Technology, Covid-19, and the Liberal Arts Ideal
For a school like Waterford that prizes its commitment to the liberal arts tradition of education, the increasing reliance on technology in our culture is a source of ambivalence. During the Covid-19 pandemic, which has forced schools everywhere to teach remotely or in a hybrid environment, this baseline ambivalence has only intensified.
Over the last several months, we have seen an inevitable evolution in our approach to teaching. We are learning to run all of our courses in an environment that is at least partially online. That means that all of our communication with students and families is mediated through various digital technologies. We have cameras in every classroom that allow students in the room to be seen and heard by students at home, and we have large screen TVs that allow students at home to be seen and heard by students in the room. The teacher is able, to some degree, to engage both groups of students, and to combine them in unified learning activities.
But this mediated reality that we must deal with makes everything a bit harder. The easy, spontaneous flow of conversation that is so essential to the liberal arts model of education is no longer as easy or spontaneous. There is a built-in distance that gives us pause.
At the same time, we have seen our skills with various educational technologies expanding rapidly. We are far more adept with new tools and new strategies than we ever would have been without the compulsion that the pandemic has provided. Many of the new tools hold tremendous promise for engaging students and for guiding them through sophisticated learning journeys.
But we still worry about the loss of presence. The mediated interactions between teacher and student seem ever further removed from the liberal arts ideal of face-to-face conversation animated by a love of knowledge. The immediacy of voice and facial expression and emotional connection is more difficult to find in online learning.
For this reason, we eagerly await the moment when we can return to on-campus learning full time. We have confidence that our new technology skills will be valuable as supplements to the core activity of direct, personal, spoken communication. The constraints of the pandemic environment have brought home with renewed force the power of the liberal arts experience. We are grateful for the intensified experience of ambivalence we have lived through over the last several months and will continue to manage through until the pandemic lifts. It has reminded us of what really matters, even as it has also enabled us to develop new supplemental skills. The cultural reliance on technology is not going away anytime soon, even after the pandemic is behind us. Collectively as a faculty and as a school community, we are now better able to navigate the demands of our technology-saturated world, while we are also more attuned to the power of liberal arts education in its most human, unmediated, technology-free dimensions.
As published in The Waterford Magazine, The Caring Issue, Issue II.
Dr. Brandon Bennett, Waterford’s Associate Head of School, grew up in the Salt Lake area, before going to St. Mary’s College of California on a basketball scholarship. At St. Mary’s, Brandon first encountered the liberal arts philosophy of education, and was inspired to pursue the life of the mind through graduate school and a career in teaching and school administration. Brandon earned a BA in English at St. Mary’s, an MA in English from the University of Virginia, and finally a PhD in English from the University of Utah. Brandon started his career in independent schools in 1991 at the Meridian School, where he taught English and philosophy, coached basketball, and served as the Upper School Supervisor. He came to Waterford in 2002, where he has taught English and philosophy, coached Middle School basketball, served as a Class Dean, the Accreditation Self-Study Coordinator, Academic Dean, Assistant Head, Interim Head, and now Associate Head of School. Brandon continues to be a passionate advocate for the transformative power of liberal arts education, and is committed to teaching, administering, and continually improving the liberal arts approach to learning at the Waterford School. Brandon has two sons who have attended the Waterford School, the older graduating in 2016, and the younger in 2019. With his wife, a pediatrician in the area, Brandon lives in Salt Lake City, and enjoys the opportunities provided by the Wasatch mountains.