Keith Whittington on how to recover the American university as a place of free inquiry and intellectual rigor.
The technology for teaching remotely had been nearly perfected by the time the coronavirus hit us. Zoom, an online networking service, has allowed me to call on a student in my administrative law class just as I could when I was in a physical classroom. While answering the question, the student then goes to the center of the screen, commanding everyone’s attention. Indeed, students can now be more easily understood by their classmates than if they were in a distant part of a physical classroom. When I lecture, the focus returns to me. And all this can be accomplished with complete social distancing.
But the crisis has also shown why such technological progress does not maximize learning if our educational institutions are mired in an ideology that prevents full use of these tools to adapt to a crisis. Many professional schools, like mine, as well as colleges and K-12 schools, have made decisions that frustrate the continuation of deep learning. They have done so from self-defeating egalitarian ideals and a sentimentality that encourages learned helplessness in our students.
Let’s begin with the institutions I know best. Law schools have almost uniformly decided to utilize a “pass-fail” grading system even though most of them only had a few weeks left in the semester. Pass-fail has many costs. It reduces the incentives to master the material. It impedes signaling the quality of students to employers. While some professors would like to go pass-fail all the time, the advantages of grading are so obvious that all law schools grade (although some of the super-elite schools, like Yale and Harvard, have such wide bands as to limit the meaning of their assessments). But beyond the utilitarian arguments for grading, justice militates against discontinuing the practice mid-semester. Students who have worked long and hard lose the expected reward for their labors.
Nevertheless, the argument was made that some students would face more hardship than others because of the virus. These arguments should have been rejected for three reasons. First, a professional school, above all others, should teach students that they must learn how to act even in difficult personal circumstances. All these students will eventually be required to handle personal pressures while getting their work done throughout their career. Second, other options were available to make the transition easier for students, like extending or postponing the exam period. Finally, schools could take additional steps to address extreme hardship in particular cases, like permitting exams to be taken in a different term. They already do so in cases having nothing to do with the virus crisis. Justice can and should be tempered with mercy.
It was also claimed, of course, that grading would help those socioeconomically privileged at the expense of those who were not privileged. But the opposite is likely true. Grading tends to level the socioeconomic playing field in employment, because those with more wealth also have better connections, and connections become more important without the important metric of grades.
But these arguments proved no match for claims about relative privilege, and law schools stampeded into mandatory pass-fail. Even the University of Chicago, often the last holdout against bad academic trends, was shamed into submission.
Online learning works much better if the faces of the students appear as well as the professor. Seeing people creates engagement and assures everyone in the virtual classroom that they are actually engaged in a common enterprise, not focused on other tasks. Yet I have heard from a student that some colleges do not require students to appear on the grounds that the video may reveal the differences among students in economic circumstances, even though online video services permit users to deploy virtual backdrops for any reason.
It was not only professional schools and colleges that have given up the opportunity to use technology to maximize learning. Berkeley public schools refused to go online for fear that some students would not have access to a computer. Oregon blocked students throughout the state who wanted to transfer to online charter schools from doing so. Here the reasons were as much a matter of raw politics as ideology. The teachers’ union did not want to let charter schools steal a march on traditional public schools and so weaken their hold on education.
Other public school systems decreed that once online teaching began, not only would grading stop, but no new material would be taught. Thus, for most students, the rest of the school year became a waste of time. The usual arguments of compassion and socioeconomic class were given as a reason to terminate new work. But the discontinuance of education was hardly compassionate to those who wanted to learn new things, and the public school students were put at a disadvantage compared to students at private schools where education continued.
But private schools are not immune from our culture either. A friend told me that her children’s private school has now replaced its normal five-days-a-week, 45-minute classes with twice-a-week, 25-minute classes online. This is an 80 percent loss of direct instruction time. She complained to no avail. Even when she appealed to fellow parents, the response of some was that their children needed additional time for “self-care” or “mourning,” although there had been no cases of the virus at the school or in the surrounding community. As a result, my friend’s son lost the opportunity to complete his AP courses in Physics and Calculus.
It is hardly a surprise that perverse ideology and faux sentimentality pervade our educational establishment. The typical university faculty stands well to the left of the median Democrat. Flaunting of one’s concern about privilege is the common idiom of the faculty lounge. Moreover, working at non-profit institutions insulated from competition naturally weakens attachment to values like self-reliance that might otherwise be taught in a crisis.
But as the example of the private school shows, the values of the modern university now pervade society. And that should not be a surprise either. Going to a university is the rite of passage during the most formative years of our social elite.
There is a larger moral to the sad failure to use our technological abundance to make the most of education in the current crisis. Technological progress is wonderful, but even its good effects can be limited by cultural decline. Conservatism’s most powerful critique of classical liberalism is that, for all the wonders the market economy brings, it does little to sustain the human virtues that people need to create a flourishing life.
Indeed, the hard question posed by the mind-forged manacles that prevent the full deployment of technology in a crisis is whether such progress inevitably causes cultural decline. A society of abundance and ease naturally valorizes personal responsibility less than one in which many live on the margins, where responsibility is the difference between personal success and disaster. A society that relies so substantially on higher education necessarily creates a class—university professors—whose ideology and way of life undermine the culture of self-mastery that even we modern masters of technology still require.