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Prepared Remarks for "Repair to the Fountain: Why Teaching Still Matters in the Technology Era”

Good afternoon. I’m delighted to spend time today with colleagues and friends at George Mason.  On behalf of my UVA colleagues, I bring greetings from Charlottesville.

I want to thank Les Kurtz for inviting me to speak, and also thank the Department of Sociology and Anthropology for sponsoring this event.

The Primacy of the Student-Teacher Relationship

In primitive tribes, a young person on the verge of adulthood would often leave his parents to spend a period of time in the company of tribal elders. This allowed the young person to acquire knowledge and understanding from the tribe’s wise elders, in preparation for the demands of adult life.

Years later, it was the teachers in colleges and universities who assumed the role of those tribal leaders, as students traveled from their hometowns to the world’s centers of higher learning to acquire knowledge directly from wise faculty elders.

We hear a lot of discussion about the future of higher education these days, and one critical question is this:  To what extent will the university continue to play that role in the 21st century? In an era of technologies that impact higher education in so many ways, will the student-teacher relationship continue to be the primary channel for teaching and learning?

I think it will, and I think it must. Higher education will always be built on the foundation of the student-teacher relationship, because that relationship is the primary, irreplaceable medium for all learning. Let me begin by sharing a few stories to support this premise...

In the mid-1800s, there was a scholar and priest named John Henry Newman who served as the rector of the Catholic University of Ireland, now University College Dublin.

While Cardinal Newman was there, he delivered a series of lectures that were later published as a book entitled “The Idea of a University.”

In his lectures, Cardinal Newman argued that the university does not exist merely as a venue for transferring knowledge from books into students’ minds. On the contrary, Newman argued, students become true scholars and develop strong habits of mind only through close, daily interaction with effective teachers.

Cardinal Newman writes, “… the general principles of any study you may learn by books at home; but the detail, the colour, the tone, the air, the life which makes it live in us, you must catch all these from those in whom it lives already … we must come to the teachers of wisdom to learn wisdom, we must repair to the fountain, and drink there.”

Here’s another story that illustrates the powerful influence of the student-teacher relationship. This story is well-known in higher education circles and downright legendary at Williams College in Massachusetts …

Before James Garfield became a Civil War general and our nation’s 20th president, he attended Williams College, graduating in 1856. One of his teachers there was a man named Mark Hopkins. Mr. Hopkins was a professor of moral and intellectual philosophy who was well known for his lively teaching style and his engagement with students, as well as his humor and compassion. He taught for more than 50 years, and served as president for 36 of those years. In spite of his administrative duties, he always continued teaching.

Years after James Garfield graduated, he was asked to give remarks at a gathering of Williams alumni. Someone in the audience asked him this question: “Mr. Garfield: What makes a perfect college?” This was Garfield’s response: “The ideal college,” he said, “is Mark Hopkins on one end of a log, and a student on the other.”

I tend to agree with President Garfield: the ideal college or university will always be defined by a great teacher on one end of a log, and a student on the other — although in our modern teaching environment, the log might be equipped with wi-fi, a plasma-display screen, and other technologies. I’ll talk more about that side of the story in a few minutes. 

I have one last story about the power of the student-teacher relationship, and its enduring influence. This one is about the founder of the University of Virginia. In the middle of the 18th century, about 100 years before Cardinal Newman published “The Idea of a University,” and 100 years before Mark Hopkins taught James Garfield at Williams, Thomas Jefferson benefited from a life-altering teacher-student relationship.

From 1760 to 1762, a man named William Small was Jefferson’s only instructor at the College of William & Mary. It’s fair to say that Mr. Small was the greatest single influence in Jefferson’s early intellectual development.

Born and educated in Scotland during the Enlightenment, Mr. Small had immersed himself in the writings of Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, and John Locke. At William & Mary, he took the young Jefferson under his wing, and introduced him to science, mathematics, and the writings of the Enlightenment thinkers.

The Jefferson biographer Dumas Malone writes that William Small “was one of those rare personal influences that prove unforgettable, and elicit immortal tribute.”

