September 14, 2009

The Liberal Arts, Digitized

My alma mater, like other liberal arts schools, is facing falling applications and enrollment this year, due to the recession. More troubling is the apparent difficulty that students, and liberal arts colleges in general, are having in convincing the skeptical that a liberal education is worth pursuing. It's always been tough, but this year especially so: Given the anxiety of both students and parents, it's no surprise gaining "in-demand" training is at the forefront of their minds.

For some reason, I find myself juxtaposing this story with the recent spate of articles contending that the rise of online education will prove as devastating to the university system as the rise of online media has to the journalism business. At the most risk are big public schools that rely on freshmen taking required introductory courses to subsidize the rest of the institution, as well as private colleges that don't have built-in prestige, like the Ivies, or offer some sui generis experience, like St. John's.

Assuming such a state of affairs comes to pass (the accreditation process is a barrier to entry in education unlikely to be brought down anytime soon), is it plausible that there will still be demand for small liberal arts colleges? Or, put differently, what would an all-online liberal education program look like? I have in my mind the image of a really erudite message board, not unlike Ask Metafilter or the xkcd forum. That may just be my nostalgia talking, though: Discussion-based classes are hard to any situation, harder still when working through often difficult material, and especially hard when a group of 18-to-22-year-olds are doing most of the talking.

Still, the process of replicating online the St. John's experience would be rather interesting. Most of the books are available for free online already -- although for the better translations, you'd still need to buy a hard copy or e-book. It'd be pretty easy to do the language tutorials, at least; maybe for the Freshman and Sophomore math tutorials you could post instructions on how to build your own Ptolemy Stone. Students could cut MP3s of their compositions in the Aeolian or Mixolydian modes, or listen to clips of the St. Matthew Passion and offer their commentaries on them.

But while you could probably replicate the course content online, the connective tissue of a liberal education, what makes it unique, would be missing: i.e., the process of discussion and self-examination, what I've heard called the "one long conversation." There's a reason why St. John's and other liberal arts schools are deliberately small: A liberal education isn't merely about reading books or solving equations, but about being part of a community of learners. I want to believe that an online community could do the same thing (see above), but I'm not yet convinced.

One other thing: At St. John's, professors are called tutors and are meant to guide discussions, while letting the students do most of the talking. Would this mean that, in an online version of St. John's, tutors would essentially be glorified forum moderators?


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  2. It would require a different attitude towards external aides to education than St. John's has. (They're still ambivalent about writing, for heaven's sake.) I guess some way could be found for doing geometry proofs--but how could they tell you're not looking at your Euclid while doing it? Same for improvised translations.

    I think the whole "without aids" philosophy is an undefended assumption at SJC--one that becomes harder to accept the more integrated aids are becoming with our minds. I'm not personally convinced that it should be rejected, either, though; perhaps whether it should has to do with the meaning of "liberation."

  3. Yeah, I see your point. An evangelical Johnnie once remarked to me that the New Program has a lot more in common with fundamentalist modes of education than secular-minded folks care to admit, what with its insistence on just studying the text, and none of the secondary literature.

    I also agree that the concept of "liberation" becomes fuzzy once we start including computers and other devices as integral parts of education. Does it mean that, in addition to not accepting received opinion blindly, we also not accept technology blindly, too? Is it possible to be liberated, in Stringfellow and Barr's terms, in an age where advanced technology is everywhere? Perhaps we should embrace technology, but only ironically?