Snapdragon: Newman and Distance Education

If you know your John Henry Newman, you know that snapdragon, that beautiful flower capable of growing on stone walls, was the emblem of his stay at Oriel College (he would see the blooms from his window every spring and wrote a poem about its humility and its attachment to buildings). If you know your hardware, you know that Snapdragon is a kind of computer chip manufactured by Qualcomm that is used in mobile devices.

On the face of it, the two could not be more apart. For Newman, education is inescapably bound with place. What teaches students is the genius loci, the spirit of the place, imbibed imperceptibly in the colors of the buildings, the layout of the campus, the unconscious traditions, the informal bull sessions.1 What teaches is the personal contact with an individual teacher — his mannerisms, his indirect allusions, the casual turns of phrase. Students often learn not just knowledge and skills, but habits and affects by imitation of how the teacher seems to feel about a topic, an idea, or a school of thought.2

Moreover, students pick up all manner of knowledge — and a real education — from relaxed conversation with fellow students. In Newman’s mind, an education does more than teach you some things very well. It teaches you what you do not know. A sophomore might think himself wise and make a fool of himself with his over-grand assertions; a senior has been chastened and is quick to admit that there is a world of knowledge he is still to acquire. A residential university provides education in this sense simply by contact and confrontation with students in other majors, with other experiences, with other points of view.3

Now, online education is not residential. Students rarely meet in person and rarely have spontaneous, informal interactions. The professor’s unconscious mannerisms are rarely observed. The sights, smells, and sounds of the old Alma Mater are absent. If residence is a sine qua non of education, is online education an oxymoron?

Now, it is easy to idealize the benefits of an in-person education. As much as Newman believed in the benefits of personal contact with professors and fellow students, he also warned of dangers for both professor and students. Newman points to three adverse consequences of presence in a particular location. First, popular lecturers and academic performers are subject to temptations of vanity and to using their rhetorical success (“the pride of intellect, the aberrations of reasoning, and the intoxication of applause”) to excuse heresy or fall into error (not to speak of inappropriate relations between faculty and students that begin with admiration). Second, Newman expects brawls, hostility, and hatreds to be the result of bringing together young people from diverse backgrounds and failing to subject them to authority. Third, finding themselves in novel and exciting surroundings, with no particular obligation of good behavior, thrown together in a desire for amusements, students will form into crowds of youthful licentiousness, prey to every temptation to promiscuity and dissipation.4

In Newman’s view (in writing, but even more so in practice), a university is a composite of three separate features: professorial lectures, tutorial feedback, and the formation of character through external restraint. These three elements may be so commingled as to be indistinguishable in a particular instance, but they are quite distinct things.5

Newman contrasted two styles or modes of education.6 The professorial mode enshrines whom today we would call “the sage on the stage.” We learn from Prof. So-and-so, her lectures, her important publications. We become her disciples. We are tested by her exams and try to measure up to her standards. She is the source of knowledge, or at least the source of knowledge for us.

The tutorial mode removes the sage and puts conversations among learners at the center. Some of those learners might be better educated, but they all learn through a process one might call catechetical, in the sense of questions-and-answers between the tutor and the tutee.7 Growth, through repeated failure and correction, through feedback and mentoring, is the goal of a tutorial relationship. The tutor is not intended to be a source of knowledge but a mirror, a gauge, a GPS against which the charges check their choices. A tutor is “a guide on the side.”

Rather than preferring one over the other, as many are wont to do, when Newman began his university in Ireland he tried to combine the excellences of both modes to produce something better.8 His university had professors who wrote for publication, gave impersonal lectures, and graded exams; had tutors (typically recent graduates) who, being close in age, could relate to the mistakes and mindset of their students.9

Now, in its essential elements, it is not clear why this best-of-both-worlds university must be residential. Online professors may record lectures, prepare handouts, and administer exams. Indeed, a recorded lecture may on occasion be a better performance — more pithy, more eloquent, better structured, more to the point — than a live one. Recorded lectures can be repeated (a boon for the forgetful) and can be embedded with just-in-time quizzes (to the benefit of the distractable).10 Prepared handouts may be better than scribbled notes. Online exams can give immediate feedback or save the toil of deciphering handwriting or both.

Likewise, just like in-person tutors, online tutors can give detailed comments. Indeed, adaptive learning tools give more pointed feedback and are more patient with gradually-improving resubmissions than the most catechetical of tutors. Styles of instruction that are impractical without technology, such as Mastery Learning, become entirely feasible through the internet.11 Students receive direct instruction and take exams with a high, hard standard, as in the professorial mode. In addition, they are prepared for the summative exam through frequent low-stakes formative submissions, say, a half-dozen small assignments a week. Crucially, they receive repeated feedback on these submissions. Deficient work is not simply given a bad grade — deficient work is rejected, made to improve, and resubmitted until it rises to the desired standard.

