In my education seminars, I often assign Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death and Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head. These texts persuasively argue that modern technology is a serious obstacle to learning. I agree that face-to-face interactions between students and faculty are best for creating communities of learners. But thanks to COVID-19, I have had to switch to online teaching. During the pandemic, there was simply no way to avoid technology. I found that I could not label it as all bad.
In fact, I nourished my mind and heart using technology—in particular by watching YouTube videos of webinars and interviews with scholars. Between March and June, I conducted seven webinars on the love of learning in front of live audiences on Zoom—capturing ideas in dialogue between scholars for thousands of people to see. I had knee surgery on July 6, but met a group of 18 students virtually the very next day for a class on humanizing education policy. After the surgery, I was completely confined to my home and unable to walk without crutches, climb stairs, or drive. During this time, technology gave me a community to help nurture my soul. Lying on the couch with an ice pack on my knee, I was sometimes too exhausted or too uncomfortable to read a book. However, I could easily listen to an Audible audiobook of Cardinal Robert Sarah’s book The Power of Silence, or find a great lecture on YouTube.
All these examples illustrate that despite the wisdom of warnings against the over-use of technology, learning can take place in different ways—whether by listening to a teacher in a classroom, reading a book, watching a YouTube video, signing up for a webinar, or joining an online class. My summer and fall teaching experiences have confirmed for me that when you have great texts, a passionate teacher, and motivated students, learning occurs—whether in-person or online. Conversely, avoiding certain kinds of technology will matter little if the teacher lacks passion or the texts lack coherence or insight. Decrying all online teaching as fatally flawed is just another way of elevating the method of teaching over what matters most: the content of the class, the motivation of learners, and the passion of the teacher.
In my online classes, I’m going back to basics: I want to get students to fall in love with reading again. Reading should be a dialogue between oneself and a great text; that internal dialogue we have then gets expressed in writing or speech, and becomes a dialogue with other learners and teachers. I assigned Greg Bottaro’s The Mindful Catholic in my class on aesthetics and education to help students slow down and read carefully. Then I taught students an ancient method of reading Scripture that I believe can be adapted to reading any kind of great text—science, literature, philosophy, theology, biography, history, or social science. That method is called lectio divina, loosely translated as a contemplative approach to reading.
According to Michael Casey’s description, lectio divina has four stages—lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio—that roughly correspond to the different senses of Scripture—literal, Christological, behavioral, and mystical. Though you need not move through these four stages chronologically, one could move through them in the following way. First, in the lectio stage, read and re-read the text, marking key passages where the author’s argument is clearest. Write in your own words the key ideas, concepts, and arguments. In the meditatio stage, think about the context in which the text was written. What was happening in the world or the author’s life when the book was written? What was the author’s motivation, and to whom does the author write? Third, in the oratio stage, pay attention to how these ideas speak to your conscience and make you reflect on your behavior, habits, and dispositions. Fourth, in the contemplatio stage, think about what these texts say about your relationship with God, either directly or indirectly.
Lectio divina helps us slow down. In order to enter into the time and place of the author, memorize texts, or ponder key phrases or concepts, we must actively slow down our minds. Memorizing passages, or even just reading out loud, promotes close listening. It makes us more present to the present, including to our own conscience. Slowing down our minds is therefore a step toward something more important: asking ourselves how what we are reading impacts our conscience, and therefore also our relationship with God.
As Jean LeClercq describes in The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, the practice of lectio divina aims to connect knowledge to love and wisdom. In spite of the many challenges of online learning, students in my summer and fall classes have been moved by the texts we read together, and therefore inspired to face the present with courage and love. Education is transformative when it combines an appreciation of the insights contained in great texts and video lectures, an appreciation of master teachers and great scholars, practices that slow our minds down, and communities of learning that combine levity and simplicity with a deep desire to connect knowledge to love and wisdom. Lectio divina, whether in seminar rooms or online classrooms, can be part of a creative solution to the challenges of education today, even after the COVID pandemic is over.
Margarita Mooney is associate professor at Princeton Theological Seminary and founder and executive director of Scala Foundation.
Resources for further reading on lectio divina can be found here.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.