Distance Learning, Duped Learners


The recently-announced University of Maryland plan for "distance learning" may make for good instruction. But make no mistake. It will not be good education.

A branch of an Orwellian system called "Mind Extension U," the program, with admirable intention, would bring courses into the comfort of the home via cable television and video to reach students -- salesmen, housewives and other busy people -- who cannot take time to travel to the campus. A high-tech democratic version of a chicken in every pot, the system would put a professor in every parlor and ultimately a B.A. on many resumes.

Who can fault such an intention? Who can question, besides professors displaced by a few video pundits, the economies of the plan?

Ultimately, however, the point is neither democratic opportunity

nor professorial labor problems. The issue is intellectual, and it involves merit more than opportunity and students more than professors.

The Maryland plan rests on a flawed premise that is American orthodoxy about higher education. It is that learning results from dutifully listening to a lecture, silently studying the material and stoically sitting for tests.

The belief is in the national grain. Indeed, it is the American tradition -- from 18th-century pulpit and soapbox oratory to the 19th-century Chautauqua -- that we be given the "bottom line," the facts rendered quickly and clearly with no ifs, ands or buts. A nation hurrying to its manifest destiny demanded no less and would wait for no more.

The 20th-century technologies of radio and television sustained the demand and satisfied the need. Fireside chats, instant news analyses, sunrise semesters and open universities all suggested that listening is learning, that a lecture is an intellectual filling station.

Rooted in its culture, American collegiate education never really warmed, as did the graduate schools, to the English tutorial method or to the German seminar approach. Academic success was based on listening, note-taking and studying quietly.

In its way the method is purely American -- the Lincoln with his book by the hearth, the sleepy suburbanite with dawn toast and coffee in the televised glare of "Sunrise Semester," the silent sophomore at the metaphoric fireworks display of a gifted lecturer, each in quiet awe.

But if quiet can cultivate deep thought, it can also breed intellectual parasitism, the listener feeding indiscrimiately on the speaker's ideas. What is a lecture but a clear and polished simplification? Because of time constraints, the lecturer must move swiftly, identifying but not resolving paradoxes, voicing but skirting objections, recognizing but not following provocative tangents. If questions arise, they must summarily be dealt with or clarity may be impeded, a line of thought not completed. After all, the bell tolls in fifty minutes and the cassette runs out of tape.

Nevertheless, it remains an American belief, universally cherished, that four years of lecture will mint a thoughtful and discriminating bachelor of arts. What this belief overlooks, however, is that tuition pays for far more because the college experience requires much more. It pays also for office hours. That is why a full time professor is in class no more than twelve hours a week. Does that mean that he works but twelve hours every week? Perhaps, but no more than a lawyer works twelve hours a week because he is in the courtroom for that long.

Like the lawyer, the professor is paid as well to research. And also to confer, to spend time individually with his students.

For it is the office where education is completed by the curious student puzzling over a lesson, uncertain of a textual nuance, dubious about the professor's opinion in an article, angry at his facile answer in a lecture, itching for a listener to test a line of reasoning in a research paper, bristling to be heard on a point formulated during study. Notions are forged into ideas in such debates, arguments and close verbal exchange.

Putting the student and professor together in a tutorial meeting makes the office the true classroom, their dialogue and not the classroom monologues and multilogues the true medium of learning. A bracing verbal scrimmage with a professor turned mentor is an uncommon experience not to be had in the classroom and still less on a video. The thrust and parry of opinion the detailed analysis of a text, event or phenomenon, the excitement of intellectual things can be made personal and lasting lessons.

Friction between two minds yields intellectual sparks. And while every teacher may not, of course, be a Mark Hopkins, few are Dickensian M'Choakunchilds.

In brief the heart of a college education is collegiality -- making colleagues in learning of the student and professor. That cannot happen on a screen.

Sitting before the screen may be excellent instruction. But alone, it's not enough, for a staple of true collegiate experience is a tutorial system that is largely unseen because of the popular confusion of instruction with education. Education is not absorbing, sponge-like, skills and facts without honing a laser eye that recognizes first principles and broad relations, that identifies causes, consequences and analogues, that cultivates discriminating judgment.

Oxford and Cambridge have known the value of the tutorial since the Middle Ages. Apparently the news has not yet reached the University of Maryland. As Cardinal Newman said long ago, "A university is an Alma Mater, knowing her children one by one, not a foundry, or a mint, or a treadmill." Or a TV screen.

George Hahn is professor of English at Towson State University.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad