One of the critical stories in higher education in recent years has been the growth of online learning, a development dramatically accelerated by responses to Covid-19. Within a matter of weeks, university professors and college instructors the world over had to familiarize themselves with the technologies and protocols of online learning. Many institutions seem to like it that way. Online learning makes university administrators happy. The financial outlay for mounting internet courses is negligible, while such courses have the potential to attract thousands of students, or “clients,” as some university bureaucrats prefer to think of them.
Predictably, now there are calls to permanently cede portions of university instruction to the virtual realm as part of the “new normal”. Red Deer College in Alberta, to take one random example, started classes on September 3, and about 80 percent of its 6,200 students are enrolled in online classes. Numerous other institutions have followed a similar course, shifting the vast bulk of their pedagogy to remote learning platforms. Some have eliminated in-class instruction entirely, at least for the fall term.
We need to be cautious about the wholesale technological outsourcing of university instruction. From its inception, “distance education” – the precursor to online instruction – was always understood to be a simulacrum of the university experience, an inferior option to on-campus classrooms. True, distance education could reach students in remote locales or those who were already in the workforce or otherwise unable to attend campus classes. But few denied that this approach incurred real pedagogical costs.
Crucially, distance students miss out on real conversation – dialogue – among human bodies in a room engaged in a real-time, unmediated exchange of ideas and opinions. Educational theorists from Plato to Terry Eagleton have understood that conversation lies at the heart of higher education. As Aristotle succinctly expressed it, “On important matters, we undertake deliberation in common with others, distrusting ourselves as inadequate to make decisions.”
In his recent book Course Correction: A Map for the Distracted University, Paul W. Gooch, president emeritus and professor of philosophy at Victoria College in the University of Toronto, argues that the method of teaching in universities should be what he calls “interrogative conversation”. For Gooch, conversation is a personal method that recognizes the student in time and place. “The internet…is indifferent to human embodiment,” he notes. “In the age of two-way connectivity…you ‘might as well be nothing more than a brain in a vat.’” Gooch argues against the notion of a “placeless” virtual education that can happen anywhere with the internet and a screen. “A well-placed university should embrace embodied education, using technology only in its service,” he writes. “Embodied education respects place and bodily presence, rejecting the mentality of info-technocracy.”
Antonella De Michelis concurs. De Michelis is an architectural historian who divides her time between teaching for study-abroad programs in Rome and the University of British Columbia Okanagan. Like other university teachers, she has been thinking about online learning. “[Last] semester was my first foray into the virtual classroom,” she recounted in an email. “I was amazed that what was a well-honed three-hour lecture was done and dusted in a mere 90 minutes – exactly half its normal length. What was missing was the usual back-and-forth classroom chat with the students.”
She went on to note that, “The technology has the potential to be very useful, but it’s passive. With our ‘virtual’ technologies, we are time-travelling to those dusty lecture halls of old where the professor ‘professed’ behind a lectern. There were no questions, no engagement, no discussion. Students were lectured ‘at’. Real teaching engages and inspires, and that cannot be done by delivering a canned lecture, whether in the classroom or online.”
Genuine, two-way conversation is crucial to democracy, for it implies an openness to and awareness of others and a willingness to listen. For any discussion to proceed – whether around the dinner table with family and friends, at the pub with the hockey team, or in the graduate seminar with fellow students – participants must acknowledge and accommodate each other in a mutually respectful exchange.
Conversation teaches dispositions and habits of mind critical to the flourishing of democracy: honesty, respect for others, courage, fair-mindedness, open-mindedness, thoughtfulness, attentiveness, and other quiet virtues that are necessary to successful free societies. The cultivation of these virtues is, in turn, central to our learning to converse with others. This is why conversation is the pedagogical tool par excellence for free and open societies, while closed or totalitarian nations such as China rightly perceive it as a threat and so do their best to suppress and control it.
The British philosopher Michael Oakeshott famously likened education to an ongoing conversation. In his view, the proper aim of education is to introduce students to the civilized inheritance of human meanings and understandings passed on from previous generations. These lie inside a variety of human experiences: history, science, religion, mathematics, and so forth. Each of these disciplines employs a unique language, and the teacher’s task is to instruct students in a particular language and enculture the manners, mores, tonalities, and nuances which allow the conversation to proceed. Dialogue is, of course, to be combined with extensive reading and, where a particular discipline calls for it, experimentation or fieldwork.
There is always the latent danger that we come to see our civilized inheritance as an ossified relic, an heirloom, of mere antiquarian interest. Oakeshott counters by underscoring the vitality, variability, and unpredictability of real-life conversations. The purpose of a conversation is not to win an argument or score points. It is to understand the perspective, concerns, values, emotions, assumptions, and goals of others – as well as to convey and take in new information. Like genuine scientific inquiry, dialogue does not have predetermined objectives; its outcome is determined by its participants’ standards and character. Conversation dies when one participant seeks to impose their views, values and way of life on others. This is why tyrants, prophets and priests are typically uncomfortable around people speaking their minds.
This is also why the university teacher ideally adopts the role of a more advanced student rather than a paragon or sage. For the professor, Socratic irony and humility are at a premium while the soapbox and the preaching pulpit are to be shunned. Professors must resist the siren call of pride and vanity, the besetting sins of their trade. Leo Strauss provided a useful warning: “Always assume that there is one silent student in your class who is by far superior to you in head and heart. Do not have too high an opinion of your importance, but have the highest opinion of your duty, your responsibility.”
This is astute advice, for conversation cannot survive authoritarian hierarchies. The indoctrinator, the preacher or the overbearing teacher are anathema to genuine dialogue. Discussions should allow us to openly and freely express our opinions, our half-formed ideas, our inexact probings, as well as our hopes, our fears and our doubts. We need to listen to others with interest, sensitivity, caring and understanding for when we are discussing important matters, they, like us, are frequently on uncertain ground.
There is also an aesthetic dimension to genuine dialogue. Like jazz improvisation, an authentic conversation flows with a rhythmic harmony in which the give-and-take among players is complementary and spontaneous, but always respectful of the rules. It is inclusive and supportive, calm and patient. Without such virtues, there can be only self-assertion, monologues, and soliloquies.
Speech codes are self-evidently the enemy of conversation. In any dialogue about serious matters, there will be disagreements. But disputes should be seen as opportunities to deepen our perceptions rather than as occasions for self-promotion, boasting or ideological triumphalism, let alone ridiculing or shaming our fellow conversationalists. World-famous evolutionist Richard Dawkins, for example, is fond of doing so, referring to those who reject his materialist neo-Darwinian account of nature as dim-witted. Unfortunately, his mindset is all-too-common on campuses today. It is poison for real conversation and genuine learning.
Healthy and sustainable conversations require conscientious discussants who possess tolerance for the voices of others and who are open to the give-and-take of human discourse. In this age of speech codes and incivility, we will need to re-learn to tolerate views that we find antithetical to our own and extend to our co-conversationalists the principle of charity, seeing their arguments in the best light rather than the worst. Unlike lectures, speeches, sermons, story-telling, or different kinds of verbal performances, real conversations – again, much like genuine science – do not have an end-point.
Dialogue is the enemy of certainty and fanaticism, for authentic conversation is unscripted, leading who knows where. This is why there is no genuine dialogue in totalitarian regimes. It is a sure sign that something has gone very wrong when authorities criticize or seek to ban certain kinds of discussions. The death-knell of exchange is the dogmatic assertion – the suffocating orthodoxy emanating from political, scientific or religious claims or, indeed, from any allegation which brooks no dissent and which, with the certainty of the righteous, proceeds to bulldoze all objections in the service of this “higher” truth. Examples of this are legion: the repressive dictator, the “dear leader”, the prophet of the “one true religion”, or the rigid assertion that the “science” is settled. For true believers, there can be no room for doubt, only the certainty which emanates from such authority. But, as the 17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal reminded us, “We know too much to be sceptics, but not enough to be dogmatists.”
In recent years the university has been beset by identity politics, an enervating relativism, and a militant intolerance for opposing views. Waves of identitarians, radical relativists, post-modernists, feminists and critical theorists have sought and gained a range of formal and informal speech codes. Social justice warriors seek to deplatform speakers and shut down debate by imposing a conformity of thought rationalized by the purported righteousness of their cause. Like true believers everywhere, they are absolutists and feel it is both their right and duty to suppress deviation from the one true path.
The task of the university professor, however, is not to lead students to pre-ordained conclusions, but to furnish them with the mental equipment and intellectual wherewithal to think for themselves. Students need to be provided with the cognitive tools, disciplined modes of inquiry and attitudes necessary for agency and self-direction. They need to be taught to sort out the true from the false, the important from the trivial, and the perennial questions from contingent answers.
Instead, we have created a vast new bureaucracy of Guardians who are determined to protect them from harmful speech, hurtful or offensive ideas, and life in general. Immanuel Kant’s dictum, “Dare to know”, has been turned on its head. Rather than preparing students with the mental robustness necessary to partake in intellectual culture, we have adopted a therapeutic model of education designed to protect and shield them from life’s vicissitudes. All while filling their heads with only the “correct” information, thoughts, feelings and attitudes.
This is all incredibly dangerous, not only to our politics, but to the object of higher education: the student. For conversation is also central to the formation of human character and identity. Emphasizing the role of dialogue advances the ancient idea that a crucial purpose of education is to realize the individual to the utmost, equipping individuals to lead purposeful and meaningful lives through the free exercise of their intelligence and imagination. Dialogue plays a role in transcending the instrumentalist need of preparing students for the workplace.
Conversation’s reach extends beyond our years in the classroom. It is an “educational engagement”, for the continuance of genuine conversation throughout our lives sustains our desire for learning and knowledge. Education should be an intrinsically rewarding experience, bound with those qualities of wonder and joy which make us most fully human and allow us to appreciate human life in all its dimensions. Ultimately, conversation contributes to what the psychologist Abraham Maslow labelled “self-actualization” or what Aristotle called Eudaimonia, the sense of a life well-lived.
Enlightenment should be enjoyable. The university should encourage sociability by design. Students frequently learn as much – if not more – from one another as they do from their professors, whether in caffeinated daytime conversations, study groups and joint projects, sports teams and clubs, or beer-fueled symposia in the pub. Friendships are formed, many evolving into professional relationships and some lasting a lifetime.
The prosaic fact that on-campus students can meet face-to-face with their professors shouldn’t be underestimated. For many students, the university is the first time they encounter in the flesh an adult devoted to the intellectual dimension of life. The burning intelligence and charisma of the best professors bear testimony to the importance of the life of the mind. They can be a great inspiration to the young, a model for a certain kind of life and a salutary reminder that we need not be defined by and forever chained to the particular cave in which we are born. Long after the course content is forgotten, the teacher’s indelible mark remains.
For Oakeshott, the educational conversation is a “repeated summons, rather than a possession.” Oakeshott’s metaphor is a clarion call to stand against the myriad retrograde and technocratic forces which would reduce higher education to job-preparation or ideological indoctrination for a lifetime of political activism. It is a call to reclaim the greatness of our intellectual, imaginative and moral inheritance, and to return to the Delphic Oracle’s first maxim, “Know thyself”, as the basis of our educational philosophy. (The other two, “Nothing to excess” and “Surety brings ruin”, are equally applicable to the university environment.)
But here a critical caveat is necessary: conversationalists understand that “knowing thyself” is not the directive of the subjectivist who looks within. Instead, we come to know ourselves by turning our minds outward and, in the company of others, engage in the ancient conversation that encompasses the immensity and wonder of the human story.
Patrick Keeney, associate editor of C2C Journal, has taught at the University of British Columbia Okanagan, Simon Fraser University, Thompson Rivers University, and Chiang Mai University in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where he is currently a senior research professor.