Ignatian Education in the age of YouTube

February 18, 2013 § 7 Comments

YouTube is remarkable. Last year, while I interviewed eighth grade applicants, one student said that YouTube tutorials taught him how to design some elementary software. Another did the same to learn graphic design. A third, after viewing a television show on YouTube, began to teach herself Japanese. More recently, a freshman told me that YouTube videos helped him repair an engine for a classic car.

Software, graphic design, car repair, and Japanese: though not old enough to drive, eighth graders are browsing into knowledge that used to require thousands of dollars and a college degree. They are still at the age where they forget to brush their teeth, but half of them can probably build an electric toothbrush. Welcome to the new asymmetry.

The interviews cast me into contemplation and even awakened some insecurity. “Did I need to learn how to design software? Has my own education reached an expiration date?” I realized that I still watch YouTube mainly for the occasional commercial or something along the lines of “Boom goes the dynamite.” I felt like an old sweater. What am I offering, I thought, to the next generation? What is the value of Ignatian education?

YouTube: no match for the cannonball.

YouTube: no match for the cannonball.

We know things have changed. It is a wrinkled and graying cliche to say that the classroom is expanding. The availability of information has demolished walls. That availability has also unsettled our ancient reliance upon a textbook, a credential, and a teacher. The meaning of “school” is problematic: what, exactly, is its function? What counts as school? I am not, I should probably make clear, referring to the impact of online universities. Even those, now, are old news. Learning advanced things has never been so easy or so cheap. The website of the Khan Academy, for example, provides free lectures on DNA, the Vietnam War, monetary policy, prime numbers, computer science and hundreds of other topics. These lectures are not always riveting, but they are effective.

The burden of proof is shifting. Today’s high school, especially one that charges tuition, must offer an experience that transcends what a student can browse to or download.  If I am a history teacher, for example, and I merely accommodate my students through their textbook tour of dates and figures, how can I justify my job? If I teach English, and I simply re-present what students have already memorized through SparkNotes, what value am I bringing to the class?  There is nothing I’m providing that isn’t outdone elsewhere.

But we cannot overreact. If it’s a cliché to say that the classroom is expanding, it’s also now a cliché to make too much of it, to assume that a traditional education is obsolete. There is a lot of money in stoking that fear, and it’s not true. In fact, the rise of internet venues has begun to reinforce the value of the familiar campus setting. The internet is so vast, so filled with rival viewpoints, it’s now causing a counter-reformation, a desire to return to a place that has already filtered out the excess, that has done the necessary vetting.

Moreover, parents who homeschool using web-based options soon confront the isolation and passivity such a model creates. It’s also exhausting to try to identify the right combination of sites and programs, and then integrate them into a plan for spiritual and personal formation. Those difficulties and more (college preparation, standardized testing, etc.) are leading homeschooling parents to form larger networks, usually called “cooperatives,” which, in essence, are nothing more than little schools. We are back to the beginning.

This is not to say, “All is fine, everyone move along and give us your tuition money.” In this hyper-reforming milieu, Catholic and Jesuit education remain essential, but our schools must continue to respond to the challenges and opportunities created by alternative educational venues. The Jesuit Secondary Education Association (JSEA) set the tone for this years ago. In The Jesuit High School of the Future, published in 1972, the Commission on Research and Development said, “If our schools are to perform as they should, they will live in a continual tension between the old and the new, the comfortable past and the uneasy present.”

What that means, of course, will be filled in by curriculum planning, faculty formation days, colloquia and seminars (and, I hope, this blog). But as a general matter, it means Jesuit education rejects the artlessness of extremes. The detachment to which St. Ignatius invites us in the spiritual life is no less important in the teaching life. It is much more difficult, and takes far more talent, to integrate differing voices, to harmonize past and future, than it is to say “make them all translate Latin” or “turn the school into an Apple store.”  There are times we may need the iPad, but there are times we may need to read Cicero. And there are times we may need to read Cicero on the iPad and extend it into a vibrant class discussion.

No matter the approach, the goal is God. The goal is to help students find Him in all things and be found by His love. If we are patient, that will happen.

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