Over the years Jefferson came to appreciate Mr. Small’s influence, and later in life, he paid tribute. In his autobiography, Jefferson wrote, “It was my great good fortune, and what probably fixed the destinies of my life, that Dr. William Small of Scotland was then professor of Mathematics, a man profound in most of the useful branches of science, with a happy talent of communication, correct and gentlemanly manners, and an enlarged and liberal mind.”

Try to visualize this scene: the 17-year-old Thomas Jefferson strolling the leafy William & Mary campus with William Small in the 1760s — the enlightened teacher sharing the knowledge he had acquired through study over the years; the young student opening his mind to the possibilities of science and mathematics and philosophy.

Of course, this is the same mind that would later give us the Declaration of Independence, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and the University of Virginia — three achievements for which Jefferson asked to be remembered on his gravestone.

What if Jefferson had never encountered this great teacher, William Small? What if he had dropped out of college and become a farmer in Albemarle County, keeping to himself, never writing or designing things — rather than doing what he did: that is, using his knowledge to conceive a framework for democracy and create a new kind of university?

Consider the potential shift in the course of American history; consider the potential loss to human progress.

Thomas Jefferson was naturally smart, but his maturation as a thinker and scholar flourished under the tutelage of a great teacher. Remember the words of Cardinal Newman: “the detail, the colour, the tone, the air, the life that makes [learning] live in us, you must catch these from those in whom it lives already.”

Most of us have benefited from the influence of a great teacher, or great teachers. If we were really fortunate, we studied with a teacher so great that he or she “fixed the destinies” of our lives, to use Jefferson’s words about William Small.

So what are the qualities of a great teacher? A great teacher is able to capture our imaginations, spark our interest, and push us further than we think we’re able to go intellectually. Great teachers pose interesting, sometimes provocative questions; they encourage creative thinking by forcing us to the edges of our comfort zones.

From great teachers we learn to ask questions, but we also learn which questions are the important ones to ask. Great teachers give students the courage not to accept conventional wisdom blindly, but to strive for truth. This influence lasts a lifetime.

A great teacher makes up half of a strong student-teacher relationship. But it takes two to tango, as they say. So what makes a great student?

Great students are enthusiastic learners; they are open-minded and receptive to new ideas and new ways of thinking. Great students are interested in a broad range of topics. They search for new knowledge in every corner of the curriculum, as if searching for hidden treasures in a big house.

Great students are motivated to gain knowledge for the sake of becoming more knowledgeable — not just as a means to an end, or as a resume-builder for career success. Great students are committed to their work; they are well-prepared when they walk into the classroom, or laboratory, or studio. Great students are resilient; they overcome setbacks and discouragements.

When you put a great student together with a great teacher, you have connected the yin and the yang of education — and you have created the nucleus of a remarkably productive human relationship.

What About Technology?

Let me pause here to acknowledge the obvious. My remarks about the primacy of the student-teacher relationship may seem old-fashioned, or even unfashionable, in the year 2017.  

A personal, relational approach to teaching is fundamentally different from what many people now consider to be education, because technological innovation is so rapidly reshaping the way we teach and learn.

Today we have distance education, video-conferencing, webinars, technology-enhanced classrooms, and universities that exist entirely in cyberspace.

We have created a whole new lexicon to talk about these methods of pedagogy. We talk about synchronous and asynchronous technologies for online learning. We talk about “transactional distance,” which is the term for the cognitive space between a teacher and student when they interact in a distance-education environment.

Even as we affirm the value of the relational approach to teaching, we know that universities that refuse to experiment with new technologies do so at their own peril — and at the peril of their teaching and research.

At UVA, we’re in the process of examining our programs in online education to assess where we are and where we want to go in the next few years. As most universities have recognized, online education and digital learning environments give us opportunities to expand access to our educational programs while also enhancing the experience of our residential students. 
We offer numerous degree programs, certificate programs, hybrid courses, and MOOCs at UVA. For example, our Curry School of Education offers three Masters-level degree programs; our Nursing School offers two tracks in our Master of Nursing science degree program; and our Engineering School offers six Master of Engineering degrees. We offer numerous online certification programs in education, business, nursing, and fields such as accounting; human resources; cybersecurity; and public relations.