Many a homeschooling parent, working one-on-one with a single child at a time, teaches this way. But the system is impractical in a class of thirty: no teacher could give detailed, pointed feedback to thirty students on a dozen resubmissions of a half-dozen assignments every week, and be expected to also prepare lectures and grade exams. One solution is to hire separate tutors to administer the low-stakes formative assessments and give feedback. But the amount of work involved would require a very low student-to-tutor ratio and therefore high expenses (consider the intense and expensive way in which we teach music, which is taught on mastery principles). Without technology, this strategy quickly becomes unfeasible and falls out of fashion.

Use technology, and the system becomes thoroughly feasible for a wide variety of subjects.12 Adaptive-learning software and mastery-learning features of learning management systems are able to approximate personalized tutorial instruction at scale. Three examples may suffice. McGraw-Hill’s ALEKS teaches mathematics (and a variety of other subjects) by asking questions that reveal what the student already knows, what is still to be learned, and what the student is ready to learn; the student then receives interactive instruction and the system then checks the students’ knowledge; if the student’s learning is deficient on a particular topic, the system re-teaches and retests that topic while leaving already-mastered topics behind.13 Perusall, a collaborative reading tool, grades students on the quality of the comments they make on the margins of the required reading and on their engagement with other students, as indicative of their engagement with the material.14 Quizzing on Canvas can be set so that students may repeat a quiz without limit, but with different questions each time, until a certain score is reached; a certain amount of time can be required to elapse between trials to encourage students to study what they got wrong.15

In doing this, online software reflects what a caring, patient tutor might do. Like a tutor, it can check readiness, reinforce areas of weakness, build on strengths; have small groups of students sit down around the reading and have a real conversation about it; keep asking questions in different ways until the standard is reached.

However, online software is not a caring and patient tutor. A real person who is loving and tough, who can encourage with a word and a smile and make you want to do better, whose high standards and personal ethos make you satisfied with nothing but perfection can never be replaced by a screen. The teacher’s love for his subject (and for his students) can be felt and sensed but cannot be quantified or made into an algorithm. Teachers who manage to instill in their students a love for learning because they show that they love their students are beloved and memorable. One of the reasons they are memorable may be that they are also somewhat rare.

While online education cannot replicate the warmest aspects of in-person education, it can do a great deal through the combination of a professorial and a tutorial approach. And some warmth can be conveyed: the instructor can convey enthusiasm for the subject through lectures and videoconferences (recorded or synchronous); can demonstrate caring for the students by reaching out to those who are failing or by congratulating them on their success; and (through short audio responses to submissions) can convey feedback in her own voice.

The third element in Newman’s view of education is that of moral discipline and character formation. Famously, in the Idea of a University he contrasted the gentleman and the saint.16 A purely secular education can give a man the patina of virtue, a simulacrum that is all the more moving for its being vacuous. On the other hand, purely religious formation that does not train the intellect produces a fragile devotion and an undeveloped person. A real education, he thought, forms the mind, puts it in a condition to acquire knowledge, forms our character in a way that makes us capable of learning, and this in a way that is connected and builds upon religion and virtue.17

Newman believed universities had a responsibility for the moral development of their charges. His first major educational fight at Oriel was over whether education was supposed to be pastoral.18 This idea led him to the foundation of Littlemore, as a home for scholars and students attached to Oxford that had many elements of a religious community. It also led him to establish, in the Catholic University of Ireland, residential colleges whose main purpose was moral formation: led by a priest (as Dean), they would ensure regular confession, attendance to Mass, training in table manners, and, together with literary societies, wholesome and enriching entertainment.19

Newman’s view of moral formation in college, to be sure, was marked by balance, a characteristic of his thought.20 Newman’s critics in Dublin expected him to enforce the discipline of a seminary on his lay students.21 German universities emphasized self-discovery and self-realization (rather than formation by others) and did not make moral formation the university’s business: the purpose of the university is to facilitate students’ moral choices, unbounded by tradition or religion.22 Shrimpton, The Making of Men, 116; Peter F. Lake, The Rights and Responsibilities of the Modern University: The Rise of the Facilitator University (Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2013).] Against both, Newman’s scheme combined a love of personal freedom and attachment to fundamental truths, the goal being to teach students to become wiser by educating their freedom rather than by restricting it.23

His view of moral formation in college was not unusual for his time and place. For example, as late as 1913 courts in the United States upheld the rights of colleges and universities to regulate a student’s life:

College authorities stand in loco parentis concerning the physical and moral welfare, and mental training of the pupils, and we are unable to see why to that end they may not make any rule or regulation for the government, or betterment of their pupils that a parent could for the same purpose.

