Distance Learning Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

It’s been a strange and difficult semester for Catholic schools and colleges. Our institutions offer a unique social, spiritual, and intellectual formation that depends on personal presence, but students have been exiled from our classrooms, chapels, and athletic fields.

For Catholic educators who have struggled to build on the strong relationships formed in the first three quarters of the school year, the serious limitations of distance education are obvious. And as the academic year draws to a close, it’s a good time to consider how the sudden and temporary change from a traditional classroom education to distance education may have affected student formation.

But before we do so, we would be remiss not to recognize one very important benefit to the temporarily forced distance between educator and student: this experience of exile has surely helped our families and educators better appreciate the amazing gift of an “in-person” Catholic education. We yearn for it, because we know that it is good, and we realize how much we love what has been taken away from us.

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To those not attending Catholic schools, this distance learning experience has revealed a path of escape from corrupt school and university campuses. Whatever their shortcomings, distance education courses can deliver content and credit quickly and economically, without the harmful political and cultural elements that infect many secular institutions. The unexpected disruption may have awakened desires to break free from the sickness and corruption present in the wasteful, academically anemic, and morally harmful secular schools and universities that our common culture has spawned.

What we need these people to see is that, even though in-person education can exercise a powerful and corrupting force when Christian values are lacking, it can be just as powerful a force for good, cultivating growth in wisdom and holiness. Distance education may have helped some escape the worst secular educational forces, but excellent Catholic schools and colleges are by far the better option for Catholic families. Our schools must not go unprovided for, either in financial support or the students they need, so that they might thrive and serve the Church and society.

The Church especially must not leave the field of powerful in-person education to secularizing and immoral forces. Bad educators, schools, and universities need to be countered with good and holy ones, using all the means at the Church’s disposal.  Catholics, in service to the Church and the common good, have a duty to form and maintain good Catholic schools and colleges and ensure faithful Catholic education for their children. Catholic youth are destined to serve the Church, and attending faithful Catholic schools and universities is a powerful way both to encounter and to serve the Church, even while young.

The Church has long appreciated that her Catholic schools and colleges are a way to provide concrete witness to the world. Through them she shows the world a proper program for authentic human formation. She shows the world a way to pursue the truth and to embrace and proclaim it when found. They provide an institutional witness to authentic culture and its relation to God. Catholicism has “got man right,” thanks to the revelation and grace of the perfect man and perfect teacher, Jesus. This allows her to craft an educational program that is natural and tailored to authentic human needs. In many ways, but especially in her schools and colleges, she joyfully shares the Good News and provides the tools and truths to free students to fulfill their earthly and heavenly destinies. Her schools and colleges are a part of her saving mission.

Students need education and formation in order to reach their potential and fulfill their destiny, and authentic human formation happens in community. Catholic educational organizations are uniquely situated to unite the community of the Church and the community of the family in the process of the complete physical, intellectual, and spiritual formation of youth. The family, as the original cell of social life, provides initiation into society and is the foundation of the freedoms, virtues, and fraternity a healthy society requires. Catholic educational organizations work with parents, who are the primary educators, to provide a depth and complexity to education, especially in interpersonal interactions, that the medium of distance education cannot fully replicate.

In part this is because being a member of an educational community is itself a mode of education. The rich interpersonal relations of a school or college provide context for a thorough and complete human formation. Catholic educational communities are not just content-delivery portals. Through their traditions, interpersonal relations, and the providence of daily encounters with others and with Christ, they are themselves a source of knowledge and Christian formation. Catholic schools and colleges are privileged places of formation and evangelization because they provide an experience of the Church, especially in her communal nature.

The presence of an academic community within a Catholic school or college provides for rich intellectual growth, as students witness other students’ successes and challenges in learning. They learn from others’ interactions with the educator. They learn from the way others encounter and react to similar material and challenges. They encounter questions and answers that might not arise if working in isolation. They are forced to practice expressing and defending ideas in real time with classmates and teachers of varying perspectives, attitudes, and interests. The path of distance education may appear to alleviate some social challenges, but it also sacrifices the social depth and opportunity which can be of immense benefit in complex intellectual and human formation.

Distance education has some other drawbacks as well. In fleeing the ideological and social dangers present in secular educational communities, it is possible to exacerbate the educational and formational dangers of life lived excessively at a distance or online. For many youth, excessive online activity has restructured social relationships and cognitive processing to the point where their intellectual, mental, social, and spiritual health is being seriously compromised.

A danger with technology’s heavy presence in most distance education experiences is that it can hamper a student’s encounter with reality. Screen time can “screen” reality. A crisis of this generation is separation from basic realities, including the nature of bodily existence and the role of the senses in determining truth. The current common culture privileges personal desire and emotions over anything that might get in its way—such as reason or reality. Nature and human nature are seen as simply malleable material to be shaped by the will; there is no independent reality or truth to which the individual must conform. Against the imperial human will, the Church celebrates the good news that life is good, that reality exists apart from our minds, and that if we conform our minds to reality, we will discover amazing truth, freedom, and meaning everywhere.