In the past five years, almost 4 million students from 202 different countries have enrolled in UVA MOOCs. 

Beyond online programs, hybrid courses, and MOOCs, we’re using technology to enhance residential teaching and learning. Our Medical School is using simulation to teach students how to provide care, and our Health System is using telemedicine to serve patients beyond Charlottesville.

Our undergraduate students are creating e-portfolios to help their job searches, and we envision more opportunities for students – from e-advising to mobile apps.

I know that George Mason has many similar programs managed through your Office of Digital Learning and the “Mason Online” program, nd you probably have new, innovative programs in the pipeline as well. All universities that want to remain relevant in the 21st century are experimenting in these realms.

What About the Curriculum?

As we ponder the future of higher education, today’s technological innovation means that we also need to reconsider the curriculum.

What fields of learning are relevant for today’s high-tech economy, and what fields will be relevant for tomorrow’s economy? Some futurists predict that 80% of today’s jobs will be automated away within a generation. What level of technical proficiency should students have for this unforeseeable future?

This fall at UVA, we will pilot the first major, comprehensive changes to the curriculum in our College of Arts & Sciences in more than 40 years. The changes are designed to better prepare students for the rapidly changing world they will face in their careers and communities after graduation.

One of the long-running debates in curriculum development centers on the breadth-versus-depth question: Should students learn broadly across a wide-ranging curriculum to make themselves “well-rounded,” or should they develop deep expertise in one area of technical knowledge?

The answer, of course, is both: Today’s college graduates need deep, well-developed expertise in one or two areas that will be focal points in their careers, but they also need a broad base of knowledge that will allow them to collaborate with colleagues across disciplines, across industries, and across nations.

This duality is embodied in the concept of the “T-shaped” student. he T-shaped student gains a broad base of knowledge, represented by the horizontal crossbar at the top of the T. But he also develops deep understanding in one area, represented by the vertical line extending down from the T’s crossbar. The T-shaped student is both broadly educated and deeply skilled.

Today’s students need to be prepared to collaborate with diverse teams of colleagues around the world while using technologies to solve complex problems related to environmental change, disease control, terrorism, and other issues of global concern. And our curricula need to prepare them for this future.

Disruptive Technology vs. Disruptive Ideas

We know that new technologies have the capacity to enhance our teaching and learning, and also to help us reach greater numbers of students. These changes are altering higher education in many ways, often for the better.

In this context we hear a lot of discussion about “disruptive innovation” or “disruptive technology.” It began in the corporate sector, where companies like Apple and Amazon created new products and services that obliterated some industries while creating entirely new industries.

But the concept of “disruptive technology” is now part of our national discussion about higher education. You may be familiar with the ideas of management guru Clay Christensen. In his “technology mudslide hypothesis,” Christensen argues that industries and organizations fail simply because they are unable to keep up with the frenetic pace of change in technology.

In Christensen’s metaphor, trying to keep up is like trying to climb a mountain during a mudslide; you climb frantically just to stay in place, and if you pause for a second to catch your breath, the mudslide buries you.

In higher education, we are climbing through a mudslide now. University leaders understand the risk of falling behind, as our peers adopt new technologies that are transforming our industry.

At the same time, however, we are aware of other risks: the risk of compromising our residential-education programs by over-emphasizing online instruction; the risk of diluting our brands by offering academic content free; and so on.

For all these reasons and many more, it’s certainly true that technology is having a disruptive effect in higher education.

But I want to draw a distinction between disruptive technology and disruptive ideas, because they are fundamentally different, and they will have profoundly different effects on the future of teaching and learning. The distinction I’m making is between the machine technologies that we use to enhance our teaching and learning, and the human ideas that are the very currency of teaching and learning.

