First Monday

The Given and the Made: Authenticity and Nature in Virtual Education

In virtual reality, everything that seems to be authentic can be made up. The currency of virtual reality is knowledge. Thus, in virtual reality, knowing easily becomes a struggle for power over things to be known and over knowers. The exchange of ideas and information becomes a battle of wills, a futile and dispiriting activity. This problem is especially serious in distance learning conducted in virtual reality. How can authenticity be restored? By nurturing collaborative inquiry rather than competitive hierarchy among teachers and students.


The Virtual World
The Importance of E-mail
The Tensions of Virtual Learning



‘No reason to get excited,’ the thief he kindly spoke.
‘There are many here among us for whom life is but a joke.
But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate.
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.’
Bob Dylan, All Along the Watchtower (1968)

It is said that distance learning technology promises access to learning. By transcending the limits of space, time and situation, this technology makes it more likely that any person, of any status, in any place, can learn anything, at any time. The technology of virtual education can revise or remake the limits, which are given us by our histories and by nature. Distance learning promises to free us from those limits. It promises more freedom for more people to learn what they choose.

Distance learning technology proliferates in the place formerly occupied by the traditional academy. Diverse texts and kinds of information, as well as a multiplicity of consumers and facilitators of learning, increasingly appear in the places formerly held by the canon and the professorate. Within this technological world, not only can any aspiring learner gain access to any given body of knowledge, that knowledge can be made accessible to anyone. In this way, the separation between any knower and anything to be known can be eliminated. We mean this in several senses. Distance learning offers a more democratic academy. More people can become students. And, what is to be learned can become less mysterious and less intimidating. But an epistemological change also occurs. In virtual reality, because all words, images and sounds can be easily altered, everything that is "given" — whether traditional canon or current expertise — can be taken as tentative or "made." Thus, what we know, how we know, the conditions of our histories, and even nature itself can be made over into what suits our purposes. In virtual reality, everything is malleable.

What would learning mean in such a world? What sort of world is constructed through a technology which promises that every reality given by history and nature can be made virtual? Would it be endurable discover that anything given to our knowledge can be made into something other than what it is? We might want to take it back, but could we?


The Virtual World

A world entirely virtual presents us with a reality in which every single thing can be constructed and reconstructed. But when nothing needs to be as it is, when nothing is hidden from our ability to understand and remake it, what can we rely on in the way we depend on the stability, the unmalleability of natural things? Is anything simply given and indefinitely reserved from being made over into something else? In a virtual world, what is authentic? Authenticity, as Walter Benjamin claims, requires "uniqueness." That is, the authenticity of any given thing, that which distinguishes it from anything else, needs a "distance" in a particular time, place and history. This is a kind of "distance" which can not be overcome through any technology of reproduction or representation, because, any such effort to bring something "closer" necessarily removes it from its uniqueness ( Benjamin, pp. 222-223). Authenticity is distance, in space, in time, and in the particularity of what or who dwells there.

A human life resting upon total construction, in which there is nothing authentic, is offered no place to dwell, no place to rest from the perpetual work of making over. Such a life would be unendurably frantic. Such a life, ever given over to constructing, results from subduing the natural or given world to a certain kind of knowing, the knowing of technology. This kind of knowing construes the world according to unambiguous rules or algorithms. They represent that world as a product. This way of knowing the world also produces it; and thus, the distance between the activity of learning and the object of knowledge is progressively obliterated. As a former professor and now a researcher for an international software company exclaimed, "To me, this corporation is my power tool. It’s the tool I wield to allow my ideas to shape the world" ( Leibovich, p. 29). Knowledge is power.