The Catholic worldview is naturally sacramental and incarnational. In-person Catholic education is uniquely situated to address this generation’s loss of this sense which has been lost to a world of virtual realities. More technology and more distance are not the way to regain a sense of God’s immanence in the world and in each other. Virtual reality is not reality. Focusing on what is real is something in-person Catholic education accomplishes naturally.

The ability to help students focus and engage in prolonged periods of close attention is another skill in-person education can address. Through their physical presence and close proximity, Catholic educators sense the multi-dimensional challenges and joys of students as they work through the stages of learning. They are able to stop and question immediately, and reteach or expand learning, thus prolonging the students’ focus and attention span, as well as increasing the depth of their knowledge. Working alone on a computer can tempt a student to multitask, seek technological short cuts, or look for google answers when no one is looking, rather than being guided to persevere through conundrums under the watchful eye of a master educator.

Technological prowess can also mask the need for intellectual development. Authentic understanding and rich intellectual development require focused attention as well as effort, sacrifice, wisdom, and generosity, which the fast-paced, instant gratification of the online and virtual world can eviscerate. The natural hand-to-hand, heart-to-heart nurturing and combat of a well-structured classroom, under the care of an impassioned and competent educator dedicated to an academic discipline, provides a superior educational environment to provoke deep human interaction with others as well as the material under consideration. The online world can quickly devolve into a world of shallowness, speed, utility, and depersonalization. An antidote is real relationships with real people in love with life and learning in a rich and complex human environment.

Beyond detracting from the ability to focus and richly encounter reality, excessive use of online distance learning can reduce the opportunity to encounter others genuinely, thus missing out on opportunities for growth in interpersonal skills which in-person Catholic education demands. Skills as varied as eye contact, obedience, patience, empathy, and humility can be diminished when students are working through online media which do not demand such personalized affirmation. Catholic community formation is highly personal formation in the fullest sense. It forms students as they naturally exist in real life—as unified persons of mind, body, and spirit who live in, and are made for, communion.

Another temptation of distance education, which authentic Catholic education seeks to diminish, is the commodification of knowledge and attempts to “game the academic system” of acquiring academic credits rather than pursuing knowledge for its own sake. This can be a deeply problematic approach which can leave youth with a materialist, cynical, flat, and uninspired view of the intellectual life. It can leave a world bleached of value and meaning. Catholic educational formation is about much more than the passage of time and acquisition of facts and credits. Catholic education seeks a complete and integral human formation of mind, body, and spirit and an ongoing pursuit of all that is true, good, and beautiful. These functions cannot be disaggregated, and they cannot be effectively piecemealed out to independent contractors or cobbled together by chance, as one simply amasses credits toward graduation.

The comprehensive goals of Catholic education are highly personal and take place most effectively in a communion of persons—especially in the extremely important communion between an educator and a student. It is important that students be able to encounter the intellectual life and spiritual life successfully lived in the lives of others. The Congregation for Catholic Education highlights this dynamic, noting:

The more completely an educator can give concrete witness to the model of the ideal person that is being presented to the students, the more this ideal will be believed and imitated. For it will then be seen as something reasonable and worthy of being lived, something concrete and realizable. It is in this context that the faith witness of the lay teacher becomes especially important. Students should see in their teachers the Christian attitude and behavior that is often so conspicuously absent from the secular atmosphere in which they live. (Lay Catholics in Schools, 32)

The importance and power of an excellent Catholic teacher in the life of young people is hard to overstate. The presence of an engaged and committed adult who can both effectively present and compellingly model any matter at hand is invaluable to young adults seeking to engage freely with the world. A goal of education is to have the young person embrace a tradition, a worldview, or a proposition freely because it is true. A student should not simply assent to something out of loyalty, fear, fanaticism, or lack of exposure to other propositions. Noted Italian priest and educator Luigi Giussani emphasizes how young people benefit from the presence of a teacher as a stable witness and a lived method when seeking to test various propositions and viewpoints in their quest to make sense of the world. A committed Catholic educator can be a role model and provide guidance and context for youth as they engage their wills and commit their hearts to reality and God’s presence therein.

The value of in-person Catholic education has shone only brighter now that so many have experienced its eclipse over the last academic quarter. While distance education has become normalized, and its value compared to poor secularized instruction may have become more evident in some cases, its unsuitability to meet the deeper and much more complex and authentically human goals of Catholic education have only become clearer.

Catholic schools and colleges are called to be intensely personal places. Their ability to help students concentrate on a “contemplative beholding of the real” is uniquely suited to the way we are naturally made and the way we naturally learn—in community and in contact with the real.

Photo credit: Thomas More College of Liberal Arts


  • Daniel Guernsey

    Dr. Daniel Guernsey is a senior fellow at The Cardinal Newman Society.

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