Trapped in the Virtual Classroom

Everett Collection
Buster Keaton in a publicity still for College, 1927

I was asked to address the Yale Political Union on the topic “Resolved: Embrace Online Education.” I agreed to speak in the negative. Let me start with a proposition: the great social calamity of our time is that people are being replaced by machines. This is happening and it will go on happening. But we may want to stop or slow the process when we have a chance, in order to ask a large question. To what extent are the uniquely human elements of our lives, things not reproducible by mechanical or technical substitutes, the result of spontaneous or unplanned experience? Such experience, whatever we think of it, is made possible by the arts of give-and-take that we learn in the physical presence of human beings.

American society is still on the near side of robotification. People who can’t conjure up the relevant sympathy in the presence of other people are still felt to need various kinds of remedial help: they are autistic or sociopathic, it may be said—those are two of a range of clinical terms. Less clinically we may say that such people lack a certain affective range. However efficiently they perform their tasks, we don’t yet think well of those who in their everyday lives maximize efficiency and minimize considerate, responsive, and unrehearsed interaction, whether they neglect such things from physiological incapacity or a prudential fear of squandering their energy on emotions that are not formally necessary.

This prejudice continues to be widely shared. But the consensus is visibly weaker than it was a decade ago. As people are replaced by machines—in Britain, they call such people “redundant”—the survivors who remain in prosperous employment are being asked to become more machinelike. This fits with the idea that all the valuable human skills and varieties of knowledge are things that can be assimilated in a machinelike way. We can know the quantity of information involved, and we can program it to be poured into the receiving persons as a kind of “input” that eventually yields the desired “product.” Even in this short summary, however, I have introduced an assumption that you may want to stand back and question. Is it really the case that all knowledge is a form of information? Are there some kinds of learning or mental activity that are not connected with, or properly describable as, knowledge?

When H.L. Mencken, an avowed atheist, was asked if he believed in baptism, he replied “Believe in it? I’ve seen it done!” For thirty-eight years, I’ve been a teacher of a discipline of interpretation that is fostered in university departments of literature, philosophy, the history of ideas, and to some extent psychology and political science, a discipline that might best be described as an art that can be taught; and if someone asks, “Do you believe…

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