Robert Post

Some (Speculative) Consequences of the Coronavirus

The sudden brutal switch to online learning is the most obvious consequence for higher education of the pandemic. Everyone now accepts online teaching because everyone regards it as necessary to reduce serious health hazards. But after the pandemic recedes, it is likely economic forces will seek to keep online learning in place, because it is far cheaper than education before the pandemic.

We should acknowledge that online learning is an effective and efficient medium for the transmission of information. But the goal of higher education is far greater than this. Its mission is to inspire in undergraduates a mature independence of mind. Of course a mature mind is well-stocked, so the acquisition of information is essential. But it is not sufficient. Students must also be empowered critically to assess and use the information they have acquired. This involves not merely standards of thought, but also dimensions of character. Students must learn to suppress the urgent desire for wish-fulfillment and to exercise the virtues of rigor and intellectual self-discipline. This involves internalizing the practice of mature critical self-reflection. Humans only learn such practices when they are motivated to watch and imitate others. This requires the human magic of cathexis, which is the essence of mentorship, and which thrives only in face-to-face relationships.

If during their late adolescence students are not encouraged to identify with those whose goal is to teach them practices of rigor and self-discipline, they are more likely eventually to identify with those whose goal is produce gratification. A long-term consequence of the pandemic may thus be the undermining of democracy. We have long known that democracy requires a flourishing educational sector. But when higher education is pushed into a virtual mode, it may produce a demos that possesses information but that is more inclined to fantasy and less able to learn from experience. We all know where that can lead. We’ve seen it before; we’re seeing it now.

All the more reason, therefore, to push back hard against those will try to transform these emergency conditions into a new status quo for higher education.