Bertolt Brecht said “Hungry man, reach for the book: it is a weapon”. Unfortunately, it is often poverty that separates men and women from their books. So what we really have is a forced transition to a virtual platform in the middle of an economic meltdown. The dispossession of education, especially higher education, will be severe. That is where we have to think about the moral choice underlying this transition.
In this pandemic-stricken world – which has already changed the imagination of what it is to “come together” – the question of how higher education will change takes me back to one of the first online lectures I attended.
It was in 2012-13 that I watched Michael Sandel’s lectures on Justice online. I was frankly amazed by the idea that his lectures, given to the students of an Ivy League university in the US, were also available to me sitting in the hostel room of a university thousands of miles away. However, my response here is governed not as much by a recollection of the excitement of my initiation to the online classroom as it is by the content of what Prof. Sandel taught then. He was teaching (and I have the luxury and convenience of not having to remember it but can check on YouTube) the moral theories implied in the choices we make. He gave a few examples of classic thought-experiments in the discussion of moral theory, one of which I will mention here. The trolley car dilemma involves a trolley car which has lost control. You (the listener) are asked to imagine yourself to be in the driver’s position[i]. On the track on which the trolley-car is speeding uncontrollably, there are five people working. It is certain that the trolley car will hit them and kill them all. But then you, the driver, notice that the car can be diverted to a sidetrack on which there happens to be only one worker. You could kill one man and save five. The question, then, is would you kill the one to save the five or would you rather do nothing and allow the five workers to be killed. I do not want to go into the details of different moral theories underlying different possible answers to this question[ii]. But to my reckoning, the choices we may have about the future of higher education involve no less of a moral dilemma.
At least for the immediate future, the imagination of coming together has fundamentally changed. As for education, the online classroom predominantly seems to be the only viable option. But before I join the bandwagon criticizing online classrooms – for the lack/inequality of access, lack of interactive teaching options, inability to customize according to the different needs of diverse students, among other several serious flaws – I would like to take a moment to appreciate what online learning opportunities have done before the pandemic. Like the memory I shared of what was then an extraordinary opportunity to partake in a lecture that was given at Harvard, students have benefited enormously from the learning opportunities in the online world. While some of these lectures and online resources need to be paid for, many are free. This has, for example, even allowed students who are from economically weaker backgrounds and preparing for UPSC to stop their heavily charged coaching and using online resources, learn on their own.
In short, the learning opportunities in the form of online lectures and availability of reading materials have, in the years prior to this unfortunate pandemic as well as during this pandemic, helped greatly in the democratization of knowledge, in a wider distribution of opportunities. It has more effectively de-centered the teacher from a vertical position of power than any deliberate reforms in education have done. While it is true that good teaching practices cater to the diversity of strengths and weaknesses of students in a classroom, students from underprivileged backgrounds have abundant experiences of such customization of teaching working to their disadvantage too; the human touch we dearly miss today has not always been that humane. The online classroom, therefore, may have also been a level-playing field.
What, then, does the pandemic change? With this question, I come back to our initial moral dilemma and rejoin the discussion that is not convinced of the directions in which these virtual alternatives might take higher education.
I believe that the aim of online classrooms has never been a simulation or replacement of classrooms in the flesh. The difficulty posed by the sudden pandemic is precisely that, of simulation and replacement. Considering the progress that online technologies have made, I believe that they will adapt to our new requirements faster than we think. Students and teachers may feel apprehensive but this will be rapidly overcome, similar to a reader suddenly made to change from hard copies to e-books. The pandemic makes what has earlier been an alternative – a standby- our only option. The real brunt of this transition will not be as much on those who go through with it as it will be on those who are left behind by it.
This poses the question of digital inclusion. The transition will not only deny the many students who are economically and technologically ill-equipped access to these new venues (modes?) of learning, but the pandemic will also shatter the little glimpses of parity in education that were the result of long, long years of effort earned by generations. The economic meltdown that is surely to follow the pandemic will force many students out of colleges and universities, online or offline.
Bertolt Brecht said “Hungry man, reach for the book: it is a weapon“. Unfortunately, it is often poverty that separates men and women from their books. So what we really have is a forced transition to a virtual platform in the middle of an economic meltdown. The dispossession of education, especially higher education, will be severe. That is where we have to think about the moral choice underlying this transition. Are we ready to kill one man so that five can live? In the higher education sector, it is not really a question that is freshly posed by the pandemic. But it does add considerable weight to it. If virtual classrooms are our only way forward for the immediate future, it is our moral and political responsibility to ensure that every student is adequately equipped. It therefore calls for a fortification of public education and an increase in government expenditure on education.
As an aside let me make an argument for moral and political philosophy. On the face of it, the discipline of philosophy takes a backseat in the list of priorities reset by the pandemic. Scientific research is surely a far more pressing concern. But before long one must realize that seldom do our choices as individuals and the choices of our political office bearers manifest their gravity with such force and clarity as they are doing during this crisis. This calls for moral and political philosophy to be taught and researched, as concerns of immanent value to our survival and social well-being.
[i] Sandel gives slightly modified version of the thought experiment
[ii] For those who are interested, the contrasting moral theories involved here are termed utilitarianism and deontological ethics.
Nithin Jacob Thomas is a PhD scholar in the Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad. Views expressed are personal.
This article is part of a series called New Directions in Higher Education in India after COVID-19. The remaining articles of the series can be found here.