Doubts about DE that won’t go away: Response to Dr. Miletic

by John F. Crosby

Many thanks to my colleague, Dr. Steve Miletic, for his response to my piece on distance education (DE). While he has some interesting things to say in behalf of the proposal to offer DE degrees with no residency requirements, he has not yet talked me out of the doubts that I expressed about this proposal in my article, and in fact I have some responses to his response.

1. Dr. Miletic makes an attempt to explain DE in terms of the Catholic sacramental principle; but if we think about this principle more closely we see clearly that it lends more support to my position than to his. According to the sacramental principle, grace is mediated by matter; hence baptismal grace by water, the grace of the eucharistic Lord by bread and wine, etc.

But notice the significant fact that the sacraments cannot be given or received by means of electronic media. You cannot send in your confession on audiotape and receive absolution by e-mail. There is no “virtual reality” of a person that enables you to baptize that person when he is not physically present. As far as I know, there is no electronic medium through which a man and a woman can consummate their marriage. You cannot receive the body and blood of the Lord while watching a televised Mass; indeed, you cannot even fulfil your Sunday obligation by watching it. And why is this? Is this not because the televised Mass is in some sense reduced in its reality for the viewer? We can of course be grateful for the televised Mass when we would otherwise have no Mass at all, but the medium that provides this benefit also takes away a certain reality, a reality that is given only when you are in physical attendance at a Mass. It is no wonder that the sacraments will not pass through the electronic media: in the sacraments grace comes through matter and the body, but the body that makes itself known through audio and video transmission has been so reduced in its reality that it cannot function sacramentally.

And this is just my point concerning DE: because of the media it employs, it inevitably filters out rich layers of personal and interpersonal reality, and this because it filters out, or at least seriously reduces, the bodily reality of human persons. The teaching and learning that are possible when teacher and student work together in person, is reduced in DE in much the same way that the Mass that I physically attend is reduced for me when I have it only on television.

2. Dr. Miletic quite misreads my talk of the “depersonalization” of DE. He takes it to mean that there is nothing more to the relation between persons in DE than one person sending a page full of randomly generated numbers to another. Having interpreted me in this extreme way, he thinks he makes a forceful argument against me by reminding us of how enriching our reading of a great author like St. Augustine can be; for clearly we receive immeasurably more from St. Augustine’s books than random numbers. But is it not much more natural to interpret my talk of depersonalization in a relative and not an absolute way, that is, to take me as meaning that the plenitude of interpersonal life is seriously reduced by electronic mediation, but not altogether eliminated? Of course you can receive much from reading St. Augustine; but you would have received vastly more if you had known him personally, had belonged to the inner circle of his disciples, had discussed questions of theology with him, had heard him preach. Compared with the fullness of learning that would have been possible on the basis of personal acquaintance and personal discipleship with St. Augustine, the learning based only on reading his writings is—well, somehow depersonalized. And so I say: compared with the fullness of learning possible on the basis of personal relationship with one’s teachers, the learning possible in DE can be said to be relatively depersonalized.

3. In his article Dr. Miletic seems to me to be entirely too beholden to the informational model of education; he evidently does not share my reservations about this model. This is perhaps the deepest root of our disagreement.

He speaks of value-laden information and insists that when this information is transmitted, values are transmitted along with it. But when I speak of values and virtues as a supremely important component of education, I do not speak of something that is transmissible at all. This is what I want to affirm with my protest against the informational model of education: to offer a liberal education is not just to transfer something from the mind of the teacher into the mind of the student, but it is to help certain things to grow in the mind and soul of the student; it is to elicit insight, to cultivate habits. Habits are not transmissible, any more than character is transmissible. A person’s intellectual and moral habits are so intimately his own, that an educator can only stimulate, encourage them, and give direction to the formation of them; the person growing in virtue has too much to do on his own for us to be entitled to speak of the educator transmitting virtues to him. “Transmission” works with information, but not with virtues and values. It seems to me that Dr. Miletic tends to “informationalize” virtues and values so as to make education more readily transmissible through the media he has at his disposal for DE.

But once we do justice to the personal character of intellectual virtues and values, we understand better why living teachers and communities of learners are indispensable for genuine liberal learning. For clearly, the work of cultivating, stimulating, encouraging of which I just spoke is best carried out among persons who know each other and live with each other.

4. Dr. Miletic refers to a summary of 248 studies of distance education programs; the author of the summary claims that the 248 studies prove that students learn as well in such programs as in traditional face to face learning. I have examined this summary and am amazed that Dr. Miletic sees it as relevant at all to the theology DE he has in mind. Not a single one of the 248 programs is identified as a program in philosophy or theology. When the subject matter is mentioned, we read of things like learning to use a slide rule, spelling, 9th grade science, anatomy lab, physical ed, army training, instructions to jurors, etc.—nothing even remotely approaching philosophy or theology and their distinctive pedagogy. Does Dr. Miletic really think that the electronic media that suffice to teach the use of the slide rule can be presumed to suffice to impart the theological understanding to which FUS is committed? This study, which has been eagerly passed around on campus by advocates of DE degrees as if it constituted overwhelming empirical support for such degrees, in reality has nothing at all to contribute to the question of DE degrees in theology.

5. In one place Dr. Miletic speaks as if my ideals of education, drawn from Socrates and Newman and others, are much too lofty for FUS and are rarely put into practice here. In this I think he underestimates his colleagues; he underestimates the real commitment of most of them to the Philosophy of the Curriculum. But Dr. Miletic is right to this extent, that in our day to day teaching we all fall short of the ideals that we profess. This debate over DE forces us to examine our pedagogical consciences and to renew our commitment to thinking, to wisdom, to the intellectual virtues. But under no circumstances should we say, “We are so out of sync with Newman that we might as well go ahead and institutionalize our mediocrity.” Our task is to become more alert than ever to the danger of the intellectual laziness by which we are all inclined to degrade education to mere information transmission; the last thing we should do is to put programs of study in place that by their very form admit of little more than information transmission.

6. While I do not think that I can settle my disagreements with Dr. Miletic by appealing to the teaching of John Paul II, who after all has not addressed the issues of DE that we are examining, I will say that I think the ideas laid out in my article and in this response cohere entirely with his so original personalism and in particular with his theology of the human body. In the same papal address quoted by Dr. Miletic John Paul says, “The preferred means of this proclamation [of the Gospel] is certainly personal encounter.” If we are to apply this thought to education, do we not have to say that the “preferred means” of personal encounter should not be entirely lacking in any course of study leading to a university degree?

It would be interesting to hear on all of this from the alumni reading the Concourse. Am I right in thinking that they can give plenty of examples of memorable learning experiences that were only possible through their personal relation to their teachers and to each other?

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