By Kenneth J. Rolling
Considered from the perspective of someone pondering the ideals of Catholic education, there is a certain tension communicated by the phrases “ancient wisdom” and “modern technology.” We might even feel an impetus to cast it as “Ancient Wisdom vs. Modern Technology.” And why not? It seems obviously right to extol the old as time-tested, nobler, and deeper, in some way, than the fads of the moment and to condemn modern technology as neatly opposed to these principles: innovation is the very heart of the matter, along with speed and ease. It is worth pausing to consider this assumption in order to clarify why the past offers so much and how the tools of the future might be more than a hindrance to education’s pursuit of ancient wisdom.
As Catholics, we are confronted, unavoidably, with the importance and value of things ancient. The very concept of tradition is that something is being handed over or passed on from the preceding to the coming ages of the world. Further, understanding Christianity is impossible without the study of history. At the least, Christ entered history at a specific juncture, far removed from us in time, establishing then the depositum fidei from which we draw our knowledge of God in Christ, through the Fathers. In matters of lesser consequence, ancient pedigree can signify merit—time is a wonderful critic, selecting which tomes will survive the test of time and appear on our shelves as “Great Books.” Fads come and go, but works of real beauty, in music or the visual arts, subsist.
Further, with times-gone-by we associate life at a slower pace, life closer to nature, and culture more conducive to virtue and wisdom itself. Though it is important to avoid mere nostalgia and over-broad generalization, there is something to this association. Our secular age is different; few would connect those attributes with life today. In addition, timeless truths remain true regardless of changes, discoveries, and additional insights. So wisdom should be attended to whether it comes to us from today or last millennium, yet the simple fact that there is a great deal more of the past than the present means that we should attend to the past with a particular care. We may conclude that though simply being old is no claim to value, it seems reasonable to associate wisdom with the past and to recognize that a proper education ought to look deeply into history. Does this preclude any similar association between modern technology and wisdom?
On the contrary, it might just be that, in looking at the ways in which modern tech can give us “antiquity,” we can see how it serves the pursuit of wisdom. Two particular means spring to mind: these tools make available a vast library of great writing from the past and they provide an array of new venues for ancient methods of teaching. Let us consider each of these in turn.
Most of us are familiar with a number of free online books sites. Here are a few worth a visit: The Baldwin Project, Project Guttenberg, The Online Books Page, LibriVox (audio), and the leviathan that is Google Books. There are also paid book services through various online book sellers, which often use e-readers. Encyclopedias, news sources, academic journals, library services and nearly all new publishing efforts are emerging online. What all of these sites and services make possible is the reality of a vast library of great writing at your finger-tips for very little cost. It would be difficult to underestimate the amazing value of this situation. We enjoy in this a treasure of real worth in the pursuit of wisdom. When it comes to education, however, availability of books is not enough. The pursuit of wisdom has always been a matter of the give-and-take between souls as they grapple with ideas together.
Socrates, famously, questioned; Plato dialogued; the Mediaevals engaged in disputatio; and in many educational circles today there is an increasing awareness of the value of dialogue as a means of teaching. The lecture, reflecting the idea of teachers as masters of a subject who are skilled in leading students into understanding, remains an essential tool (though much of modern teacher training replaces expertise and joy in the knowing with didactic methodology, for good or ill). These are basic models of teaching that cannot be replaced by merely digital teaching tools, but they can be facilitated with modern tech.
Using video conferencing, digital correspondence, and online educational resource management tools it is increasingly practical to provide opportunities for authentic teaching interactions in online settings. In a time when many a diocese is facing school closings and budget difficulties, when an increasing number of families are considering home-schooling, and everyone is recognizing the difficulties of the high costs of college, this is particularly good news. Students can gather and enter into spirited debates, one-on-one tutoring is easy to provide, lectures can be given from any corner of the globe, and other means of engagement that would otherwise be very costly and logistically difficult are made possible. Some of these resources may even augment traditional teacher/student engagements, since they allow teachers to make lectures repeatable (consider the flipped classroom), and they make the whole class more transparent, enabling easy parental or administrative oversight, which improves and guarantees quality.
In my experience as an educator, one of the ways in which modern tech has proven especially effective is in making classes available to homeschool families that the logistical restraints of younger children in the home, educational levels of the parents, and other similar factors would otherwise render impossible without forcing the students completely outside the home. More generally, without the necessity of searching for and hiring full-time staff, schools and home schools can provide high-level classes on an ever widening array of topics. It is not foolhardy to imagine that, as Christianity is pushed out of the mainstream and the possibility of operating institutions as Catholic under the law is attacked, such means of instruction may even become vital because of the way they minimize the institutional imprint of a school, making it less of a target for those bent on opposing Catholicity. In regards to such a scenario, Ancient Wisdom would tell us, no doubt, to be prepared, never to underestimate the potential folly of man, and to put to use the tools at our disposal.
Kenneth J. Rolling is a founder and instructor of The Rolling Acres School: a liberal arts and great books inspired academy and curriculum provider, working in the Catholic tradition, online since 2011. Sample The Rolling Acres School for free here.