners, and still claim to be imparting more or less the same education that we impart to our students in Steubenville? If you are confident that we can, and don’t really see a big problem, then you are probably thinking of education too much in terms of information transmission.

Perhaps you are also registering the fact that the education we presently offer on campus has become too heavy on information and too light on formation. There is plenty of reason to think that this is indeed the case. It is often remarked that our students sometimes concentrate too much on the “doctrinal bottom line,” very much wanting to know what the Church teaches but not being equally interested in understanding why she teaches it. The education we offer does not always empower our students to be resourceful in explaining the Christian faith to those who challenge it. It stresses content at the expense of intellectual habits. I suspect that enthusiasm for DE degrees is cut from the same cloth as this imbalance in favor of content.

There is another fundamental issue raised by the DE proposals. We human beings are not pure spirits who happen to use our bodies in an instrumental way; we rather exist as embodied persons. The closest way of encountering each other is to go as an embodied person out to meet the other as embodied person. This is why Buber wanted not just to hear the voice but to see the face of his questioner. But in electronic communication like e-mail we meet each other in a distinctly disembodied way; the communication goes from intellect to intellect and not from one embodied human being to the other. (There is more embodiment in a handwritten letter than in an e-mail message, for here at least the characteristic handwriting of the other embodies for me something of the concrete person of the other.) This is a large subject to which I cannot do justice here; but if we are in very truth embodied persons, must not authentic education build on our embodiment? Must not DE, which disembodies teacher and learner, represent a somewhat unnatural and hence substandard form of teaching and learning?

Of course, one could try to deal with some of the concerns I have expressed as one develops a DE proposal. One could build a residency requirement into our DE program; other DE programs already have such a requirement. One could put all or part of the core curriculum on tape and require that too of the DE students. One could see to it that the professors teaching DE courses are really free to give plenty of time to telephone and e-mail contact with their students. One could develop electronic contacts among the students. One could move up from audio to video media. Could we by a combination of such measures undo some of the depersonalization that goes with DE? Could we produce a bona fide equivalent of a university degree? I do not know; let us look at concrete proposals; perhaps I will yet be convinced. In any case, there is a fundamental issue here about what it is to teach and what it is to learn that is in danger of being neglected as we rush to get our piece of the DE market.

I hear the retort of the DE people to this last remark; they will say that they are not just interested in doing business, but also in evangelizing. They have worthy pastoral reasons for wanting to use DE to reach people who desire a Steubenville education but cannot come here to receive it. I quite recognize and respect these reasons. But I enter this caveat, much needed in Steubenville discussions: pastoral reasons do not automatically trump all other kinds of reasons; in particular, pastoral reasons for doing DE do not automatically trump educational reasons for not doing it. If the educational losses incurred in a DE program of study are such as to make it substantially inferior to our degree programs, there is simply no pastoral justification for crowning it with a degree. You have to practice truth in advertising when you are working for the kingdom of God no less than when you are selling earthly commodities.

Dr. Crosby chairs the philosophy department at FUS.

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