My Latin class was translating a passage about Cato the Elder when the power went out and, with it, the lights. The windows afforded enough sunlight to continue our translation, so we did — that is, until we heard an unusual noise from outside the door.
Someone, as it turns out, had been stuck in the elevator since the power outage. After a brief interruption, during which we made sure the proper authorities were attending to the elevator, class resumed.
After Latin, I went to Bass to kill some time before my next class. The power was out there, too. I sat down at a table near a window and began to read the scene section of Friday’s News.
The cover story — “The classroom of the future” — caught my eye. I read that “technology is changing the way students learn and interact with professors”; I read that administrators are working to bring the “functionality” of Facebook and YouTube to our academic work; I read that “technology could replace tenure” as the information and tools available on the Web continue to usurp the roles formerly performed by professors.
“So much for going into academia,” I thought.
The irony, of course, was lovely. I was reading about the exciting possibilities of further dependence on technology even as technology was failing us miserably.
My phone vibrated. It was a voicemail informing me that the power had gone out in several buildings. Thanks.
I folded up the newspaper and set out for class. On the way there, I received another voicemail, this one informing me that the power would be restored within half an hour. Thanks, again.
The lecture was unbearably boring. The professor pointed his laser pen at images projected onto a screen. I recalled the scene article and its prediction that as an increasing number of courses post lectures online, skipping lecture “may be the way of the future.” I wished, for a moment, that it were the way of the present.
My phone vibrated again. This time it was a text message informing me that power would be restored within half an hour. Thanks, really. (It wasn’t until three hours later that I received the text message informing me that the power was out in several buildings. “We will keep you posted,” it promised.)
That evening, still half-asleep after a nap cut painfully short, I made my way to Battell Chapel to attend the Saybrook College Orchestra’s winter concert. The music awoke me. I watched the bows of the violinists rise and fall in disciplined but passionate harmony, watched the forceful and knowing gestures of the conductor, listened to the clarinets and the cellos and the oboes as they filled the room with the splendor of Rachmaninoff.
I read in the program that Rachmaninoff had composed the piece before his 15th birthday. I wondered what would have become of Rachmaninoff had he grown up with access to the functionality of YouTube.
The orchestra moved on to Vaughan Williams, then Mendelssohn. The musicians performed admirably, and the audience applauded. Afterwards, I greeted my friends in the orchestra, and they thanked me for attending.
I suppose I could have put on headphones and listened to the same music in my bedroom. I would have spared myself a lot of walking in the cold, plus the nuisance of abridging a nap.
And I suppose the students who attended the basketball game against Cornell that evening might instead have listened to a broadcast of the game in their bedrooms.
But something would have been lost. We recognize that concerts and sporting events are fundamentally richer, more gripping and more meaningful when experienced in person rather than secondhand, when we are separated by a medium.
Will we pretend that the same principle does not carry over into education?
Someday there may be students who receive diplomas from Yale without ever having attended a lecture. They will have watched lectures online; they will have chatted with professors online (making the bold assumption that professors still exist); they will have contributed to countless WikiDikis. They will not know what they have lost.
Cato the Elder, according to my Latin textbook, “opposed the luxury” of his age and led an “austere private life.” As an old man, he took up the study of Greek. Or, applying the alternative definition of “studium,” he took up the enthusiasm of Greek. The Romans (or at least, their language) recognized that learning went hand-in-hand with zeal, with passion.
We have forgotten. And we have forgotten that the passion necessary for education spreads from person to person, often from professor to student. There is something contagious in the gestures, the tone, the exclamations of a professor expounding on a subject he has studied for decades. And there is something irreplaceable about witnessing this enthusiasm, this studium, in person.
Will we pretend, in our unquestioning reverence for technology, that nothing has been lost in exchanging a lecture for a video, a section discussion for an online chat? Will we deem “distance learning” equal to on-site education? Education has been conducted for millennia, and no technological advancement will add to it anything essential. Usually it will add only further distractions, interruptions and unnecessary annoyances.
When I returned to my dorm from the concert, I checked my e-mail. My inbox contained two updates about the morning’s power outages. Thank you so very, very much.
bryce taylor is a sophomore in Silliman College.