Catholic education in the digital age
Our nation’s current educational vision, championed by both political parties and backed by corporations, looks something like this: Give students better access to more information at higher speeds, and they will be sharper, wiser and better equipped for life in our modern society. President Obama drew on this technocratic narrative in his State of the Union Address early this year, when he promised to bring the Internet into every classroom to help shape the “next generation of digital innovators and entrepreneurs.” It’s a line of thinking that hopes to put a tablet in the hand of every student, and many schools across the country have already done so. If all goes according to plan, it seems, the American child could acquire an entire education, K-12, by way of a personal screen on which she will trace her ABC’s at a young age, watch videos about far-off cultures as her horizons expand, and, in preparation for her Advanced Placement English exam, parse iambic pentameter in Hamlet’s soliloquies.
Catholic schools have long provided an alternative to public education, yet in their approach to using technology they have not distinguished themselves from this narrative. Instead, they’ve tried to keep pace, attempting to look as much like the public schools in matters of technology as their budgets will allow. I know of several Catholic high schools in my region that require each student to purchase a tablet; most encourage students to use iPads and laptops for classroom notes and activities. Attend a conference of Catholic educators and you will see keynote speakers treating personal technology as a panacea, lauding its cost-efficiency and effectiveness in speeding up the learning process.
Like fellow teachers and students who spend their days in the classroom, I know that the technological picture isn’t nearly as rosy as its proponents claim. Forget, for a minute, that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children spend less than two hours per day in front of a screen. Ignore the disastrous effect that screen time at school has on the success of low-income students, as Susan Pinker reported for The New York Times (1/30).
Seven years of teaching high school English have taught me that one basic fact suffices to call into question this entire technocratic vision: Personal technology comes between student and teacher and destroys classroom focus in a way that notebooks or old-fashioned classroom high jinks never did. You would have a hard time finding teachers and students who will not acknowledge this state of affairs. And how could it be otherwise? Given access to the Internet, most adults, never mind children, have a hard time staying attentive to something they are not particularly enthusiastic about.
Do not expect changes when it comes to public education. Classroom reality has a hard time trickling up to policy makers, removed as they are from the day-to-day life of an actual school. Additionally, the same corporate interests that wield powerful influence on the direction of public education benefit from this proliferation of personal tech. So the juggernaut rolls on, more and more schools consider going paperless, and the divide between educational policy and common sense widens.
This presents Catholic schools with a unique opportunity to distinguish themselves from their public counterparts. The answer is not to roll back the clock to the days of desk slates and the one-room schoolhouse. Technology is here to stay, and we are certainly aware of the many ways it can help us as educators. Yet we are also growing more cognizant of how technology can harm us, and Catholic educators should seize the moment. Whether they realize it or not, they do possess a powerful answer to the problem of technology overload, one that corresponds with recent research on child psychology but takes its cues from something much deeper.
A Unique Opportunity
What should a Catholic classroom look like in a world where access to information is unlimited? The identity of a classroom hinges on the relationship between student and teacher. So perhaps a better question is: Who should a Catholic teacher be?
As in all things, Christ serves as our model. Those close to him called him rabbi—teacher. Like another great teacher, Socrates, his was an unorthodox method. He wrote no rule of law, code of conduct or guidelines for living. In fact, he wrote nothing at all. Instead, he was present with people, spoke with them, laughed and wept with them, guided them, healed them. His teachings emerged from the stories he told, and those stories primarily concerned people interacting with one another: rich men and beggars, landowners and hired men, the socially respected and outcasts.
Those who followed him were drawn by his whole person, words and actions. Apostles like Simon, Andrew, James, John and Matthew began to follow Jesus not after hearing about what he taught but after encountering him in person, face-to-face, when he called each of them by name. People thronged around him and reached for his garments in hopes that they would be cured. If it can be said that Christ the teacher had a pedagogy, it was one of “presence.” Like Socrates before him, whose pursuit of wisdom took the shape of personal encounter and conversation, Christ placed being present with others at the fore of his Gospel message.