In higher education, disruptive technology can lead to marketplace innovations, such as MOOCs; it can lead us, as teachers and scholars, to refine our methods of pedagogy and scholarship, often in productive ways; it can lead us to develop new fields of study, such as data science, to analyze the massive data sets that are by-products of advances in technology.

Disruptive technology can lead to modifications in academic content and delivery, additions to our curricula, and general changes in our modus operandi in higher education.

But disruptive ideas operate on an entirely different level. Ideas that are truly disruptive destroy pre-conceived notions and dismantle previously-held theories, and open undiscovered avenues to new knowledge. In the process, they can permanently alter our comprehension of ourselves and our universe.

Consider the discovery of the double-helix. In 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick developed the idea that the structure of DNA looks like a twisted ladder. For years, scientists had struggled with the question of how DNA was structured and how it stored genetic information. The discovery of the double-helix solved the dilemma, and paved the way for molecular biology.

It gave us insights into the genetic code and how protein synthesis works. Decades later, this discovery helped produce genetic engineering, rapid gene sequencing, and other techniques that became the foundation of biotechnology.

This one idea changed our approach to the teaching of biology, and changed our view of disease and health.

We have so many examples of disruptive ideas that led to transformational change in the human experience. We may think of the Internet as a disruptive technology — and it certainly is — but it began as a disruptive idea. That single idea gave rise to all sorts of technologies that took the form of online products and services. But without the original idea — the idea of a global system of interconnected computer networks — the technologies never would have been created.

McKinsey & Company has published a report n the disruptive technologies that will have the most radical effect on life and the global economy in the years ahead.

The list includes advanced robots with keen senses and human-like dexterity; next-generation genomics that will allow us to improve healthcare and agriculture; and better energy-storage devices that will improve the performance of electric cars and bring electricity to undeveloped parts of the world.

These technologies will certainly have an impact. But the impact of these disruptive technologies cannot compare with the impact of the great, game-changing ideas in history.

The idea that the earth orbits the sun … The idea of universal gravitation … The idea that evolution occurs by natural selection … The idea of democracy … The idea of the unconscious, and the study of our own minds …  the idea of a university.

Disruptive technologies enable human achievement. But disruptive ideas transform the course of human history.

I have one final example of how disruptive ideas trump disruptive technologies, so I’ll close with this story …

UVA professor emeritus Peter Onuf, a leading scholar on Thomas Jefferson, teaches a six-week MOOC on the life of Jefferson and his ideas.

You can sign up to take the MOOC at If you do, you will be one of thousands of people all around the world who are learning about Jefferson’s ideas online through the MOOC.

Disruptive technology made this MOOC possible. But the disruptive power of the technology behind the MOOC pales in comparison with the disruptive power of what the MOOC is actually about — Thomas Jefferson’s ideas.

When he was a young man, Jefferson had an idea for a new Republic based on a set of inalienable rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In an age of monarchy, this was a disruptive idea that promoted the power of the people through individual human rights and universal liberties.

Later in his life, Jefferson had a disruptive idea for higher education. He created a new university whose curriculum, rather than focusing on a few, narrow areas of specialization, would instead, in his words, “be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind.”

Jefferson’s disruptive idea about human rights gave birth to a new nation based on freedom and democracy. His disruptive ideas about education gave birth to new ways of learning.

Here’s my point: disruptive technology allows the Jefferson MOOC to be transmitted to people all over the world. But the technology behind the MOOC is merely a delivery system for disruptive ideas that altered the course of human history.

Measured side by side on the scale of significance, the ideas tower over the technologies.

As we envision the future of higher education, we should use all of the new technologies at our disposal to innovate and to improve our teaching and research.

But we should also remember that our future depends, first and foremost, on the power of human ideas, and the transmission of ideas and knowledge through the uniquely human relationship between teacher and student.

Remember what Cardinal Newman said: students “must come to the teachers of wisdom to learn wisdom, [they] must repair to the fountain, and drink there.”

Technology can help us teach better, and it will. But it will never take the place of that trip to the fountain.

Thank you, and I’d be happy to take questions now.