Covid-19 has taught us no longer to trust the institutions that have failed us. Will faith-based education suffer along with other things we’ve taken for granted? Can technology save us? CUAC’s first global online seminar offered some clues to answering those questions.
CUAC made the leap, from in person to digital, on July 1 when it held an online seminar that attracted 178 registrants from across the globe. Designed not to replace the postponed 2020 London Triennial but rather to kick-start a conversation about its theme, the 90-minute event brought the ever-evolving lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic to bear on the ways technology is changing the way we think and teach.
The fact that it was 8 a.m. in New York, one in London, and midnight in New Zealand did not diminish the liveliness of this conversation, thanks to the insights of scholars Karen O’Donnell and Timothy Wu and the skillful guidance of CUAC Distinguished Fellow the Revd Dr Jeremy Law. A video is available at www.CUAC.org.
“We’ve met the challenge of being adaptable,” said CUAC General Secretary Jamie Callaway in welcoming the participants.
Law, who is Dean of Chapel at Canterbury Christ Church University (UK), reminded them they were about to hear from two world leaders in their fields. Dr Timothy Wu is a professor at Columbia University’s School of Law in New York City and a pioneer in exploring the interface of law, science, and technology. The author of three books – including The Attention Merchants (2017) – he is a frequent contributor to the New York Times as well as legal journals. He coined the phrase “net neutrality.”
Dr Karen O’Donnell is Coordinator of the Centre for Contemporary Spirituality at Sarum College, Salisbury (UK) and author of Digital Theology: Constructing Theology for a Digital Age (2019). She is a feminist theologian with a special interest in trauma theology and in the overlap between “digital humans” and embodied humans.
Law began by asking how the corona virus crisis had changed their thinking.
Wu said he had a greater awareness of “the fragility of many of our institutions.” The world in which “you could just jump on a plane and go anywhere” no longer exists. Things that seemed inevitable only a few months ago had turned out to be a period in history now over. He said that watching his daughters “go to school” online at home reminded him of how difficult it was to replace person-to-person contact in education. On the other hand, he was “meeting scholars in my field I’d never be meeting otherwise” – to the degree that “meeting in person” might now mean “wasting your time.” This was not the case for young people, but for professors it suggested that physical proximity was not necessary for a successful exchange of ideas.
O’Donnell agreed that it was “an unexpected pleasure” to meet European scholars every few weeks online – “I hadn’t done this before.” One thing that worried her, however, was that such contact is enticingly cheap. The new technology tempts universities to cut costs by reducing, even eliminating personal encounters and offering degrees entirely online. She called for a new “hybridity” that would be “driven by pedagogy and not by economics.”
Law asked, if something irreplaceable is in danger of being lost, what is it?
“Human attention,” said Wu. There is no substitute for attention, he said – it’s “how the brain absorbs information.” One-on-one contact is the ideal “bandwidth of information transfer.” O’Donnell regretted the loss of spontaneity – “the classroom question that throws you off script and leads to unexpected connections.” Education must be holistic, she said, not just about transferring information.
What are universities really for, asked Law.
Wu said he appreciated more than ever that our universities are bulwarks – “they are the protectors of things.” At a time of panic and disorganization in the face of a health crisis and an economic collapse, universities offer rationality – they have Schools of Public Health, for example. At a time when the U.S. government is not widely trusted and when corporations seem to be wavering about how to proceed, universities are “a stabilizing factor.”
O’Donnell warned against seeing these crises – including climate catastrophe – in isolation, as just “three lines on social media.” In the bigger picture, universities are called upon to be both rational and creative. “It’s an opportunity for the academic world to be a loud and well informed source of information.”
What do you say to people, asked Law, who say “we will be led by the science,” not by the theologians.
“A mature faith sees science as a gift from God,” replied O’Donnell. Science and faith are not in conflict, despite the view of some Christians who, for example, refuse to wear masks. Wu called for “a certain humility and a willingness to listen to what God is saying to you. Listening to nature is listening to God.” It is a mistake, moreover, to think that science is infallible – scientists have been repeatedly wrong about the coronaviruses, he said. But when scientists are wrong, they admit they are wrong – they accept their fallibility – and move on.
Can faith survive with churches closed, with private devotion replacing corporate worship?
O’Donnell said she expected a kind of hybridity to emerge since, for example, many older people who find it difficult to travel to church have discovered in recent months the joy of gathering online for daily prayer. She is concerned that religion in the domestic sphere will not be taken seriously, however, because of its gendered nature, its being seen as not as “good” because it’s emerging from a woman’s world. But perhaps such misogyny is declining, as a result of the pandemic. Our current inability to touch each other may lead to a post-traumatic, post-pandemic “re-making” of our patterns of worship.
