The COVID pandemic forced schools to manage the most rapid transformation of classrooms in our lifetimes. School administrators contended with lockdowns, quarantines, barriers, masks, distancing, and fear. The most consequential transformation was so-called “distance learning,” which sought simultaneously to impose and overcome physical absence from the classroom, substituting electronic networks and screens. Some schools have considered permanently adopting online tools and digital devices that were acquired during the pandemic. But before we accept screen-mediated schooling as inevitable or convenient, we should consider how this digital transformation might undermine schools’ educational missions.
If a core purpose of education is to help students become virtuous—intellectually and morally—then we must ask whether virtue can be learned virtually. We are not aware of any studies that even ask this crucial question. But if virtue cannot be acquired virtually, then the technological changes rationalized by the pandemic ought to be rejected.
Schools predictably adopted digital technologies to set up virtual classrooms because the standard crisis management playbook prioritizes operational recovery—i.e., restoring some version of the status quo ante. But amid the scramble for operational recovery, the educational mission and values of many schools were lost in the fog. With all the pressure to get back to delivering educational content, and to keep children occupied so parents could work from home, some schools lost sight of their core purpose—fostering intellectual and moral excellence, that is, virtue.
The development of virtue has long been the avowed purpose of education across public and private schools. According to a 2011 report, published by the Leonore Annenberg Institute of Civics at the University of Pennsylvania, “the role of schools as conduits for civic knowledge and virtue is deeply rooted in the American tradition.” Another report on the purpose of public education recognized the importance of developing civic character to American democracy: “A nation committed to democratic freedom requires citizens with the knowledge, skills, virtues and commitment needed for active engagement in public life.” In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.”
Private and charter schools often explain their educational missions by identifying the specific virtues they cultivate and esteem. If you survey prominent preparatory schools, you’ll notice a common aspiration that their graduates acquire through their education and exemplify in their lives such virtues as courage, generosity, wisdom, selflessness, humility, simplicity, honesty, and integrity. Similarly, the largest charter school network in the United States, KIPP Public Schools, lists “Focus on Character” as one of its five differentiating commitments, which includes an emphasis on gratitude.
But is this central aim of schooling—helping students cultivate virtue—achievable in a virtual environment? To answer this question, first, consider the nature of virtue, which is an excellence of the soul. Specifically, following Aristotle, virtue is a state of the soul “which makes a man good and which makes him do his own work well.” Cultivating virtues in children involves developing habits and dispositions to perceive, feel, judge, and act in the world in an honorable way. The foundation of any virtue, as a form of excellence, is discipline—restraining impulses, discovering and developing capabilities, and practicing behavior modeled on how a wise person acts.
We first learn virtue by developing a “kinship to excellence,” which requires guidance to recognize certain acts as noble and others as base. We learn not only by being told, but by feeling pleasure in performing noble acts and feeling shame when our actions are base. The teacher’s responsibility is to help us learn to recognize these natural feelings, and remember them, so that we can eventually use them in our own moral reasoning.
In order for students to learn these disciplines of the soul, they need a school environment in which a wide range of interactions can be practiced in a natural environment. This allows teachers to observe and interact with the students and help the students see and evaluate the natural consequences of their actions. The learning environment should also allow teachers to model virtuous behaviors to their students and, thus, to serve as exemplars.
Defenders of computer-based distance learning might argue that, because students and teachers can hear and see each other online, virtues can be practiced in a virtual setting. This argument, however, ignores the physical and social character of embodied human life: it assumes that a predominantly visual and verbal medium of experience, occurring in a static and solitary environment, can foster the disciplines (mental, physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual) necessary for virtue to develop. But that assumption is empirically unsupported: studies have thus far failed to show that increased virtue literacy (i.e., merely comprehending concepts, which a brain in a vat might do) is correlated with more virtuous behavior (i.e., the actual embodiment of the virtue).
Furthermore, since we are embodied beings, cultivating virtue requires unmediated interaction with the physical, material reality that serves as the testing ground of our orienting beliefs about the world and ourselves. As philosopher and educator Luigi Giussani has put it, because “‘[e]ducation is an introduction to total reality’ . . . [t]he place where the educational process unfolds must be a place where all of reality is presented.” We can only act prudently, courageously, or temperately once we know the powers and limits of our own bodies and the properties of the subjects and objects with which we contend. If interaction with the natural environment is critical to “cognitive, affective, and evaluative (values-related) maturation and development,” then there is reason to be gravely concerned that human excellence will not survive an “extinction of experience” in nature.
In other words, we must discover how to successfully interact with physical things in order to develop appropriate judgments about how to achieve our ends in the natural world. Formative moments of socialization also necessarily occur where bodies are present. Sharing joy or grief with a friend entails a physical interaction, so as to perceive and express the subtle inflections of emotion conveyed by a breath, a glance, a touch. Loyalty, love, and compassion presuppose the vulnerabilities and dependencies that are only evident in embodied communities. Channeling education through virtual reality cannot possibly prepare students for the moral lives that await once they turn away from the screen.
The unsuitability of screens and simulations to the virtue-oriented mission of schools is inescapable when one soberly considers the crisis of children’s screen time, including device and media addictions and other screen-related mental health problems, especially depression and anxiety. Moreover, empirical studies show that online learning is less effective, yielding worse outcomes than traditional courses; students struggle to pay attention with devices in the room; students with strong preparation might fare fine, but the students most in need are hardest hit. Schools have issued devices to children and made those devices the focal points of teaching—even art and physical education in some cases—damaging the soil where seeds of virtue should be planted.
Furthermore, streaming school through screens is an awkwardly self-conscious medium for the education of children. Classroom attendance can easily become a performance, requiring frequent adjustments of microphone and camera to manage self-image. This constant attention to one’s self-presentation undermines virtues such as humility and selflessness and instead breeds narcissism and other vices.
Virtue-oriented schools should have framed the challenge of distance learning not as a problem of content transmission or engagement monitoring, but, rather, of practicing the same habits of human excellence, albeit in remote settings. And if schools had done this, then they would have been less focused on screen-mediated experiences and more focused on active inquiry and exploration in the world students must navigate in real life. After all, virtue is cultivated where the challenges of human life are shared, and habits of excellence are learned in action.
However well intentioned, the ubiquitous and largely uncritical deployment of technologies during the COVID crisis should be halted and reversed. When faced with future disruptions, displacements, or evacuations, schools ought to be more experimental with remote or independent in-person activities—with appropriate safety protocols, of course—such as physics experiments in parks; chemistry and ecology lessons in gardens; building projects in open lots; trips to historical sites, national parks, monuments, and natural wonders; open air theatrical, instrumental, and vocal performances for neighbors; family dances; service projects for—or, better, with—seniors in the community; and sports and games outdoors. And since distance learning is, in fact, a type of home schooling, unprecedented forms of teacher–family collaboration will be required for the mission to succeed.
Unfortunately, cameras and screens, technical difficulties, and an unprecedented alienation between teachers and students sometimes preempted and overshadowed these kinds of activities during the pandemic. As a crisis management technique, screen-based distance learning facilitated some manner of operational recovery for schools, but also called into question their commitment to cultivating virtue in their students.
We have argued that virtue can only be cultivated by engaging students’ bodies, minds, and souls in the physical, natural world in which they live. Virtue-oriented schools that zealously adhere to their missions—and their distinctive commitments to human excellence—must put technology at the service of the moral and spiritual order. And if they do, their educational communities and their students won’t merely survive the next crisis, but might even flourish.