Welcome to the Future, Third Time Around

Historians Will Mark 2020 as a Revolutionary Year for Higher Education

October 05, 2020
Dr. Henry Abramson

Despite a raging pandemic, colleges and universities took advantage of mature technologies to transition online, preserving the safety of students and faculty while maintaining true to our educational goals.

Understandably, many participants in this bold enterprise lamented what was lost, even temporarily, myself included. The digital divide, Zoom fatigue, and the annoying experience of teaching and learning while masked were common complaints. But let there be no doubt: we are at the cusp of a bold new era in education, particularly tertiary education.

But we’ve been here before. Twice, at least.

The first time educators encountered this phenomenon was in the ancient world, when the technology of recording the spoken word became widespread. Clay tablets incised with wedge-shaped script, friable inked papyrus, and of course scrolls from animal skins preserved instruction for generations, the first global experiment in distance learning.

Socrates subjected the educational value of writing to withering criticism, saying that “writing…is very like painting. The creatures in a painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing.” Writing lacks synchronous interactivity with an instructor, and is therefore critically impoverished. That said, Socrates’ argument is undermined by the fact that we receive his words only because his student Plato (ahem) wrote them down.

And with synchronous Zoom classes, Socrates’ argument is rendered moot.

Related concerns were raised by the Sages regarding the commitment of the Oral Torah in textual form, and the Talmud was only rendered in its current form after strenuous debate.

So despite the objection of the early Greek philosophers, western civilization marched ahead with writing anyway, considering this technology an invaluable add-on to in-person instruction, not its replacement.

The next major challenge came some 2100 years later, with the advent of cheap printing technologies. Long accustomed to beautiful Arabic calligraphy, the Islamic world largely rejected the poor quality mass-produced equivalent, inadvertently missing an opportunity to participate actively in the scientific revolution that would give Christian Europe a distinct advantage entering the modern era. But not all Europeans were pleased—Hieronimus Squarciafico, himself an employee of an early Venetian print shop, panned the new technology in 1477, writing “already abundance of books makes men less studious; it destroys memory and enfeebles the mind by relieving it of too much work.” Better, argued Squarciafico, to learn more deeply with expensive handwritten texts than read lots of cheap printed books.

But the printers won that debate. Five centuries later, it is increasingly rare for instructors to assign bound physical books, let alone manuscripts on vellum or parchment. No one will doubt the diminished aesthetic value of a mass-produced book when compared to a hand-written work, painstakingly completed by a human scribe. The value of increased access, however, widely overwhelmed the sacrifice of artistic beauty of individually produced written works. And just as Socrates’ objection to writing was recorded in text, so too was Squarciafico’s lament preserved in a printed book.

And with synchronous Zoom classes, the increasing range of personal customizations—virtual backgrounds, gallery vs. speaker views, filters and so on—suggest that even the aesthetic features of remote learning may be overcome to meet individual tastes.

Historians are notoriously unreliable when speaking about the future—we tend to do our jobs best when we are looking backwards, not forwards. But that rear-view perspective suggests that if 2020 is anything like 400 BCE, or like 1500 CE, the Zoom revolution in higher education will certainly not eliminate live, in-person education: we will take these new digital tools to expand, not diminish, our pedagogic power.