Wu said it was a time of opportunity for churches because “the material world is failing us.” Yet there was a danger for Christianity in that so many innocent people were dying “for no good reason,” in that the universe seemed random. “An opportunity is being lost by church leaders in failing to speak to this.”
Law asked if the pandemic were not self-inflicted, a “going against the grain of the Creation”?
Wu said, yes, there was a mistake in placing faith in institutions, like global supply lines. “One mutation can take us down.”
O’Donnell expressed concern that we were not thinking clearly about the “virtual” versus the “real.” Why do some theologians reject online worship as “not incarnational,” as failing to be an embodied experience? Yet going on line is an action of the body, the Internet is a physical thing in a physical space, such as its underwater cables. Flesh is something porous and “stretchable,” not something that has to be tactile to be incarnational.
Wu’s closing point was to ask us to consider the difference between good and poor attention. “Attention is the key to so many parts of our lives. Your life is a series of things you paid attention to.” We need to acknowledge we are in dark times, that things are not going to get better soon – “the virus is just getting fired up.” Much of what we took for granted – for example, easy globalization -- is gone forever.
His fondest hope, he said, is that we treasure the prospect of safe human contact again – the “excitement of seeing other people, the sheer joy of being in the same place as other humans.” It could be a time in which churches and universities “can return to their historic role of bringing out the best in people.”
Sewanee's New President Publishes an Essay in TIME
Dr Reuben E. Brigety II, who on June 17 became the 17th Vice Chancellor and President of The University of the South (“Sewanee”) in Tennessee, on June 19 published “The Righteous Revulsion Driving the Demands for Racial Change in America.” Dr Brigety is a former U.S. ambassador to the African Union, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, and a Cambridge University Ph.D.
He wrote: “I am the first African American to lead this storied institution, founded by Episcopalian Confederates on the eve of the Civil War. Additionally, I am also one of the few African Americans to lead a predominantly white institution of higher education in the United States.
“Like my fellow university presidents across the country, I have been consumed with the unprecedented task of preparing to resume residential college life this fall in the midst of a pandemic. Yet the events following the killing of George Floyd on May 25 make clear that academic leaders must also prepare for another monumental challenge – the fight for racial justice in America.
“…[T]he young people who are protesting in the streets this summer…do not want progress. They want change…”
The Revd Dr Jeremy Law, Dean of Chapel at Canterbury Christ Church University, takes a look at historian Yuval Noah Harari's best-selling book.
I can remember voices, in the 1970s, predicting that by the year 2000 the world would all but have run out of oil. I can also remember voices in the early 1980s, urging those of us in the West to prepare for the forthcoming leisure society when work would be confined to no more than three days a week. Well, oil is still with us (though perhaps it should not be) and the majority of those in the West work longer hours now than before. The future is inherently unpredictable, and that is one of the reasons why life is so appealing. A book with a subtitle that promises to offer a “brief history of tomorrow” is thus intriguing, but surely to be treated with some skepticism.
At first, in the long introductory section entitled “The New Human Agenda,” Harari seems to be offering us a hopelessly optimistic picture of the future (made all the more so by reading this book in the midst of a global pandemic). The old enemies of humanity which set the agenda – famine, disease, and war – have been largely defeated. Humanity has, “secured unprecedented levels of prosperity, health and harmony.” In their place new goals have emerged. These are immortality (extending human life, perhaps indefinitely), happiness (through inducing positive mental sensations in the brain), and divinity, the Homo Deus of the title, humans with artificially enhanced physical and mental abilities. However, Harari’s true intention soon becomes clear: “this prediction is less of a prophecy and more a way of discussing our present choices. If the discussion makes us choose differently, so the prediction is proved wrong, all the better.” In other words, Harari’s purpose is to illuminate present trends as a way of evaluating present choices and values. This is a highly worthwhile project. It is one every CUAC institution should be engaged with for their own location.
The rest of this major work is structured in three sections: how humans have come to dominate and shape the world (drawing in part on his previous work Sapiens); how it is our human ability to construct collective stories that has given us this shared power and our sense of meaning; and finally how this very power may go on to undermine the value of humanity as it enables the emergence of Homo Deus, so changing the very sense of what it means to be human. While the argument of the book builds from one section to another, it does not always do so in a straight line. This means, positively, that the book has an encyclopedic quality as a breath-taking range of topics come in for consideration. Negatively, though the book is very well-written, exceptional concentration is demanded of the reader to follow the overall line of reasoning.
