Oral traditions and distance education

by John F. Crosby

Anne Lodzinski Schmiesing makes a real contribution to our discussion on Distance Education degrees by bringing up the concept of oral tradition. Just after reading her letter I found in the works of Cardinal Newman a little-known piece entitled “What is a University?” in his book, The Rise and Progress of Universities. In it Newman explains the teaching and learning at a university precisely in terms of oral tradition. I would like to share with the readers of the Concourse some of the insights of this unsurpassed master of Catholic university education.

Newman writes of “that which nature prescribes in all education, the personal presence of a teacher, or, in theological language, Oral Tradition.” He goes on for a page or so to speak primarily of religious teaching and catechesis; this passage should be of particular relevance to our discussion since this is exactly the focus of the DE degrees that are being considered. He says:

It is the living voice, the breathing form, the expressive countenance, which preaches, which catechises. Truth, a subtle, invisible, manifold spirit, is poured into the mind of the scholar by his eyes and ears, through his affections, imagination, and reason; it is poured into his mind and is sealed up there in perpetuity, by propounding and repeating it, by questioning and requestioning, by correcting and explaining, by progressing and then recurring to first principles…

Clearly, if this is the way religious education occurs, if this is the way oral tradition is passed on in a university, then we should not expect much from audiotapes, which will filter out most of the modes of communication mentioned here by Newman.

Let us listen to Newman developing his thought:

No book can convey the special spirit and delicate peculiarities of its subject with that rapidity and certainty which attend on the sympathy of mind with mind, through the eyes, the look, the accent, and the manner, in casual expressions thrown off at the moment, and the unstudied turns of familiar conversation. The general principles of any study you may learn by books at home; but the detail, the colour, the tone, the air, the life which makes it live in us, you must catch all these from those in whom it lives already. You must imitate the student in French or German, who is not content with his grammar, but goes to Paris or Dresden.

In this last sentence Newman is comparing the learning that should take place in a university with the learning of a language. You can study French or German out of books for years; you can supplement your reading with audiotapes as much as you like: you will never learn to speak the language naturally until you go among the native speakers and immerse yourself in the spoken language. With this Newman wants to say that you can study theology or any other university subject out of books all you want, you will never really get initiated into your area of knowledge until you live in a community whose oral traditions convey that deeper knowledge that corresponds to speaking a language fluently.

Newman offers another helpful analogy for understanding the role of oral tradition in education. He says that “the Houses of Parliament and the atmosphere around them are a sort of University of politics.” “I cannot but think that statesmanship is learned, not by books, but in certain centres of education [such as Parliament].” He explains: “The bearings of measures and events, the action of parties, and the persons of friends and enemies, are brought out to the man who is in the midst of them with a distinctness, which the most diligent perusal of newspapers will fail to impart to them.” In other words, in the world of Parliament you will find certain oral traditions; if you live in the midst of them and imbibe them, you will learn about English politics in a way in which you could have never learned about it from books or audiotapes. The same holds for the study of theology; a good university will be a center of oral traditions that cannot be substituted for by books and tapes.

In the same volume of Newman we find a paper on university life at Athens. “It was what the student gazed on, what he heard, what he caught by the magic of sympathy, not what he read, which was the education furnished by Athens.” Newman then imagines the following encounter of a young student in Athens:

His eye is just now arrested by one object; it is the very presence of Plato. He does not hear a word that he says; he does not care to hear; he asks neither for discourse nor disputation; what he sees is a whole, complete in itself, not to be increased by addition, and greater than anything else. It will be a point in the history of his life; a stay for his memory to rest on, a burning thought in his heart, a bond of union with men of like mind, ever afterwards. Such is the spell which the living man exerts on his fellows, for good or for evil.

It is clear that such an encounter, from which Newman says the Athenian student derived an all-important part of his education, can hardly occur when you are connected with your teacher only by audiotapes and email.

I can hear what some of my colleagues and students will want to say to me now: they will say that our resident students never encounter quite so awe-inspiring a presence as Plato must have been, that none of us are Plato’s and none of us can provide our students with such an encounter as Newman imagines. True enough; and yet what Newman says about the “spell which the living man exerts on his fellows” applies to us too. If we love what we teach we too can cast a spell on our students and give them through our presence what they cannot get in any other way. But we will be largely prevented from giving of ourselves like this through the audiotapes on which the proposed DE degrees would be based.

And finally this remarkable statement from Newman: “It is scarcely too much to say that one-half of the education which young people receive is derived from the tradition of the place of education. The genius loci [spirit of the place], if I may so speak, is the instructor most readily admitted and most affectionately remembered.” Can you tape a “spirit of the place” so that anyone hearing the tape partakes of that spirit and its instruction?

And so I would say to Richard May, who in the last issue of the Concourse made about as good a case for DE degrees as can be made: you are making the best possible use of your tapes and books, indeed I have reason to think that you are no typical DE student at all, and that we cannot make projections on the basis of your extraordinary commitment to your DE studies; but the thing of oral tradition so important to Newman, this not even you are receiving, not even you can be imbibing. For the most industrious study habits in a student cannot obliterate the inherent limitations of audiotapes. You should have nothing but respect for a university which regards its oral traditions as so important a source of learning that it cannot bring itself to confer university degrees on students who have never had a chance to participate in them.

I would just add that Mr. May’s plea for a DE degree from Steubenville should not make us think that he can get a good Catholic DE degree only if we provide him with one. Sometimes the advocates at Steubenville of DE degrees have given the impression that if we do not offer them, then good Catholic people like Mr. May will be eaten by the theological wolves, as if there were no one left in the Catholic world who might help them. Fortunately Franciscan University is not quite so indispensable for the church in America. For example, there is Ralph McInerny’s International Catholic University, which now offers an M.A. using videos and featuring some of the best Catholic minds in the country. Mr. May can get the degree he needs from this DE institution.

I might also mention the distance education M.A. in theology offered by the University of Dallas. That university’s Institute of Pastoral Studies, no less orthodox than Franciscan University’s theology department, sends its faculty to centers throughout the country for intensive weekends of teaching (thus accommodating the work schedules of people like Mr. May); after several years of such study the student has completed the requirements for the M.A. This kind of outreach, which sends to the students not the taped voice but the living person of the teacher, avoids almost all the objections that have been raised to the FUS proposals.

I must say I cannot understand why this so much more personal model of distance education was not at least considered at the beginning of our interest in DE; for some reason our DE imagination has never reached beyond audiotapes. We put on conferences in other parts of the country: why can we not put on degree programs in the same places? Perhaps it is not too late to consider using this more personal model.

I thank Mr. Nick Healy for his thoughtful contribution to the DE discussion. He is perfectly right that we have to find new ways of letting even our students in Steubenville come in contact with our oral traditions as embodied in the faculty. One of the advantages of this DE discussion, as I see it, is the way it forces us to recognize all the levels of our teaching, including the level of personal influence and of oral tradition, and to take stock of the quality of our teaching at these levels. I also agree with him that whatever we do to enhance personal education here on campus could also be done to enhance personal education at off-campus sites. I would just say that, if we were to use the model just mentioned, then the “roving mentors” envisioned by Mr. Healy could be our own faculty; they could be the ones giving direction to the discussion groups of which he speaks.

Dr. Crosby is Professor and Chair of Philosophy