The same court decision goes on to repeat the then-settled legal doctrine that school authorities (at least those of private schools) have full authority over the students’ behavior while they remain students, whether on- or off-campus or even back home, simply from the fact that they are students.24

It is easy to idealize the benefits of in-person education and the college experience: the romance of professor and students strolling down tree-lined lanes or of students frolicking on a green lawn is often used for promotional purposes. Today, the average full-time U.S. college student spends twenty hours studying (class, homework) and thirty hours in leisure (socializing, attending parties, watching TV, playing games, participating in sports) every week during the academic year.25 For not a few students, the fruits of residency are moral regression, emotional scars, and venereal diseases.26 Granted a great deal of freedom, many students embrace a promiscuous, low-effort lifestyle that universities facilitate and advertise.27

Student misbehavior is certainly not new. When Animal House came out in 1978, it appealed to nostalgia for pre-1960s raunchiness.28 What is (relatively) new is the attitude that universities take towards student misbehavior. Prior to the 1960s, universities exercised a court-protected right to correct their students’ habits. A series of court cases (beginning with some in which public universities were sued for punishing their students for exercising their First Amendment rights to protest racial discrimination) changed the relationship between a university and its students. Rather than children under the care of substitute parents (who watched over their whole welfare, including their soul), students came to be treated as fully responsible adults (so that universities had no responsibilities whatever towards them and were mere bystanders). Accidents, rapes, and lawsuits later, courts recognized duties in this special relationship. Universities are now seen as mediators of the empowerment of students’ ability to make choices.29 The goal is the creation of a safe environment, building “on the foundation of a set of shared values including belonging, inclusion, and non-discrimination.”30 Rather than disciplinarians, student life departments are partners in students’ success and wellness and self-realization as the university has become customer-centric.31

What would Newman think of student behavior in colleges today? He would probably think that little has changed since his own undergraduate days.32 What he might find surprising is the combination of indifference and celebration that universities take towards much misbehavior. Under his Rectorship at the Catholic University of Ireland, students were expelled for the kinds of behavior we would today take for granted in young people — for example, frequenting certain establishments, public drunkenness, or returning past curfew.33 He was keenly aware of what happens to young people when they leave home: “[their] faith and morals are in great danger” — and of the need for universities to become like the homes they have left behind, structured to deal with deviations, thoughtlessness, and misbehavior, as well as to encourage good resolutions and noble ideals.34

Would he try to turn back the clock towards a more regimented campus life? What was feasible in the 1850s may be impossible in the 2020s. Maybe today our solution is to re-interpret in loco parentis. Instead of universities acting in place of the parents, universities might come to the parents’ place, to the family home. Newman knew that moral behavior cannot be reasonably expected of people without “regularity, rule, respect for others, the eye of friends and acquaintances, the absence from temptation, external restraints generally.”35 To keep the university together and prevent theological error, moral deviation, and bullying, he sought to influence students differently: to wit, with abundant funds, rules and regulations, doctrine and piety, and small learning communities.36 In today’s context, this may be a more fitting description of home, with one’s parents if the student is young, or with one’s spouse and children for older students, under the eye and the discipline of a boss and coworkers. Home and work may be more conducive to moral development than Animal House’s Delta House and Bluto Blutarsky.

From a purely academic perspective, online tools can be part of the solution for those teachers who have the motivation but not the hours in the day, or for those students whom even the best of teachers simply do not seem to be able to reach. From a moral perspective, online education may help address some of the problems of student life. The ideal of college as a log, with a tutor on one end and a student on the other,37 may be practical in some settings. For other settings, online education can be an invaluable complement.