Harari introduces a number of key concepts. One is that of the algorithm. As he states, “[a]n algorithm is a methodical set of steps…to make calculations, resolve problems and reach decisions.” Human (and animal) emotions are algorithms: they are highly efficient ways of reaching complex conclusions, which is why we should listen to them. But algorithms also sit at the heart of computers and emerging artificial intelligence. They are essential to new technologies such as autonomous cars. Thus the notion of algorithms enables Harari to connect the biological to the technological, making the future appearance of Homo Deus more plausible.
Another vital concept is that of the intersubjective. We can split reality into objective reality, which exists independently of a person’s beliefs and feelings, and subjective reality, which is rooted in these very beliefs and feelings. But, says Harari, there is a third kind: intersubjective reality that depends on the beliefs and feelings shared by a community. Examples include money, companies such as Toyota, and nation states such as India. These are imagined entities: they only exist because people collectively believe and desire that they exist. Harari also includes religion in this third category. What has given humanity its power over all other forms of life is not so much the individual abilities of humans, as their shared ability to cooperate within the compass of a communal story about reality. What we collectively believe shapes what we can collectively achieve.
Those of us who subscribe to the Christian Faith will want to call out this definition of religion as a form of reductionism. Just because a shared narrative influences our understanding of something does not mean that that something only exists in human imagination. But for Harari, “[f]iction isn’t bad. It is vital.” It is also inescapable. Religion, in the sense of an all-encompassing story that legitimates certain understandings, will always be with us, yet always shifting and altering. Thus Humanism, which took over from Christianity, Judaism, and Islam in some parts of the West, is itself being superseded by what Harari terms Data Religion.
“Dataism declares that the universe consists of data flows, and that the value of any phenomenon or entity [including ourselves] is determined by its contribution to data processing.” If this seems far-fetched, then consider that already many of our students appear to think that a central purpose in life is to record their experiences, upload them via a social platform, and so share them with others. No one can go out for a meal, it seems, without having to upload a photo of their food! The future Harari points to is thus one in which humans take their place in a surrounding “internet of all things.” And it is one in which the privileged receive technological upgrades to their brains to enable them better to connect, contribute, and be directed by this encircling flow of data. These will be humans who do what the algorithms tell them, not because they are constrained to follow, but because they genuinely believe such advice will be the best available.
We need to remember however, that the point of Harari’s book is not to endorse such a future, one where, for example, lecturers are replaced by artificial intelligence able to draw on big data to adapt their teaching methods to the precise needs of the individual student, but to give us the option to question if this is really where we want to go. At present, we seem to be blindly heading down this road. “In the 21st century our personal data is probably the most valuable resource most humans still have, and we are giving it to the tech giants in exchange for email services and funny cat videos.”
Universities and colleges exist to question the world in which we live so as to open up new options for an improved future. To this extent Harari is a fundamental ally. One curious deficiency of his book, though, is how little attention is paid to the destructive prospect of climate change. This, however, is a question CUAC institutions cannot afford to ignore. For as this book ably demonstrates, the stories we live by matter enormously.
In June Dr John M. McCardell completed ten years as 16th Vice Chancellor of the University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee, bringing the “Stronger, Truer Sewanee Campaign” to $300 million. A former president of Middlebury College in Vermont, he is a historian with a specialty in post-Civil War Reconstruction in the American South. Under his leadership Sewanee increased enrollment; built a new inn, dormitories and support facilities, and inaugurated the Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation to come to terms with its historic entanglements with slavery and its legacies. He served two terms as President of the Association of Episcopal Colleges. His wife Bonnie helped found the South Cumberland Community Fund to invest in rural community betterment, which partnered in 2014 with the University’s new Office of Civic Engagement to engage students in supporting the lives of their neighbors. The couple are retiring to South Carolina, while keeping a home in Sewanee.
Rose Alwyn, after 12 years as Master of St Mark’s College in North Adelaide, has become the 14th Warden of St John’s College within the University of Queensland. Looking back on her first six months in the job, she noted in the college magazine The Johnian that St John’s had faced “one of the most horrific brushfire seasons for Australia” and praised students, many of them from rural areas, who “joined the courageous efforts of local firefighting services.” COVID has meant “the smallest student count the College had seen since World War Two” (15 students) as those who were able were encouraged to stay at home. Yet St John’s offered 60 hours of tutorials weekly by Zoom, and social media allowed students to stay in touch through bake-offs, music, sport, and a podcast. She looks forward to welcoming many of them back, now that a COVID Safe Plan is in place.
