If there is a better way to communicate with another person than by a face-to-face conversation, I do not know it. Our letters are certainly valuable, for when I write to you I picture you in my mind and it is as if I am speaking with you directly. And a letter from you is a bright spot in my day, in which I feel like I can hear the voice of an old friend.
What then should we think of the various ways in which today’s teacher reaches out to pupils? At one end we have the MOOC, or massive open online course. Any can join (open), and thousands do (massive), and all interactions take place remotely (online). One great voice can reach the masses, and I suppose we can be thankful for the democratization of learning. But though each has supposed access to the master, I expect only a fraction feel truly addressed, because they are being talked at not talked to. As a result, while many begin such courses, few complete them. Have we really brought learning to the masses, or only given them a glimpse but left them wanting?
If the MOOC suffers from students lacking commitment, should we expect a better outcome when we apply a selection process? That is, when we admit only students who have met some sort of qualification? This may increase the chance that our words will land on attentive ears, but I am not yet satisfied. For consider how many students are present out of obligation rather than thirst for knowledge. They were compelled to complete their grade school, though they would have preferred to do anything but learn. Many are similarly prodded along to college because they are told they need a degree for success in life. Do these children any more willingly roll from their beds, shoulder their backpacks, and fill morning lecture halls?
Give me persons of any age who have made their own choice to learn, not because anyone compels them to, but because they believe it will bring them something of value. With such students we can talk. Not talk at, or even talk to, but talk with. The best lecturer does not just lecture, but also listens. The best class is one in which the professor learns something from the students, all while the students are learning. It is hard, it is rare, and it is special when it happens.
The larger the group, the greater the inhibition on speaking one’s mind. This is because we fear looking foolish more than we fear remaining ignorant. Have you noticed how often a large group will sit in silence until one brave soul says they do not understand. Suddenly there is a chorus of voices affirming, “I have the same question!” Treat each interaction, my dear Deuteros, whether with five, with twenty, or with a multitude, as a conversation with a single earnest person, and you have a chance of being understood by all.