When automated teller machines were just beginning to appear, a bank ad depicted a person punching buttons on the newfangled device. The message: "Get the Personal Touch at Merchant's Bank." A subtle attempt to transform a meeting with cold metal into an intimate relationship.
While self-service of this sort hasn't yet come to higher education, inroads have clearly been made.
The first "academy" of higher learning was established by Plato some 2,300 years ago in Athens. Students spent most of the day with the smartest people in the world. They learned by being immersed in a rich intellectual atmosphere.
Today I tell my philosophy classes that our efforts to learn philosophy in 40 hours over 10 weeks would be regarded by the ancient Greeks as an effort in futility. Assuming they interacted for 12 hours a day, in 10 weeks those first academicians would have spent 840 hours learning.
My students are with me less than 5 percent of that time. Something has been lost.
My classes are typical of those at large commuter campuses, with students working many hours, often exhausted, fitting their studies into already-tight schedules. By contrast, small colleges are still able to provide much more of the intensive, enriched atmosphere of the first academy. But the cost of four years of college is quickly getting out of reach for many students who then resort to the commuter campus.
End result: Student contact hours have been reduced by 95 percent over 2,300 years. And it looks like the reduction will continue further still. The move from college campus to commuter campus was painful enough, with lots of real learning lost in the transition. On the horizon is a move from commuter campus to media campus, and from there to virtual campus.
Videoconferencing replaces classroom teaching, but the media campus still involves contact with people. Final liberation from humanity comes when courses on the Web dispense sheer information, untrammeled by the vagaries of class discussion, note-taking, and subjective grading.
We're on the edge of something very dangerous. In the name of improving efficiency and being technologically "with-it," we are assuming that higher education can be dispensed in the same format as can business meetings, newspaper articles, and pictures of Mars. We're in peril of losing yet more of the precious contact that characterizes effective education.
The other day I played an audio tape of a lecture delivered several years ago by an exquisite lecturer at my campus. There it was, just as he delivered it. But it didn't teach the way it did in person. Gone were the facial expressions, the eye contact, the sweeping gestures. Dramatic pauses became dead air. What had been a lively, stimulating presentation had become a thought-provoking but rather dry monologue. Videotapes can capture more, of course, but not the enthusiasm and nuance of personal contact. Technology always seems to put us once removed from the best learning atmosphere. The oldest universities have known this for centuries, and to this day, the intensive tutorial system made famous by Oxford University is known worldwide for the kind of minds it crafts.
Real learning takes a personal touch. Let's at least keep the little bit we have left, lest we end up only virtually educated.
* Glenn Hartz is an associate professor of philosophy at Ohio State University in Mansfield.