The Revd Katene Eruera, formerly a barrister and solicitor, is the new Principal at St John’s Theological College in Auckland, New Zealand. He is of Ngati Hau and Te Aupouri descent. He served as a worker priest for several years while practicing at a community law center and has been a military chaplain in the New Zealand Police Force.
Dr Paul Wilson, a chemist who is also a musicologist, became Principal of Madras Christian College in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, on June 1, succeeding Dr RW Alexander Jesudasan, who held the post for 11 years. Dr Wilson began his teaching career at Bishop Heber College in Trichy and moved in 2004 to MCC, where he has been a professor of chemistry. He is also keenly interested in the relationship of theology and music and has written on education and music for The Times of India, The Hindu, and Indian Express.
The Revd Dr Ed Loane took office in January as the 12th Warden of St Paul’s College of the University of Sydney, Australia’s oldest university college (1856). An “Old Pauline,” Dr Loane was raised in Wollongong and attended the University of Sydney, where he graduated with a B.S. He went on to study at Moore College, followed by a PhD at Cambridge University. He teaches theology and church history.
From the General Secretary’s Desk
On July 1, the day we had expected to be at Whitelands College, London, for CUAC’s 10th International Triennial, I joined many of you instead for the Online Seminar: Technology and the Pandemic: What are we learning? Once that digital technology had become the life support system we all were using, we needed to take a deep dive into its inner workings. Instead of perhaps 90 members meeting at Whitelands face-to-face, we were joined by 165 people from 32 colleges and universities across the CUAC map.
The pandemic is a special challenge to CUAC members because Anglican higher education takes place in “high touch” communities fostering metamorphosis in students’ lives. Believing that God gave Homo sapiens intelligence, a gift that needs discipline to develop, our kind of education is about more than just acquiring useful skills. When that change comes about, a student makes the leap from merely learning to becoming the fullest person she or he can be, often going in a different direction from where they started.
Since the days of Aristotle, a primary requirement for higher education’s survival has been its adaptability to changing circumstances. The CUAC network exists to support and enhance such change. While none of us can say how long the pandemic might last, we have to adapt to it safely while it persists. And that requires creativity. Some CUAC member are opening in person, such as Bishop Grosseteste in Lincoln, UK; some are opening online only, such as Kobe International University in Japan, and some have a hybrid plan mixing reduced in-person with online classes, such as Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, in the U.S. This creativity and willingness to experiment promise to teach us what can be done.
While the pandemic is a radical challenge to all aspects of our life, technology came first. As Leon Botstein of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, NY, noted: “The one silver lining of this crisis is that we’ve learned the hard way how to use technology.” As we heard in the Seminar, while this process has only begun, as a network we are working together to make it meaningful as well as effective.
FROM THE EDITOR’S DESK
Small colleges as an endangered species?
There was no prize on July 1 for the people who had traveled the farthest for CUAC’s first online seminar – in a digital world, space no longer exists. We are all streaming along together. But had there been a prize for the best attendance, it would surely have gone to Trinity University of Asia, in Manila, The Philippines. Some 50 of its faculty, students, and staff participated in what for CUAC was an epochal event.
It was indeed a remarkable occasion. The technology worked! The audience turned up! The speakers were extraordinary! Yes, we all wished we had been in London, but there was nothing “second best” about the experience. I wish we could replicate it several times a year. Warm congratulations to all who made it possible.
It was a steadying moment in an otherwise topsy-turvy world. In the small corner of North America where I live, higher education has been a primary concern – indeed, an important part of the economy -- since the first students gathered in a humble building in the cow pasture that would later be known as Harvard Yard. But at no time in the ensuing four centuries has the future of that way of life seemed so much up for grabs. Will the colleges actually open two weeks from now? What does “open” mean? What risks are worth taking?
CUAC counts about 160 colleges around the world that trace their founding – and often their modern identity – to an Anglican or Episcopalian source. I wonder how many of them will still be in existence a decade from now. Those without endowments face an uncertain future as revenues from students, especially international students, vanish. Those without staunch friends and a strong institutional identity risk being swallowed up by bigger rivals or hostile governments. It is sad to contemplate this, just as great a loss in its own way as the extinction of a species.
Those that will survive, even flourish, are those nimble enough, imaginative enough, tough enough to succeed in what seems a Darwinian struggle. One great resource to draw on will be a strong belief that what they stand for matters. Another is the conviction that they are not alone. Rather, they are linked not just by a shared past but by a living network called CUAC. Charles Calhoun
Compass Points is published by GENERAL SECRETARY: The Revd Canon James G. Callaway, D.D. PUBLISHER: Julia DeLashmutt EDITOR: Charles C. Calhoun