The Prospect of Disruption

I have reviewed several features of this university in its earliest days. What does the 13th century have to teach us in the 21st century?

It is becoming more or less commonplace to hear that universities like Oxford and Notre Dame are soon to be disrupted by digital technology that, in its various manifestations, will create more efficient, less expensive and more creative institutions of learning.

When I was working on my D.Phil. at this institution, I would sometimes get a break by taking the train to London, visiting a few bookstores, shopping at the huge Tower Records store on Piccadilly Circus for some CDs—then the really novel technology—and perhaps watching a film at a movie theater. Now, in 2018, I confess that I have not been in a bookstore in a long time, as I buy books from Amazon; Tower Records went bankrupt in 2006, and young people today would only vaguely know what a music CD is; and I have not darkened the door of a movie theater in years, as I watch any films I want to see through Apple TV or Netflix. Will Oxford and Notre Dame be the Tower Records of the future?

It would be a mistake, I think, for those of us in traditional universities to smugly dismiss this suggestion. Digital technology has changed and will continue to change the ways in which we interact with one another, learn, gather information, form communities and do business. It has and will continue to influence the way we do our work at universities. Online courses are becoming more common. Many professors find attractive what is called a “flipped classroom”: this the practice of recording a lecture or other material for students to view on their own prior to coming to class, and then using class time to solve problems, respond to questions or engage in discussion. In lectures, digital technology allows professors to call up a video clip in the classroom or enhance pedagogy in other ways.

Could the disruption be even more radical? Could universities be replaced by online communities in which instruction is exclusively delivered digitally, tests are taken and papers submitted online, assessment made at a distance? It was the concentration of scholars and students in a particular place, the city of Oxford, that gave rise to Oxford University. Why do we need the expense of physical proximity of a university community when we can do it all less expensively and at perhaps a larger scale online?

"It is hard for me to imagine how this inquiry and training could be replicated in an online environment."

I count myself a skeptic about these prophecies of radical disruption. Certainly, creative use of digital technology can enhance the pedagogy we deliver. It can be used to make certain kinds of instruction more efficient and less expensive. Yet, I have argued, a central feature in the emergence and endurance of Oxford as a great university was the establishing of communal practices of inquiry. With these practices, the community of scholars and students addressed questions at the highest level and expanded and deepened knowledge and understanding. At the same time, moreover, the students’ observation of and participation in these practices gave them a high level of intellectual training that would serve them in many occupations. It is hard for me to imagine how this inquiry and training could be replicated in an online environment. Such inquiry, at its most consequential, does not proceed by the development of observations and reasoning that moves in a straight line. Objections give rise to conundrums, which, through conversations and reflection, generate insights and these insights in turn generate a new, illuminating perspective on the question that had not been anticipated. Moreover, the students learn not just by acquiring and mastering information; the most valuable learning is often of a tacit sort, when a student observes how a seasoned scholar addresses a problem, wrestles with an objection, formulates a creative solution. So much of learning is simply being in proximity to those who do the activity at a very high level, observing astutely and incorporating those observations into one’s practice.

Certainly, for those forms of instruction that are simply the dispensing of information in a given area in a clear and accessible way, and the assessment of how the information has been learned and assimilated, online learning may be satisfactory. What made Oxford a great university, however, and the activity that is at the heart of a great university, is not this sort of instruction. The heart is the communal practices of inquiry by those at the highest levels of their discipline, engaging in open-ended inquiries, grappling together with objections and further questions, creatively resolving questions and forging a new perspective. The most important learning that goes on at such institutions, in turn, is the observing and being tutored in the craft of conducting such creative inquiries oneself.

Robert Boyle, the father of modern chemistry, came to Oxford neither as a teacher nor a student, but simply to conduct his inquiries in the community of scholars gathered here. John Locke, while a student at Oxford, was unimpressed by the philosophy he was taught in his classes, but his philosophy was greatly influenced by his conversations with the experimental scientists there, such as Boyle. Newman’s fateful writing of Tracts for the Times, which shaped his thought that so influenced both the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches, arose from hearing the St. Mary’s sermons of John Keble, a friendship with Hurrell Froude and conversations with others in Oxford common rooms. Oxford’s influence has come not so much through information disseminated in lectures, but as a host for conversations that are part of communal practices of inquiry.

One may object: “Your arguments are based on the limitations of current digital technology. However, future generations of digital technology will make possible the sort of observation, relationships, spontaneous conversations and tacit learning that you claim can only happen in communities with physical proximity. Moreover, people will become more and more accustomed to interacting digitally and new kinds of communities will be created.”

I must admit this objection has plausibility to me when I walk across a quad at my university and dodge young people thoroughly engrossed in the screens of their smart phones, oblivious to the actual scenery and embodied people around them. Perhaps they, or their children or grandchildren, will find it as natural and illuminating to be part of a virtual community of the digital world rather than with other people in physical proximity. Perhaps, but if this is our future, then many other of the communities that shape our lives will change as well. That is a future that I have difficulty imagining and would not relish, but perhaps that simply shows my age and affinity for the past and institutions with long and rich traditions. You, my audience, will need to make your own judgement on that.