The risks which the coronavirus pose to large crowds have many American schools closing their doors and experimenting with remote learning. When a hurricane or earthquake closes down schools, students aren’t doing math and history at home, but picking up pieces of the garage. With the coronavirus, however, more than a few American high schools are sending students home for weeks with books to read and assignments to submit electronically. While many colleges instituted remote learning opportunities years ago, the coronavirus is offering many American high schoolers their first chance to go to class in their pajamas.
I suspect that this experiment in remote learning will be a rollicking success.
I do not mean to be glib, though. Before going further, I will note that sudden school closures pose a huge problem for working parents with children in elementary school, and that the coronavirus will likely mean many children are left home alone and unattended. Worse still, many impoverished children can and will go hungry without school lunches, and this fact is a vexing evil which cannot be atoned for by any emergent bureaucratic advantage which comes from remote learning.
This said, I think the bureaucratic advantages will be considerable.
Many students will positively adore remote learning for the simple reason that they can do “a full day of schoolwork” at home in about two hours. Of course, every sane student has known this for years, because every time a student misses a day of classes for illness, that student invariably asks the teacher, “What did I miss?” and the teacher offers five minutes of “make-up work” to do at home. If a one-hour class can be made up in five minutes, every hour spent in school is a fifty-five-minute waste of time. I suspect that coronavirus-based remote learning will bring this rather sad fact home to many parents and administrators alike.
Remote learning offers a myriad of other advantages, as well. Students won’t need to worry about being bullied and can set aside lockdown anxieties. They can truly go at their own pace and not feel pressure to answer questions they don’t understand. They will not be distracted by students who behave disruptively. Teachers, on the other hand, can put a little brandy in their coffee and field student emails all morning— and neither will teachers have to worry about disruptive students, bullying, violence, and so forth. Besides, students can still get personal attention from their teachers. If students are having trouble solving problem five, they can always call or text, which is how students prefer to communicate these days anyway.
Over the next five years, the various successes of remote learning experiments during the coronavirus pandemic will serve as ample evidence that remote learning can be an effective and sustainable solution to many otherwise insurmountable problems now facing American public schools. Even if remote high school learning isn’t mandatory in ten years, it could very well be a legal and socially acceptable alternative. Regardless, test cases are presently being run.
However, the coronavirus isn’t just closing down public schools. Private schools are going on hiatus, as well, which means that several classical Christian schools in this country are about to find out whether their classes are actually worth attending. Inasmuch as remote learning “can work as well” or “almost as well” for a classical school, the school is more or less just a daycare. Closures might be prudent and necessary, and students ought to be asked to do something productive while at home, but the idea that homework can be “just as effective” as class time betrays the unfortunately low value of class time. One even hopes that, so far as school goes, time at home means time lost.
A humanities teacher might give his students a massive essay to write while they are marooned at home, but an experienced teacher has his students write massive essays at home during a normal school year. Any liberal arts class which is taught well simply cannot be “made up” at home, for class itself is a transformative experience. If a theology teacher in the middle of the City of God were told by the administration, “We have decided to close the school until the end of March. You need to e-mail your students three weeks of theology work to do at home,” part of me thinks he ought to tell the students, “Just read your Bibles and pray more,” because theology class is theology class, not just theology work. Likewise, if someone misses church, someone misses church. The pastor does not text them “communion work” to do before next Sunday. Missing church is, in some sense, irreparable.
Obviously, not all remote learning is the same, but in the absence of audio recordings and videos of lectures, I suspect that much of what will go on during remote learning sessions will boil down to “covering material” and the production of graded assignments, neither of which have much to do with forming virtue, learning piety, or developing good taste. I am not suggesting students stuck at home should not be asked to do anything related to school, but I am suggesting this lately emergent spate of remote learning experiments is a fair test of whether a classical school really needs to exist, or if the school is simply a convenient (albeit expensive and unnecessary) middleman of knowledge. Does the physical presence of the teachers matter, or would students rather be left alone? And if the physical absence of the teacher does not really change things— if the teacher can truly be reduced to a talking brain— perhaps the students can be reduced to talking brains, as well, and the Incarnation really was something of a waste of time.
All this to say, if the remote learning experiment your school undertakes as a result of the coronavirus pandemic is a complete failure, well, I see it as a sign of tremendous sophistication.
NOTE: Since publishing this article, I have begun a series of posts on ways students (who attend schools that are now under quarantine) can spend the next several weeks profitably. The first three of these posts can be found here, here, and here, and contain recommended viewing lists and reading lists. More will follow over the next week.