Distance Learning Across the Centuries

Sharing Options
Show Outline with Links


We have now stumbled into our third in a series of four lectures, I trust somewhat happily. The first was entitled An Inescapable Burden of Glory, as you no doubt recall, and it addressed the necessity that God has placed upon all of us, and within each of us—that of seeking glory somehow, somewhere. Those who receive the Deuteronomic blessings are those who look to gather them in the way God instructed us to. Those who do not obey Him seek to find their glory elsewhere. But all of us seek glory, of necessity. We are inveterate glory-seekers—we need it as much as we need oxygen and food.

But sin affects the pursuit of glory. Those who are corrupt seek out various forms of vain glory, while the forgiven seek out the glory that radiates out from, and draws us back to, the tree of life. The forgiven of God, the saints of God, receive the blessings of Deuteronomy, and are loaded down with them—but not so much that they are overwhelmed, and not so little that they are discouraged.

In our second lecture, The Protestant and Evangelical Future, I focused on the bedrock proclamation of gospel. What must be believed, assumed, preached, declared, spoken, and praised? The answer to that question is the gospel of blood-true grace.

We now come to our third lecture, Distance Learning across the Centuries, which you will hear shortly. Give me a minute.

Later in the spring we will arrive at the fourth lecture, which is going to be overtly political. That lecture will present you with a charge concerning the moral necessity of conservatism, and will be entitled Liberal Arts as Liberty Arts.

Considering all four lectures together, I want you to understand that not only is it true that he who says A must say B, it is also true that he who says A must also say D. In imitation of the Holy Scriptures, to use the language of Westminster, I want what I say throughout all these lectures to follow what went before by good and necessary consequence.

We Are a Great Books Program:

I begin with the observation that New St. Andrews is a great books program. But this must be qualified because we have a particular approach to what we have you study. Not all great books programs are alike, and I would even add that not all great books are even great.

Because we are confessing and practicing Christians, and because we believe the lordship of Christ extends to all things, including the books in your syllabi, we begin by grounding everything on the Scriptures. So this is not a great books program so much as it is the greatest book program. Once that cornerstone is recognized, and we have accepted the teaching of Scripture on the nature of history, and the necessary development of historical theology with its lesser writers (e.g. Augustine, Calvin), and the subsequent unfolding of cultural history, and we have also decided what to do with the prisoners of war we have taken (e.g. Aristotle, Thucydides), this leaves us with a sorted out pile of old books that we want you to read.

So yours is not a modern education—you are being educated in a tradition, the confessional Reformed tradition. We know that we cannot prepare ourselves for learning in the future by forgetting the past. In the memorable words of Andrew Lytle, although contemporary man preens himself on being a modern man, he is really a momentary man. All these mayflies are nothing if not up-to-date. But their lifespan is also just one day, and so perhaps we should not care how modern they are. Tomorrow we will have to deal with the postmodern mayflies.

Jesus is Lord of all things in Heaven and on earth. His lordship is extensive, applying to every realm of human endeavor, and that lordship is also intensive. It applies to every realm of human endeavor, all the way down to the footings. But in using that phrase human endeavor, we must not forget that all human endeavors are conducted in time and in history. We are not just placed in a world, we are placed in a world that is in motion, and motion presupposes time. So this means that the Lordship of Jesus Christ, if it is genuine, must transcend and pervade the centuries.

If human knowledge were a flower, it would be a perennial, not an annual. Perennials regrow every spring, as opposed to the annuals that bloom for a season before they die. Schools and colleges that chase pedagogical fads are schools that treat the students like they were annuals. Schools that opt for a truncated time frame are doing the same thing. Every year for them is year zero, and they only know how to count to ten. Human history is a long row of ponds, this one called the eighties, and that one the fifties. But for Christians, human history is a wide and very long river, and what happens upstream affects our place here downstream. And Jesus is Lord of the whole river.

Remember Faulkner’s great line: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” We are perhaps more familiar with Santayana’s observation. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Although if we were in one of our cynical moods we might want to modify this to say that those who can remember the past are condemned to watch everybody else repeat it.

Contrary to the ponds-in-a-row view of things, we Christian educators who live on riverfront property are, of necessity, interested in significant things that happened upstream, and this means books, old books, ancient books, great books. It means that a great deal of what we want you to pass on to your descendants is material that we got from our ancestors. This is education across the centuries.  

It also means that—defined and qualified correctly—distance learning is right at the heart of our model for learning. But we must be careful here.  

