Can Philosophy be Taught Online? One Professor’s Stance and Stand

Can Philosophy be Taught Online? One Professor’s Stance and Stand

untitledYou’ve known George Payne for his wide-ranging subjects and always thoughtful and informative commentary: on Martin Luther King, his photo montage of Rochester, interfaith dialogue, urban poverty, the plans to make the Lower Falls a National Heritage Site, a critical response to a the PBS documentary “Peace Officer,” on Black Lives Matter, on the Sacred Text’s conference at Nazareth College, and legalizing cannabis as an act of social justice.

Today, George — who teaches Philosophy at Finger Lakes Community College — turns to an ongoing discussion both within academia and society at large: online education.


from “Is Google Making Us Stupid. And how much of this will you read

In his essay on the (qualified) shortcomings of online classes, George says he, “may be a lone wolf crying in the wilderness.” I know, however, he is not alone in his concerns over what is lost when the reality of the classroom becomes virtual.

In my career, I have been fortunate — so I imagine — in only teaching in “real” classrooms. “Is Google Making Us Stupid. And how much of this will you read mentions that tools like Discussion Forums do enhance the educational experience. But can never replace the physical presence, as George says: “the psychological, emotive and aesthetic qualities imperative to good teaching.”

About five years ago, I took an excellently designed and implemented online geography course with Charles Scruggs, Associate Professor of History, Political Science and Geography at Genesee Community College I learned much from Charles and still remember writing that essay on Somalian pirates within a geographical context.

At the same time, I agree wholeheartedly with two student comments from RateMyProfessor

I wish I had a chance to take a course in person with this instructor [Professor Scruggs]. Very helpful and always gets back to you right away. Which is important with an online course.

My only regret is having taken his class online, and not having had the chance to meet him.

Charles kindly later wrote me a reference letter, but I’ve never met him (although maybe we spoke on the phone once). And I’ve always thought I missed something.  (also see postscript at end)

Can Philosophy be Taught Online? One Professor’s Stance and Stand
by George Payne

Trying to teach philosophy online is like trying to teach swimming online. It just doesn’t work. As much as I can sympathize with the plight of modern day learners with their bumper to bumper, multitasking, full throttle ahead lives, the point of philosophy is to help people reduce and transform this stress, not to sanction and co-op it by using the same medium which causes so much of the anxiety, distraction and sense of overload in the first place. As Thomas Hobbes said, “Leisure is the Mother of Philosophy.”

As a counter-cultural tool of spiritual and political resistance the art of philosophizing aims to create more space in our lives by helping us to focus on one thing at a time; it slows us down and grounds us in the most primordial experiences of personal and interpersonal communication. Rather than feed into our socially conditioned drive to do more and become more, the discipline works to shift our attention from the kinetic pace of worldly success to the slow but ultimate goal of self awareness. This is a dynamic, sensational, tactile, semantic and multidimensional dialogue which occurs in person and in real time.

When we choose to communicate over wires and  screens we are not fully present with other people in a way that allows the mechanics of philosophy to work properly. An instructor may see a student’s body and they may hear their words but they can not sense their presence in a room; nor can they gauge how their expressions are being analysed by other students. I tend to think that the best philosophy teachers are listeners who can hear silent moments of transition before they happen; they can play off the pregnant moments of creative agitation, and they know when to hold onto or let go of a moment based on an intuitive flow of the discourse.  This artistic science can not be simulated virtually.

Unfortunately so many vital pedagogical skills are nearly impossible to replicate over the computer. I am referring to one’s physical mobility within the classroom itself, the cultivation of empathic sensitivity, the use of well timed humor, classroom design and ambiance, the implementation of physical rituals, and countless other psychological, emotive and aesthetic qualities imperative to good teaching. As I see it, there is the real thing and there is something like the real thing. Why should we settle for a pale imitation of the genuine experience? Why choose to live in Plato’s  artificial cave when we know how to break the chains and walk out into the sunlight of the Real?

Kids on cell phone

Although the discipline has impressive capacities for social adaptation and technological versatility, surely it is not reading chapters in a book, thinking alone, posting a response in a discussion forum, and then waiting for others to find time in their hectic lives to offer a response back. This may be a form of research, communication, or even learning, but it is not philosophy. Nor is philosophy watching YouTube videos, listening to lectures, or having conversations in virtual chat boxes that are interrupted by a constant parade of images, sites, pop up ads, and other distractions that come with being “connected.”

Part II 

Nevertheless, a true philosopher always looks for flaws in their own presuppositions. Upon further reflection there are too many counterexamples for my position to be irrefutable.  For example, there are those who can’t learn in a classroom due to ailments, handicaps, or anxieties of some sort. Am I willing to say that these students are not able to philosophize when they can only safely use the online forum? What about the poor who can’t afford to go to college yet have a library card and internet access? Are they also denied the opportunity to philosophize because of their station in life?  How about prisoners and other members of society who are denied access to traditional academic opportunities?  Is online learning somehow a feeble substitute for the learning they would receive outside the prison walls?

It was Bertrand Russell who once wrote, “To teach how to live without certainty and yet without being paralysed by hesitation is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can do for those who study it.”

With Russell’s words in mind, is my thesis essentially outmoded, misguided and hampered by prejudice? Can one hold an absolutist position without ignoring the realities of people who have vastly different learning needs? Am I just failing to live up to my own potential as a teacher when I turn my back on this challenge? Why can’t I make the medium work for my own particular style? Isn’t that what being a creative teacher is all about? Good questions all around.

But we do lose something necessary when philosophy is uprooted out of the classroom and transplanted onto discussion boards. Skype may be an impressive piece of technology, but it is not the same as being with your students in a physical setting.  Finding a good teacher online is wonderful, but doing philosophy requires much more than logging into a website, or following a YouTube channel. As my personal struggle persists, the question at the heart of the matter continues to be: What does it mean to philosophize other than to access, absorb and announce information?

Besides,  what happens when teachers begin to lose all of their classroom time? How much closer are we to the day when robots and recorded programs will be deemed more efficient and cost effective than human teachers?  How much closer are we to the day when this prehistoric and most human endeavor will be dropped from our school curriculum all together?

At the risk of sounding sanctimonious, the reason I choose not to teach online has nothing to do with the quality of learners who gather there for help and inspiration, the unique challenges of the medium, or the inherent value of sharing ideas with people of different backgrounds. I choose not to teach online because I believe it is important to protect and preserve — if only symbolically — the role of in-class teaching which is currently under threat in academia. Frankly speaking, I am deeply concerned about the fate of a discipline that I cherish, and I can not bring myself to participate in something that inevitably harms it.

I fully realize that I may be a lone wolf crying in the wilderness. But at least my voice is crying for the survival of something that I love. Even if I am the only one who hears it, at least I am listening to a sound that I trust.

Editor’s Note: 

A while back, in On the “Bridge Generation:” born 1960 – 1980, I included a piece on college education in the 80’s: “no laptops, no inboxes, no online classes, no hat rooms, no virtual classrooms.



Wired Generation is missing out  The Daily Messenger January, 2012

Liking to think I coined a new phrase: “I think my generation — the ‘bridge generation’ — has had the best of both worlds. We were educated pre-digital yet have enjoyed the fruits of the new.”

and also Then and Now Brown Alumni Magazine  March/April, 2012


“Is Google Making Us Stupid?” And how much of this will you read?

On “The Bridge Generation:” Born 1960 – 1980

About The Author

Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History and a Storyteller in Residence at the SmallMatters Institute. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College. I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, the CITY, Lake Affect Magazine and Brighton Connections. My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle  blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C  ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones.  So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are invited to join. I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.” Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.


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