We might wonder what it would have been like if Christ had lived in a different era. What would happen if he were among us now, teaching and spreading the Gospel? He could reach so many more people with modern technology, we might say. Instead of only a few thousand hearing his words, he could touch billions of lives in an instant. Wouldn’t that be so much more effective? If only Jesus had had Twitter!
That question misses the point, really. This figure would not be Christ, would not even be Christian in the strict sense of the term. For Christ the most important thing was not relaying information but turning others toward him first by being present with them. This spirituality bears fruit in the sacraments, whose graces are channeled through the actions of another person, usually a priest, who must be physically present with the recipient. You cannot be confirmed over the phone or confess your sins by Skype. A priest must be there to administer the sacrament, to anoint with oil, lay on hands or absolve with the sign of the cross. Sacraments, like Christ’s teaching, are grounded in personal encounter.
This spirit has guided Catholic reformers of the modern era in their attempts to thaw our age’s icy grip on the soul. Figures like Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day shared the goal of turning us back toward each other in body and spirit. Pope Francis, also, has gone out of his way to place personal encounter at the heart of his young papacy. He is famous for making personal phone calls to those who have sought his help and for encouraging his bishops to “smell like the sheep.” Though, as Christ’s example shows, Francis’ attitude is one that has animated Christianity from the beginning, it appears increasingly fresh, even revolutionary, in the face of a culture that isolates its members and values them in terms of their ability to stay out of the way of its efficient operation.
The problem with many Catholic schools’ embrace of the technocratic pitch “more technology, better education” is that it ignores the central role that encounter must play in a Catholic environment. Quite simply, the interaction between student and screen displaces the interaction between student and teacher, thereby pushing human relationships to the side. A proper Catholic response to the problem of technological overload, then, must start by prioritizing personal encounter over technology. In this light, a Catholic teacher is one who leads not simply by disseminating information but by being the vessel through which her students come to desire what is true, whether that truth takes the form of chemistry, history or literature.
In my own area, the study of literature, I aim to help students understand how a work speaks to their interior lives. This process requires slow, deliberate thinking. It demands that students and teacher be fully present to one another, listening and responding to each other’s observations. This kind of gradual unraveling of truth—the Socratic method, really—is exactly the opposite of what personal screens encourage. Especially when it comes to the humanities, unfettered access to information is more important outside of class than in it. The classroom serves primarily as a space for thought, for synthesis, for considering how all of this information fits together and for wrestling with questions of purpose.
Put another way, the classroom should be a place of conversation. In its root meaning, conversation indicates a “turning” of one person toward another, and in that regard it is different from discussion, which connotes something more benign, people talking about a common idea. Conversation emerges from encounter and suggests a certain vulnerability or openness to what may pass between the individuals who have turned together.
The same week that President Obama delivered his State of the Union address, Pope Francis released a message for the Vatican’s annual World Communications Day. The two speeches revealed approaches to using technology that could hardly be more opposed. While Obama prioritized placing better, faster technology in the hands of our students, Francis offered an antidote to this technocratic narrative by urging us to turn to one another:
By growing daily in our awareness of the vital importance of encountering others...we will employ technology wisely, rather than letting ourselves be dominated by it.... The great challenge facing us today is to learn once again how to talk to one another, not simply how to generate and consume information.
As public schools commit themselves to finding more time for their students to interact with screens, Francis’ words should serve as a statement of purpose as Catholic educators seek to ground their schools once again in the encounter between student and teacher.
What is the goal of Catholic education in the midst of the flurry of screens and devices that bring the modern world to our fingertips? It is to keep the human person at the center of our enterprise. The world of information may be only a swipe away, but we should know better than to think it is the most important world. That honor goes to a world made of flesh and spirit, of encounter and conversation. That world must guide our schools, and everything else must follow from it.