Road to lonely learning

August 2, 1996

Cyberspace hoopla reminds us of how often technology affects the locus of learning. Writing itself, moveable type, high-speed printing, the telephone, recording devices, photocopying machines, radio, television and the spread of postal communications all have a bearing on where information, even knowledge, is obtained. Each technology implies, or makes possible, learning at a distance and reduces the need for learners to be in proximity to teachers.

At the end of a century of exploding mass-access higher education and the proliferation of knowledge and methods of inquiry beyond anything imagined in the last century, the university as a physical place finds itself in a quandary. The space that was essential to certain kinds of personal and class identities has lost much of its symbolic and affective, not to mention its unique, meanings. Institutional boundaries are porous, private and public space intermingle, and most students, certainly undergraduates, are not residents but commuters and householders.

From this perspective, the cyberspace university fills a gap. It is not the cause but one of the consequences of the integration of higher education with society, the multiplication of responsibilities, the large scale of educational enterprises, occupational necessities and national policies.

The way for hypertext, multilinear learning, the World Wide Web and the incorporeal university has been well prepared. Since the majority of undergraduates in the world today have never experienced anything remotely resembling sustained personal attention, the impersonality of machine learning seems almostnormal.

Continental students, when commencing their studies, do not really expect much face-to-face instruction, especially since "Humboldtianism", professor and disciple, has always favoured "advanced" learners. As instructors today are often disengaged, certainly emotionally, from "managed" institutional environments, distance learning through monitor screens hardly appears to be a calamity.

Changes in the organisation of knowledge, in decision-making within universities and in the way in which markets discipline research and teaching all seem to point logically towards a world in which quadrangles and benches shaded by wisteria are merely quaint. They possess few of the socio-moral and aesthetic purposes attributed to them in the past when knowledge was not power or intellectual capital but beauty or self-fulfilment, assimilation to an elite or the word of God. Since the modern research and professional school university is really a city, simulating urban patterns (eg, an extreme division of labour) and responding to urban problems, why maintain contrary fictions?

It is also an interesting question as to whether any of the physical charms of the old-time liberal arts college, beating faintly at the heart of American multiversities, were universally appreciated by the millions of young people whose minds and feelings were supposed to have been permanently influenced by these carefully selected experiences. Autobiographies and letters give every kind of response, from enthusiasm to disaffection, from claims of permanent influence to denials of any influence.

Yet trends and tendencies are too easily simplified. The importance of "places" - universities, colleges, specialised schools, museums, concert halls, theatrical companies, book and poetry readings - has not diminished. It has been strengthened by other technologies. Transport that makes, for example, travel more feasible, and the demand for nontraditional forms of instruction, synergistically increase the appeal of customary provision.

Despite a certain disenchantment with educational heritages, the search for appropriately-designed space use continues. The thought given to university planning remains intense. Countries without a campus-planning tradition now have one, such as France. Experiments are plentiful, not only in the design of libraries and lecture rooms (such as the ultra high-tech DeBartolo Hall at Notre Dame in Indiana) to take advantage of computer technology, but also in the actual enclosures, walks and gathering places so typical of historical universities and colleges. Purpose-built universities such as the University College of Lincolnshire continue to to be built.

Visitors to the university city of Louvain-la-Neuve in Belgium cannot but marvel at its breathtaking conception. Daring new master plans that unite existing features with bold extensions, such as at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, bring talent and verve to the arrangement of space. Some of the most exciting architectural work today is the adaptive reuse of discarded megaliths, sprawling structures like iron-age factories, their once-scorned structural features transformed into splendid learning sites.

In the south of Stockholm, next to an underground train station, a new university is taking shape within an unused hilltop hospital affording a view of the city.

It cannot just be that donors desire flashy buildings to name or that trustees want publicity and architects seek lucrative contracts. Common spaces, places, symbols and pedestrian amenities are social anchorings. Even the habitues of home offices, with an opportunity to watch their children grow, require frequent "breaks": shopping expeditions, outside entertainment, company, human discourse, the bustle of communities. The vision of a civilisation full of Internet junkies mesmerised by unending quantities of data is nothing less than a nightmare. The adverse psychological effects of distancing and isolation have been a staple of literature since at least Epicurus, long before Robert Putnam's 1995 essay "Bowling alone" seized the headlines.

But the use and meaning of space, its "reading", is never wholly automatic. One valuable part of education has been instruction in how to experience and appreciate dedicated space. In this task, the college idea has excelled, pointing out to generations of undergraduates how learning was enhanced by the delights offered by spaces sensitively arranged to bring out finer human responses.

Those who ingeniously explain how cyberspace learning is actually superior to book learning (laboratory learning too?) ignore the importance of "place" as a necessary requirement for personal development.

To "what" and "how" we learn, "where" should be added. In the early 18th century, Joseph Addison, registering disappointment with Oxford and Cambridge, announced that education needed to move out of its customary shelters into the everyday world, "out of closets and libraries, schools and colleges". But in the same breath he added, "to dwell in clubs and assemblies, at tea-tables, and in coffee-houses" - in short, wherever people gathered.

Defining human nature is an enterprise that has always enthralled thinkers. Are we naturally selfish and predatory or sharing and clubbable? Turning their backs on the dismal science, some economists today are intrigued by the findings of evolutionary biology, suggesting that cooperation is instinctual. Evidence exists both ways, and the evolving workplace itself shows signs of the deep division. Teams supplant individuals, while at the same time self-employment emerges as a growing segment of the modern economy. But each work form generates its own formal and informal means of restoring the missing half. Surely this process invites our attention. Naturally.

Sheldon Rothblatt is professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley.

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