Distance Learning as Whipping Boy:

My foil in this talk is the instinctive negative reaction that many of us have to what has come to be called “distance learning.” With the arrival of the Internet, it was not long before certain excitable spirits began to promise us the moon and back, with phrases like game-changer. And it was also not long before the worriers, fussers, and naysayers began to assure us that online data searches rot the brain. So some ardent souls began to yearn like the dickens for the Singularity, while others went the Wendell Berry route in order to raise a dozen chickens or so.

At any rate, it is very easy for us to scapegoat technology as the culprit in our modern educational malaise when technology is no more to blame in this transition as it was in the transition from scrolls to codices, or from oral learning to written learning. There is always something. Everywhere we go in history, people are sinning up a storm. Technology is a tool, and fallen human beings either learn to use their tools in wisdom, or they figure out how to use the tool in question as a way to cater to their lusts. This has certainly happened with the digital revolution, but I am certain it also happened in the very first cuneiform library. 

As Paul Simon wrote, long before the Internet, “I have my books, and my poetry to protect me.” And I am sure that in the heyday of the great library of Alexandria, the one that got burned down, there were more than a few young scholars back in the stacks there, guys who were doing their deep dive into philosophy for the compelling reason that they were afraid of girls. So let us not make a bugbear called “distance learning” into a whipping boy. Last week you heard the engaging Dr. Roberts, who is something of a techno-worrier. It may be apparent to you that I am much more of a techno-what-the-hecker.

Before pursuing any further the substance of anything I might have to say under this head, let me say something about that strange expression whipping boy—simply because I can’t pass up opportunities like this. In the English court during the Tudor and Stuart monarchies (15th and 16th centuries), a boy, a companion to the crown prince, was kept around in case the prince did something worthy of a flogging. If that happened, the whipping boy caught it instead. But there were compensations for him. The boy involved wasn’t a lowly peon or slave, but rather a high born companion of the prince, and was someone who generally did okay through life. But nevertheless, whenever a beating was necessary, the royal person of the prince was not the one that wound up with the welts.

Now this is not simply an irrelevant but entertaining snippet from history, it is also a case in point. I am using a metaphor to communicate the idea of scapegoating, and in order for you to have receipt of that metaphor, certain young men at court 500 years ago used to get thrashed by someone in authority. And so not only was the royal prince inspired to do better, and to pay closer attention to the lecture he was receiving, so you also are inspired to pay closer attention to the lecture.  

Education must overcome obstacles. Distance is one such obstacle, and it is an obstacle that education by definition must overcome. Mark Twain once said that all that was necessary for education to occur was to have a log with a teacher sitting on one end and a student on the other. But even in such an idyllic woodland setting, and with such a great student/teacher ratio, that education would still be a form of distance education. The distance would be three feet, and not three centuries, or three thousand miles, but it would be a distance.

There is no such thing as frictionless education. Every form of education must overcome obstacles. Those obstacles might be time, geography, language, personality, or limits on intelligence. But in order for any learning to occur, those obstacles must be overcome. Knowledge is a cliff face, and if you are to be students, you will have to climb it. It is not “cheating” to use rock-climbing tools—although it is probably cheating if you call the sight-seeing helicopter a rock-climbing tool.

In John Milton Gregory’s magnificent book, The Seven Laws of Teaching, he assumes throughout all seven of his laws that teaching consists of a journey, one which carries a precious cargo from the mind of the teacher to the mind of the learner. Not only is this a journey, but it is an arduous journey. And not everyone undertakes the journey with the seriousness that it deserves. One wit has described education as the process of getting knowledge from the notes of the instructor into the notes of the student, without passing through the mind of either.

Distance is why we need traction in education. Distance is something to be conquered, and the glory of conquering that distance is an essential part of what makes a top drawer education worthwhile. As it says in Proverbs, “It is the glory of God to conceal a thing: But the honour of kings is to search out a matter” (Prov. 25:2). It is the glory of God, we are told, for Him to put knowledge in some hidden place, out of sight, out of our reach. He makes it difficult; He puts the distance there. Searching it out is a royal prerogative, which means that Christian education is an education for those who are growing up to be kings and priests in the earth (Rev. 1:6; Rev. 5:10). That means you. Distance is a God-given feature, not a devil-inspired bug.

As we labor to overcome these obstacles, obstacles which are themselves the grace of God, we have to do cost/benefit analyses. How much do we have to sacrifice of this in order to have more of that? Many of you are hundreds of miles from your homes. That was an obstacle. You could have opted for a community college just down the road, within walking distance, but the trade-off had to do with what was being taught, and who was teaching it.

“The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavourable. Favourable conditions never come” (“Learning in War-time” found in The Weight of Glory, p. 60).

But With That Said . . .

