Universities Bungled a Great Opportunity With Online Education

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The great benefit of online education, Prof. John M. Ellis argues in the Fall 2020 issue of Claremont Review of Books, is that students have access to the best professors, and set their own pace of learning, rather than being left behind by the brightest or slowed down by the dullest of their classmates. Ellis believes that the collapse of university classroom instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic is a good development on balance.

“Students left too long with online learning might discover all of these extraordinary advantages: a complete solution to the tedium and foolishness of heavily politicized teaching, access to the most brilliant instructors regardless of whether you can gain entry to the institutions where they teach, instruction at the pace set by the student himself, and an easy way to deal with the inefficiencies of the traditional classroom,” he writes. “But added to all of this is another huge advantage: cost.”

There is a great deal of truth in Prof. Ellis’ argument, but also one great flaw. University students don’t learn much in lectures. There is no undergraduate topic for which a vast literature is not available, including commentaries and explanations directed toward every level of competence. One could just as well read the syllabus at home, take notes, and pass the examination, for all the good it will do. Students learn by formulating questions, defending a position before their classmates, and having their written work ripped to pieces by an instructor with the time to read it carefully. You make the subject-matter your own by recreating it verbally and in writing, and grasp an idea by defending or criticizing it.

As an undergraduate, I thought the economics textbooks were arbitrary and irrelevant. “Distribution of scarce resources” seemed trivial next to the question of how countries created wealth and how poor people could become prosperous. Long after my undergraduate years, I had the privilege of numerous conversations with Robert Mundell, the father of supply-side economics, among many other great achievements that later won him the Nobel Prize. I would ask him a question, and he would refer me to one of his articles. I struggled with the article (which I never understood at first reading) and asked him another question, and Mundell would refer me to yet another article. The conversations never lasted more than fifteen minutes (and usually less than five), and I had the strong impression that Mundell, who is a genius, thought me a dunce. Simply by telling me that I was on the wrong track, and referring me to another source, I learned to look through to the foundations of economics.

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All effective teaching is dialogue. The model of a teacher remains Plato’s Socrates, who argued in the Meno that the teacher’s job is to elicit from the student understanding that is buried in his mind, but that he cannot make conscious without assistance. Learning, according to Socrates, is really remembering. I take this as metaphor rather than doctrine (others may read it differently), but it is the case that the experience of grasping a complex idea after working through it is almost indistinguishable from the experience of remembering.

The best instructors don’t have time to take every question, much less elicit questions from those who have difficulty framing questions. Nor do they have time to plow through papers written by incompetent undergraduates. The mediocre student–that is, the student who belongs to the vast majority of university populations–tends to be ignored in the classroom, and ignored all the more as a spectral presence on a teleconference screen.

There is a way to mitigate the problem, and that is through concentric circles of teaching. University lecturers typically have teaching assistants, usually overworked and underpaid graduate students more concerned with filing a dissertation than wiping the metaphoric noses of sophomores. Lecturers might select the better-qualified students in a class and assign them to conduct review seminars, with mandatory attendance for groups of up to a dozen. This would require additional time but would be highly effective. Students who have grasped the material would engage students who are struggling with it, and demand that their peers ask the sort of questions that lead to a fuller understanding.

In my view, universities have bungled an opportunity. Shifting instruction to Zoom without any subsidiary organization of learning won’t help. Students need a structure in which to ask and answer questions.

We are accustomed to teaching philosophy as a set of maxims. That is pointless and wrong; no philosophy is complete, and every attempt to answer fundamental questions leads to contradiction. At the frontiers of physics we cannot quite believe Quantum Theory (which is too weird to understand, as Richard Feynman said), nor General Relativity, nor the Big Bang Theory, nor the infinite regress of subatomic particle theory. Mathematics cannot tell us what “continuity” or “the infinite” might be; no mathematical system powerful enough to do arithmetic can prove all of its own axioms.

We do not have final answers, but we have a glorious history of discovery that brought mankind from warring primitive tribes to nation-states founded on the inalienable rights of man, and from stone tools to the Moon. Only God’s mind is infinite; we only peel away layers of the onion in a search for truth that has no limit. The best thing that education can do is to evoke a sense of wonder and to teach students how to ask the right sort of questions.

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