  1. John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University Defined and Illustrated: I. in Nine Discourses Delivered to the Catholics of Dublin: II. in Occasional Lectures and Essays Addressed to the Members of the Catholic University (London: Longmans, Green, and Company, 1919), 147. https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=C7A0AQAAMAAJ.
  2. John Henry Newman, The Works of Cardinal Newman Vol. 10: Historical Sketches: Vol. III: Rise and Progress of Universities (London: Longmans, Green, 1899), 8–9.
  3. Newman, Idea of a University, 146–47.
  4. Newman, Rise and Progress of Universities, 184–89.
  5. Newman, Rise and Progress of Universities, 8–9.
  6. Newman, Rise and Progress of Universities, 179–91. But not only Newman: see also Daniel Coit Gilman, Inaugural Address as President of Johns Hopkins University, 1876, https://www.jhu.edu/about/history/gilman-address/.
  7. Newman, Rise and Progress of Universities, 190.
  8. Newman, Rise and Progress of Universities, 229.
  9. Paul Shrimpton, The “Making of Men”: The Idea and Reality of Newman’s University in Oxford and Dublin (Leominster, UK: Gracewing, 2014).
  10. Gabriel X. Martinez, “Assessing and Improving the Usability of YouTube Instructional Videos,” 2013, George Washington University.
  11. Thomas R. Guskey, “Lessons of mastery learning,” Educational Leadership 68, no. 2 (2010).
  12. Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams, Flip Your Classroom: Reach Every Student in Every Class Every Day (International Society for Technology in Education, 2012). See Chapters 5 through 7.
  13. McGraw-Hill ALEKS, https://www.mheducation.com/highered/aleks.
  14. Perusall, https://perusall.com/about.
  15. Instructure, How do I manage settings for an assessment in New Quizzes? https://community.canvaslms.com/t5/Instructor-Guide/How-do-I-manage-settings-for-an-assessment-in-New-Quizzes/ta-p/581.
  16. Newman, Idea of a University, 203–11.
  17. Newman, Idea of a University, 114; Shrimpton, The Making of Men, 276.
  18. Ian Ker, John Henry Newman: A Biography (Oxford University Press on Demand, 2010), 40.
  19. Shrimpton, The Making of Men, 142, 264–65.
  20. Ker, John Henry Newman: A Biography, 49, 553, 56.
  21. Shrimpton, The Making of Men, 307; Ian Ker, “Newman on Education,” The Center for the Study of Catholic Higher Education, The Cardinal Newman Society in Support of Ex corde Ecclesiae, January 24, 2008, https://newmansociety.org/newman-on-education/.
  22. [1
  23. Newman, Rise and Progress of Universities, 190; Shrimpton, The Making of Men, 143.
  24. Gott v. Berea College, 156 Ky. 376 (1913) https://cite.case.law/ky/156/376/.
  25. Lindsey Burke, Mary Clare Amselem, and Jamie Hall, Big Debt, Little Study: What Taxpayers Should Know About College Students’ Time Use, The Heritage Foundation (2016), https://www.heritage.org/education/report/big-debt-little-study-what-taxpayers-should-know-about-college-students-time-use. On lack of learning on campus, see Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).
  26. On campus promiscuity, see the review of three books by Wendy Shalit, “Review: Hookup Ink: Hooked: New Science on How Casual Sex Is Affecting Our Children, by Joe S. McIlhaney, MD, and Freda McKissic Bush, MD, Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus, by Kathleen A. Bogle, Sex & the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America’s College Campuses, by Donna Freitas,” Academic Questions 22, no. 1 (2009), https://www.nas.org/blogs/article/hookup_ink. For data on sexual behavior on campus, see Nancy S Netting and Meredith K Reynolds, “Thirty years of sexual behaviour at a Canadian university: Romantic relationships, hooking up, and sexual choices,” The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality 27, no. 1 (2018). For a literary example, see Tom Wolfe, I am Charlotte Simmons: A novel (Macmillan, 2004).
  27. For one example of universities’ use of frivolous leisure as promotional material, consider Jack Stripling, “The Lure of the Lazy River,” Chronicle of Higher Education, October 15 2017, https://www.chronicle.com/article/the-lure-of-the-lazy-river/.
  28. E.E. Smith, “Animal House at 30: College students find new ways to channel their inner Bluto,” Wall Street Journal, June 27 2009, https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB124605877163763579.
  29. Philip Lee, “The curious life of in loco parentis at American universities,” Higher Education in Review 8 (2011).
  30. Harvard College Dean of Students Office, About, 2021, 2021, January 24, https://dso.college.harvard.edu/about.
  31. Eric Hoover, “‘Animal House’ at 30: O Bluto, Where Art Thou?” Chronicle of Higher Education, September 5 2008, https://www.chronicle.com/article/animal-house-at-30-o-bluto-where-art-thou/.
  32. Ker, John Henry Newman: A Biography, 8.
  33. Shrimpton, The Making of Men, 326.
  34. Newman, Rise and Progress of Universities, 189.
  35. Newman, Rise and Progress of Universities, 189.
  36. Newman, Rise and Progress of Universities, 74.
  37. Frederick Rudolph, The American College and University: A History (New York: Knopf, 1962), 355.
Gabriel X. Martinez About Gabriel X. Martinez

Gabriel X. Martinez is Associate Professor of Economics and Director of Online Education at Ave Maria University in Florida, which he joined in 2002. He earned his bachelor’s from the University of South Carolina, an MA and PhD in Economics from the University of Notre Dame, and an online Master’s in Educational Technology Leadership from the George Washington University. Most of his research is on topics of university education and on financial crises. An American and Ecuadorian citizen, he is married and has six children.

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