Now the Scriptures assume that, all other things being equal, being together with someone in person is far to be preferred than to communicate with them by means of letters. Never forget that the apostle Paul undertook to instruct the Ephesians by means of distance learning. Not only so, but for us in the 21st century, on the other side of the world, that distance is at least trebled. Right? In Paul’s day, the distance was geographical and cultural. Paul was a Jew and the Ephesians were Gentiles. He wrote from prison in Rome, in Italy, and the letter went to Ephesus, in Asia Minor, 833 miles away. That is not an insignificant distance, but we have a number of additional cultural distances, historical distances, linguistic distances, and more.

And God wanted the book of Ephesians to be treasured in the Church to the end of the world, with those distances increasing by the year.

At the same time, with that said, personal face-to-face communication in education is much to be preferred.

“But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face,” (1 Thessalonians 2:17, ESV)

“Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete” (2 John 12, ESV).

“I wish I could be present with you now and change my tone, for I am perplexed about you” (Galatians 4:20, ESV).

Paul would much rather have been with the Thessalonians than to have written them from a distance. John would much prefer being present with his friends than to have written 2 John. Paul wanted to adjust his voice to fit the situation in Galatia better. But both Paul and John preferred the option of writing the letters to communicating nothing at all. So never forget the essential question, which is compared to what?

So another reason for this is that imitation across the board—an essential part of education—will include countless little things that will be left out of even something so cool as a Skype call.

“A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher.” (Luke 6:40, ESV)

Creative Fusion:

We live in a generation that is awash in information. Information swirls around us like a regiment of F-5 tornadoes. We would have to take a three-day hike into the woods, well out of cell phone coverage, to get well away from information. Most of you have access to virtually every great library in the world in your pocket or purse. A moment ago I told you all that Rome was 833 miles from Ephesus, a fact I ascertained in less than 10 seconds by typing the question into my search bar. In response to those painstaking efforts I was rewarded with a result that contained the distance in miles, the distance in kilometers, and a nice, colorful map.

According to the naysayers, this is going to give my soul cavities, and according to the cheerleaders, it is fluoride for the soul, and we ain’t seen nothing yet.

I want to argue that this kind of thing is just a small piece of an enormous educational blessing. But like all pieces, at least pieces of puzzles, it needs to go into the right place.

And an educational institution like ours, as great books program, is offering you, not a hideaway from all that information, but rather a program for you to learn how to curate it. And the more information you have to curate, the more robust your program for doing so must be. The more intelligent it must be. The more intelligent and wise you must be.

The globe is wired, and much of what has been written down through the course of history is also wired. Bandwidth is only going to expand, and so it is going to be possible to have all that information dumped on the coffee table in your living room. In order to prevent the complete ignorance that such omniscience will bring, you will need a filtration system. And the filters must not be set in an arbitrary or capricious manner—as in, no thoughts over 2 pounds, or no green ones.

In order to curate, we must rank, and in order to rank, we must have a standard. And isn’t this always the question? By what standard?

Some Advantages in Our Kind of Distance Learning

C.S. Lewis once wrote a foreword to a version of Athanasius’ great masterpiece, On the Incarnation. That foreword has since been included in the anthology God in the Dock as a stand-alone essay, “On the Reading of Old Books.” I commend it to you, and am going to quote from it now.

“The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism.”[1]

Keep in mind that your teachers, however worthy and commendable they might be in their persons, are nevertheless modern commentators. We just can’t help it. When we are doing our job as we hope to, we are simply making introductions to teachers who are, for the most part, more intelligible than we are. As the old guy in the back of the church once said to the pastor after services, “This here Bible sure sheds a lot of light on them there commentaries.” So the first point is that many of the great books (not all of them, alas) are clear books.

What we call “teaching” is frequently simply the accountability we provide to make sure you read the clear teacher. You don’t really learn from your tests. Your tests force you into contact with the one who does the teaching.

A second thing is the help distance learning provides against intellectual provincialism. Lewis again:

“Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it.”[2]

So also keep in mind the fact that your instructors, despite their earnest efforts to the contrary, are, like you, children of this particular generation. We are seeking, therefore, to provide you with an education that keeps all the windows open. We want the cross breezes. We don’t want you living in a stuffy little room in the basement of modernity.

This can be done without idolizing the past, which some classical Christian educators unfortunately do. 

“The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.”[3]

One of the great blessings of this form of a liberal arts education that you are receiving is that it protects you from the chronological provincialism that our generation is so prone to exhibit. The people who are currently vaporing about climate change and global warming now can’t even remember the incipient ice age that was the bogey-of-the-moment back in the seventies—and that is within living memory.

