Don't Forget You're a Human: The Limitations of Virtual Education
What is up! I hope everyone is doing well!
A quick reminder - there are still a couple of slots available for our first live course. We are very excited to get this thing kicked off in less than one week! If interested head to the link and check out the course overview. We’ll be exploring some of the ideas that have been most transformational in my life. I can’t wait to jump into them again and see what new insights come from the group.
Now, let’s jump into this week’s stuff.
ONE FROM THE AGES
The father of anatomy, Herophilos, on the preeminence of health among personal considerations.
“When health is absent, wisdom cannot reveal itself, art cannot manifest, strength cannot fight, wealth becomes useless, and intelligence cannot be applied.”
ONE FROM TODAY
Author, Chris Ryan, on the reality of being a human in modern civilization:
“Years ago, I stumbled upon what might be the saddest zoo in the world, in Bukittinggi, on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The place was nothing more than a bunch of dismal concrete cages in which a few doomed orangutans languished. I’ll never forget the look in their eyes, as they reached out to me from behind rusted iron bars, begging for release, contact, death… anything but more of the same. After this intimate look at animals suffering from what I later learned is sometimes called “zoochosis,” I didn’t go near a zoo again for decades. But eventually, a friend persuaded me to visit the bonobos in San Diego. To call both facilities “zoos” is to highlight the paucity of language. Whatever your opinions concerning animals in captivity, the San Diego Zoo reflects a serious desire to create an artificial world that is as similar to the environments in which each species evolved as possible. The people who designed the enclosures had clearly studied the natural contexts and behavior of the animals destined to live there. Native habitats were re-created, allowing at least a simulacrum of wildness within the walls....
We are the only species that lives in zoos of our own design. Each day, we create the world we and our descendants are going to inhabit. If we want that world to be more like the San Diego Zoo than the living tombs in Bukittinggi, we’ll need a clearer understanding of what human life was like before our ancestors first woke up in cages. We’ll need to know our species.”
Source: Civilized to Death
ONE FROM US
It has become a cliche to point out all the ways that society will change forever because of COVID-19.
To-go alcohol is here to stay.
We’ll never shake hands again.
Why would we drive to a meeting when we can jump on a Zoom call?
In many ways, this coronavirus has just expedited our transition to the future - shopping online, automation (machines don’t spread germs), the death of malls, curbside grocery pick-up, and increased dependency on screens for every facet of life. However, it has also highlighted how insufficient technology is for many purposes.
We have a tendency to assume all that is new is better and that the world will look radically different in the future. That’s why people have been talking about flying cars since the ‘50s. But things tend to stay the same more often than they change. Before cars, there were roads and horse-drawn carriages. Cars were a natural extension. Flying through the city is not.
Shoes have been around forever and now we’re finally realizing the best shoe is the least shoe. We’re demanding less “advanced” shoes that allow the foot to be the brilliant technology it is. Similarly, iPads were supposed to change how we work. But typing on a pad is unnatural. Most of us just kept writing on legal pads. The human, pen-to-paper relationship is harmonious, like the human-dog relationship. The tablet game finally caught on and is making large tablets that allow you to write naturally and then save your notes in one neat place.
There is wisdom in tradition. If it has worked for centuries there is a reason. Real progress isn’t just about what seems practical, it is about what functions best - what honors the human needs - what is organic to human societies. That obvious truth is lost when we try to make rational projections about the future and when we try to force “progress.”
Right now many are looking at education and pretending that virtual classes can be comparable to in-person. I’m not trying to be a downer. Most kids will have to do online education this year and, with effort, it can be done well. But teachers won’t be anywhere near as impactful as they would be with an in-person class.
Some very intelligent people are talking about how virtual school is showing us that content can be conveyed more efficiently and without the hours of wasted time that occur with a typical school day. They believe virtual school will make it possible for us to package the school experience in a more efficient box. While I’d agree that there is too much fluff and an overwhelming need for drastic school reform, this is motion in the wrong direction.
The point isn’t to “master” and to check boxes. It is to bring subjects to life so they change how we think and operate in the world. We are social creatures who learn best with other people. We need people. We need community. We need discussion. We need a reason to get the hell out of our house every day. We need a reason to have meaningful conversations with a variety of people who bring a variety of perspectives.
As I said in my last article (what kind of pompous ass quotes himself?), in online learning teachers cover all the measurable items but “lose all those essential immeasurables - class discussions that spark lifelong interests, the courage it takes to stand and give a speech, the ability to manage personalities in group work, learning to de-escalate conflict, discovering the social consequences of narcissism, the empathy born of witnessing varied life experiences, the connections and passions that come from lunchtime conversations, the development of autonomy, personal responsibility, and independence, and many other vital “soft” skills.”
Schools do need to change and this experience is telling us where the weaknesses are. But we aren’t suffering from a lack of efficiency. We are suffering from a lack of humanity.
Suicides are up across all demographics, especially adolescents. Drug overdoses, which never exceeded 20,000 in a year before 2000 are now above 68,000 annually. Childhood obesity has tripled in the U.S. since 1970. In fact, a recent Harvard study projects that over 57% of today’s youth will be obese by the time they are 35.
Solving these issues starts with building an environment that honors our human needs - sunlight, nutrition, sleep, connection, authenticity, competency. The foremost priority of education must be to give people the tools to thrive.
If I’ve learned anything from the past few months it is how insufficient online tools are for connection. This isn’t to say they can’t facilitate connection. Justin is my business partner and, perhaps, my best friend. This relationship has been formed almost exclusively through online video calls. Our shared values, shared projects, and a shared sense of mission have made this possible. Likewise, I feel a genuine connection with many of you who have emailed consistently, particularly those that have gone through the 30x30 program. The beauty of the online age is that it allows us to transcend the bounds of geography and unite with amazing people that we would otherwise have limited access to.
However, these experiences certainly aren’t a substitute for physical experience. Technology can supplement our real life, but it cannot substitute. The online relationship has to overcome something crucial. Even more, these connections I’ve made wouldn’t have been possible in a large online class.
Perhaps the best analogy is to letter-writing. You can get close to someone through writing letters but this is a limited vehicle. You certainly couldn’t get much connection if the letter was being shared between a group of people. Likewise, live video is a great tool and it can facilitate a good bit more than letter-writing, but it still doesn’t compare to sharing space with people.
We are now less than a week away from the beginning of our first live course, You Are What You Stand For. There are still slots available if you’d like to join Justin, me, and a great small group for this exploration of human thriving and what pursuits bring meaning. It will be a powerful experience. I’m confident our numbers will be in the sweet spot of where the video vehicle promotes the most connection. Yet, I also know, it would be even better if we could actually be in the same room.
This is important to remember for our children. They are dealing with a great absence right now that has to be filled. On that note, I’m thinking of offering a free live book group that is intended for high school seniors or recent graduates. I want to help spur them towards meaningful ideas and pursuits during this wild time. If you know of anyone in this age range who would be interested, I’d love to hear from you. I need to gauge interest before I move forward. Please just email.