Essay / Culture

Online Education: Relation-less Education

Online classes and online universities are all the rage. They boast an impressive set of virtues and opportunities. Among them:

  • Take classes in your pajamas (or less)!
  • Why relocate?
  • Learn at your own pace.
  • Keep your day job.
  • Pay less. A lot less (but read the fine print!).

These, and a number of other “benefits”, are convincing significant numbers of students to abandon traditional “brick and mortar” universities, opting for their online counterparts.

And if education is about attending lectures, doing readings, taking tests and quizzes and doing assignments and projects, then online education is the way to go. Why sit in a lecture hall with 100 or 500 other students, when you could watch the video from the comfort of your own home? Why come to class to take a quiz, when it can be done online? Why move across the country for these things, or forgo a business opportunity, when the country can come to your computer? If this is what education is about, then more of us should take online classes and attend online universities.

But this isn’t what education is about—no more than marriage is about sex and tax benefits, no more than basketball is for exercise. Education is not about receiving information, getting grades and completing a degree. These are but the outer garments of a far richer wardrobe.

Education at its best is about being mentored into a way of life, a way thinking. Of course a great deal of information is transmitted—but education is more about learning how to interact with information than merely receiving it. Take an image from wood-working. Education is not merely a matter of being given hammers, saws and wood – the tools of the trade to accomplish a job. Neither is it these, along with tutorials on how we are to use them. Rather, education is a matter of being helped to become something—taking on the disciplines, virtues, habits and skills of this craft through a relationship with someone who has lived and breathed this craft for a lifetime.

Psychology classes are about learning to see and process the world and ourselves through the unique insights and perspectives proper to a psychologist, one trained in discerning matters of the soul. Philosophy is about learning to live well by attending carefully to patterns of good thinking, and how these shape and inform living the good life. And so on and so forth—but to become such a person, to take on these qualities and characteristics, is a matter of relationship. Unfortunately, we cannot simply “download” kung-fu, oil-painting, or astrophysics as one could in “The Matrix.” Rather, we slowly shape our minds, hearts and bodies as we take on the character and insights of our respective fields, by observing and interacting with those who have gone before us in these disciplines.

Why attend a “brick and mortar” institution? Why walk away from the benefits and discounts offered by online education? Because those discounts come with a cost—a savings accomplished by gutting education of its heart and soul—the relationship between teacher and student, in which not merely information, but a way of life is imparted through an ongoing relationship.

There are and will continue to be good reasons to pursue an online education. But the heart of the matter is a relationship. We cannot merely receive information, not merely master a field, but rather a field must shape and mold us. We ought to seek to be transformed and shaped by our studies, so that we become the kind of people who can live richer and fuller lives by giving themselves over to the virtues, disciplines and insights of these different fields. Only then does education go beyond the textbooks and achieve its highest purpose.

NB: This post originally appeared on Dr. Johnson’s website. 

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