You are equipped to look at conflict in the Middle East with the lessons of the Peloponnesian War in view. You are equipped to identify the hot book from the latest hot megachurch pastor as nothing more than refried Sabellianism. You are equipped to identify what chord changes are inviting the descent of the demons of schlock. You know that there is nothing new under the sun; you know that what goes around comes around. You know that when Yogi Berra said, “You can observe a lot by just watching,” he was echoing the wisdom of ages—perhaps even Confucius.    

Unified Cosmic Education in Christ

“And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18–19).

“And, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven” (Colossians 1:20).

Education is not limited to those exercises which get you your diploma.

Distance learning is necessary because distance is the obstacle we are seeking to remove. That is what the reconciliation of all things entails. Do not be children in your thinking, but rather grow up into maturity. Christ is the one in whom the distance between Heaven and earth is overcome. The distance between a holy God and an unholy sinner is overcome. The distance between Jerusalem and Athens is overcome (about 780 miles, incidentally). The distance between teacher and student is overcome. But this only happens when we are walking in faith.

Sin—the only thing we ever really need to worry about—is a function of the heart. We always tend to blame the things external to ourselves. “The alcohol you gave me, the Internet connection you gave me, the gun you gave me, they did give me the fruit, and I did eat.”

God gives you a hammer, and you can build a house for someone with it, or you can hit them on the head with it. The sin, when it arises, is not in the hammer.

Sin and damnation are the creation and maintenance of distance. The outer darkness is nothing but distance. Salvation and sanctification (of which your education is a part) is the overcoming of distance, the reconciliation of all things in Christ. When in faith you use the tools of learning (books, lectures, libraries, high speed internet) to overcome distance, you are and are continuing to become a Christian student. “Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom in the future” (Proverbs 19:20, ESV).

When you use these same tools—books, the web, etc.—to create distance, you are headed toward the Abyss. That is the path away, away from God, away from wisdom, away from neighbor, and away from the world as God made it.

Sit down at a keyboard and type, “How do I go to Heaven?” Then after that, type, “How do I go to Hell?” Whatever glories or devastations might result, it is not the fault of the keyboard.

When we use the tools God gave us in order to create the illusion of closeness while diligently maintaining distance, we are sinning grievously. When we yearn for all the closeness that God is willing to give us, and we overcome distance by means of those same tools, we are doing the Lord’s work. A husband on a business trip could use his technology to access porn, creating greater distance from his wife, while maintaining distance from the women in the porn, while creating an illusion of high resolution closeness. Later on in our diseased times, virtual reality closeness will be even worse because the illusion will be that much greater, meaning that the distance will also be that much greater. At the end will be the outer darkness I mentioned, with nothing but distance in every direction.

But do not rush to blame that husband’s computer. He is on an obligatory business trip, and the distance is an unfortunate necessity. But when God gives him such an obstacle, he uses the tools God has given him to overcome that distance. He texts the kids. He Skypes with his wife. He uses the same tools to overcome distance.    

What I am saying here will be perfectly opaque to those who don’t want to see it, and perfectly plain to those who seek the honor that comes from God alone (John 5:44). I mentioned climbing a rock face earlier, and the use of tools to do so. But those same tools could all be wrapped around the neck before someone threw himself off the cliff. To refuse to see the difference is to be willfully ignorant.

Paul teaches that Christ is the arche, the beginning, the rule, the pivot upon which all turns (Col. 1:18). In Him all things stand, all things hold together, all things integrate, all things hang together, (Col. 1:17).

And this is why Christ is your education. You, who were far off, were brought near (Eph. 2:17). The distances created by sin have been overcome, but it is also true that the creational distances that swirl around our finitude are (in principle) overcome as well. How can Christ be your all without being your education too?

“But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30).

We do not see the completion of our education yet. We are not ready for graduation yet. We do not see all things placed under the feet of Christ yet. We do not see all our own frailties and faults placed under His feet fully yet. But we do see Jesus, the one who closed the greatest of distances in order to bring many sons to glory.

And you are His sons, and you are His daughters, if you pursue wisdom. “Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: And with all thy getting get understanding” (Prov. 4:7). And when you pursue something, where do you go in the pursuit? You go where that something is. Remember the famous quote by the criminal Willie Sutton, when he was asked why he robbed banks. He said, “Because that’s where the money is.”

Why are studying where you are studying? Why are you reading what you are reading? Why are you friends with the friends you have? Why do you seek out the instructors you have?

Ultimately, why do you worship God through Christ? Why do you conduct all of your learning under the Lordship of Christ? Because that is where the wisdom is.

[1] C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock, ed. Walter Hooper (HarperOne, 1994), 217–218.

[2] C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock, ed. Walter Hooper (HarperOne, 1994), 219.

[3] C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock, ed. Walter Hooper (HarperOne, 1994), 220.