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Across America and the world, school-age children and college students alike became accustomed to an old word taking on a new meaning over the past year and a half—Zoom. Entire academic years were conducted virtually over Zoom from the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March of 2020, with students sitting alone in their rooms, interacting virtually with teachers and fellow students in class after class. The effect of this on students academically has been well documented, while the long-term emotional effects continue to be studied as well.

While online learning can be helpful in certain circumstances, students looking to obtain a well-rounded education—one in which they grow academically, socially, and spiritually—saw over and over again the importance of in-person instruction and formation during the past year. Only in-person students can truly interact with professors and fellow students, growing not only in knowledge and wisdom but also in virtue.

“There is a reason why many students grew disengaged during the lockdown,” says theology professor Mary Stanford. “Whether we intend to or not, education cannot help being ‘reduced’ to a product—a hoop through which to jump to reach some other goal—when we strive to become educated outside of the community. Online schooling requires no vulnerability, no courage, no real consideration of others’ thoughts.”

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For years now, Stanford has spoken and written extensively on the dangers of today’s obsession with technology and how modern communication is weakening the beauty of human interactions. Her points were proven to an even greater degree over the past year and a half.

“The weaker students became less engaged without a teacher to prod and challenge them, to read their body language and to respond accordingly; the best students starved without the nourishing feedback of a classroom discussion,” explains Stanford.

Students across the globe saw education stripped of bodily encounters over the past year, effectively reducing the classroom to a comment box. Only in person can people recognize others as whole persons and treat them as such—whether they be a fellow student, a professor, or even a family member. For Stanford, the past nearly two decades of the internet experience have proven this fact over and over again, as debate and discussion held on screens continue to devolve into cruel and self-affirming echo chambers. Education, says Stanford, must not go in this direction as well—it must return to its original form, where it can help students truly thrive.

“Education occurs in the context of the encounter between persons,” says Stanford. “Persons of the past, to be sure, as their thoughts are expressed in the great books we possess, but just as importantly, persons of the present: teachers. Just as God’s design indicates that human potential is intended to unfold in the context of a family, so a person can only further such a process in the context of another community of persons; persons coming together to encounter the wisdom of ages past, to converse, to question, to listen, to respond. Fellow students, through their questions and insights, through their unique and individual responses to the subject at hand, can widen and enhance the perspectives of their peers.  Such a process requires virtues of intellectual humility, discipline, courage, and vulnerability.  Such an experience is not possible without an in-person community.”

At Christendom, students were blessed to safely return to in-person classes this past fall, after attending virtual classes in the spring of 2020. Students, faculty, and staff alike were incredibly resilient, like so many across the world, but that semester reinforced for all the fact that virtual learning would never be an adequate substitute for classroom or campus life.

“When you’re providing a liberal arts education, sometimes it is intensely personal—you’re touching people’s souls,” says College President Dr. Timothy O’Donnell.

Like the rest of the faculty, O’Donnell taught his classes online in the spring of 2020. During those months, O’Donnell reflected on the importance of in-person education, concluding that students had to be allowed to return to campus in the fall if they were going to learn the true, the good, and the beautiful in a manner more conducive to true learning. He, along with dedicated staff, faculty, and a team of health experts, worked tirelessly to make that happen, ultimately resulting in a highly successful academic year for the college community—both in Front Royal, Virginia and on the college’s campus in Rome, Italy, as well.

“Wisdom requires that type of interpersonal connectivity that you just can’t get looking at a computer screen,” reflects O’Donnell. “That’s one of the big reasons that we decided to bring our students back. Our professors aren’t just detached academics—they’re mentors, there to guide and direct the students. We’re all fellow learners in the pursuit of wisdom, which is something that you need to do in a personal way.”

Before the start of the coronavirus pandemic, digital communication was already taking precedence, and people were feeling more disconnected than ever—a fact that O’Donnell, Stanford, and others have long warned against. The effects of 2020 and 2021 only exacerbated those societal issues. For that reason, Christendom’s personal education became even more important, with professors truly working to help students on their vocational journey.

“The faculty and the staff that are involved try to build and strengthen community, and, in a Catholic setting, that includes a strong emphasis on not only the intellectual life but also the sacramental life,” says O’Donnell. “If you have a community where faith, hope, and charity are living, the community naturally begins to thrive. There will be problems because of our fallen human nature, but where there is grace, the Holy Spirit can work in a really beautiful way.”

While the past year and a half has taken a heavy toll on students across the globe, the successful 2020-21 academic year at Christendom and other schools is a sign of hope that things can go back to normal. Interactions with professors and students here occurred both inside and outside classrooms again, rather than in private Zoom meetings. Students met with each other to study the most important texts of Western civilization, rather than texting about them. The result? A community that flourished as in years past, but even more so as every person realized how much human interaction truly mattered.

Intellectual life. Community life. Sacramental life. These are all essential things human beings need to thrive in this life as they prepare for the next. None of them can be accomplished fully through a screen. This is not to say that this technology is not a gift, allowing people to get a taste of these things in extraordinary circumstances when they are otherwise unable to. But Zoom classes, Zoom Masses, and Zoom parties can never take the place of in-person human interaction, where people can learn from each other, grow together, and help one another on the path to eternity.

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