Students everywhere struggle with the Zoom mode of learning. They understand that it is an essential alternative, in this our year of plague, to the conventional mode of knowledge exchange—the querying and probing that we associate with the ideal act of learning—and they appreciate that it is a temporary measure, although how temporary is a source of continued anxiety.
Learning is, of course, much more than data collecting, the acquisition of professional skills, the accumulation of practical knowledge. It is also about the speculative and sapiential ways of knowing and ways of being.
The British university student and journalist, Madoc Cairns, likens Zoom seminars to involuntary monasticism—you have your cell, you have stability, and you have lots of quiet time. And those are not negative things. But it is involuntary, after all, and there are other things we need, other qualities that we are now deprived of that define our true education: social intercourse, collisions of intellect ( Cardinal John Henry Newman’s wonderful way of describing the struggle for truth), the cultivation of habits of mind and spirit that make for the whole person.
Cairns writes in a column for The Tablet of London: “Education isn’t about seeing more but seeing more clearly; practising the basic, boring skills of human fellowship; growing in virtue and patience and love. The pandemic has cast a deep shadow on educational institutions. Perhaps rediscovering an older and broader conception of education would be a light in our present darkness.”
Indeed it would. Education for life is a communal and not solo act. That is why we have universities.