What Makes an Education? A Question for Theological Anthropology

We are more than computers into which data need to be entered. An education, in order for it to be effective, is something that must take into consideration the reality that human beings are more than the sum of their parts. Is education just about objective information? Does the substitution of information presented online or in some other medium for the learning experience of a more comprehensive and corporal liberal-arts education provide students with the formative experience that aids human flourishing and the life of the mind?

Bill Gates thinks so.

I, however, do not.

The issue raised is one featured in a New York Times article titled, “Online Courses, Still Lacking that Third Dimension.” The author, Randall Stross, a professor of business in California, introduces the reader to the current effort of some in higher education to create an entirely web-based curricular experience, effectively doing away (at least in the long-term) with the standard in-person, classroom learning that would require a human professor.

Lest I not admit by way of full-disclosure my seeming vested interest in maintaining human instructors at institutions of higher education, I will say, for those who don’t know, I currently teach at a private Catholic liberal arts college in New York. I believe that some — particularly those outside of academia, whose perceptions of the academy can often be misguided — might view what I say through the lens of job security, as many have criticized Stross’s bias.

I can’t distance myself from that accusation, regardless of how irrelevant it is for a Franciscan friar like myself (as long as there are people in the Church, I will potentially have “job security”), but I can say that such first-hand insight and experience allows me to respond in a way ‘outsiders’ may not.

I believe that there are two issues at play here — a practical concern and a theological one. The practical concern is, at least to some degree, addressed in the article by Stross and several folks interviewed.

Education, especially in the humanities and many social sciences, cannot be taught as an exclusively object enterprise. The engagement with ideas and the intelligent, critical reading and expression of those ideas will simply not be accomplished with online courses. There is the matter of how much the human professor impacts the students and shades the educational experience, as Prof. Wendy Brown says in the article:

“What is sacrificed when classrooms disappear, the place where good teachers do not merely ‘deliver content’ to students but wake them up, throw them on their feet and pull the chair away? Where ideas can become intoxicating, where an instructor’s ardor for a subject or a dimension of the world can be contagious? Where scientific, literary, ethical or political passions are ignited?”

There is the practical matter of the composition of an education, which is much, much more than access to content. We already have that: it’s called books and the internet. There is very little by way of “unaccessible objective content” that college students acquire that any person with a library card and a laptop cannot on their own. It’s the instruction, the teaching that makes the difference.

Then there’s the issue of theological anthropology — what is the human person? The Christian tradition offers us an invaluable resource in examining issues such as education in light of how we understand personhood and human flourishing.

A problem with the approach advanced by Bill Gates and certain other technological innovators as far as the future of education is concerned is the reductionist conceptualization of what it means to be a human being. As if all that matters was an objectively verifiable collection of “facts” or “information” that needs to be appropriated to make someone “educated.” This discounts the importance of critical thinking, but it also dismisses our relationality.

We are embodied, but we are not just plain matter. We are, as theologian Karl Rahner said, “Spirit” — not in the Casper-the-friendly-ghost sort, but in the Hegalian notion of the capacity for self-transcendence. In other words, to use a phrase my students have heard me say a billion times, we are more than the sum of our parts. We are inherently relational and necessarily predisposed to engage the world as subjects and persons, not simply acquiring data (like a squirrel plots a path from nest-to-nuts, or a computer computes 1s and 0s), but experiencing our world and each other in complex ways.

The educational system already emphasizes this reality, if not in the same terms. Isn’t it curious that when those earning the highest degrees (PhDs, etc.) are doing independent research, acquiring information on their own, and so on, the relationship between student and professor (director, advisor) becomes ever-more critical?

To suggest that education can be completed by focusing resources on developing objective online “courses” without a human-to-human component reflects an incomplete understanding of both the practical matters of higher education and the intrinsic constitution of human personhood as relational.

Yes, there are bad teachers out there, but even the worst teacher provides the condition for the possibility of dialogue. I think that more needs to be done to provide the best teachers, researchers and thinkers for students in the academy, but let’s not ‘throw the baby out with the bath water.’ Let’s instead focus our energy and money to make education more accessible and affordable for all.

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