However, as Heidegger reveals in his essay, "The Question Concerning Technology," it is terrifyingly empty to live in this place (1977, 283-317). When we assume that "truth" is something to be extracted and grasped from nature, rather than "uncovered," we find that we have helplessly bound ourselves to the unmoored, ceaseless activity of making and remaking. Everything would be utterly clear and yet boundlessly brittle. We could not endure it. And so, the more completely "virtual," the more completely "made" our lives become, the more obsessively we search to rediscover something simply given, something authentic. In short, the more successfully our knowledge enables us to make the world entirely according to our plans, the more we desire to encounter a world resistant to those plans. Enacting this desire demands a certain kind of unlearning, a letting go of the kind of knowing through which we have made much of the modern world. We experience this desire as anxiety. Our anxious search for authenticity can range from seeking solace in anything, from the spiritual to the savage. Indeed, we should understand that a reality entirely virtual may be dehumanizing, but in our effort to undo it, we also risk the violence and helplessness of reverting to a savage state of nature. More benignly, we try to re-find the authentic in what is distant from our control and understanding. We try to rest by being apart from or ignorant of things so that they might go on of themselves. Ironically, the outcome of a kind of learning which promises to obliterate distances is that we want to learn how to recover them. We want to recover the happiness of distance.

The technology and culture of virtual education is a particularly powerful example of this tense new reality. Although this technology is still remote from the ordinary experience of most people, it is nonetheless the dominant means by which human beings are currently remaking the world. We "turn something physical into something intellectual" ( Specter, 63). The production, transfer, receipt and representation of data are both the tools and the materials of ordering experience and regulating institutions. The technology so prominent and popular in distance learning is the same technology by which we increasingly conduct manufacturing, commerce, medicine, entertainment, even civic and affectionate association, and war. The technology of virtual reality is a regime which requires its own education. To participate in this culture in any way — whether as creator, consumer or rebel — means acquiring an almost scholarly literacy. One must be able to read and write unambiguously, search efficiently and methodically for information, and then interpret it precisely and coherently. Thus, to understand electronically mediated learning is also to have an epiphany of virtual culture as a whole.

Information is the medium of power in this regime. Thus, being a "scholar" is the same as exercising power. This exercise throws us into making nature "data" (from the Greek for "given things"). That is, we make our experience into the kind of given thing that can be made into something else. We make it into information. In this way, learning in virtual reality erases the distance between "the academic" and "the real." The traditional sources and instruments of power in the real world (such as status, property and money) are, in the virtual real world, replaced with information. When we learn to revise our experience by learning to operate in virtual reality, we also become citizens of that regime. Those who do not have access to this technology or fail to commit themselves to the particular kind of learning it insinuates - those who can not or will not embrace knowledge as power - are the underclass of the regime. Full citizens are "wielders" of information. They are also the dominant species in this new state.


The Importance of E-mail

The basic means of digitally mediated distance learning is e-mail. It is rapid, variably asynchronous, epistolary communication. Having constructed thoughts and images into words and graphics, and those into digitized data, we send them off to a recipient who reverses the construction. As though to recover the personal or the confiding nature of old fashioned letter writing, we who frequently depend upon the artifice of e-mail can readily observe how even the very business-like exchanges between teachers and students in distance education become confessional. People we don’t know very well at all and, likely as not, ever will, present very personal information. It as though when we communicate in a medium so thin and so abstract - those ephemeral streams of digits, just sets of on/off electrical pulses, far more generic and impalpable than the handwriting of "real" letters - we want to supplement our offerings. Frequent and easy as they may be, we want some evidence that our constructions are authentic.

But even in these confessions, we can’t get away from worrisome artifice. As easily as we can be confessional on e-mail, we can lie. When receiving a heart-catching statement from someone whom we know nowhere but in virtual reality, we can not judge its sincerity, any more than we can tell if the e-mailed work of "virtual" students is authentically theirs. Virtual reality is the perfect Prufrock place "to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet." The medium that gives us so much power to present ourselves as we choose and to access such presentations of others, leaves us helpless to distinguish between the authentic and the inauthentic. The state of nature in virtual reality, a nature so entirely comprised of information, forces us to be uncertain about the truth.

Perhaps we long to receive from a distant student or colleague a bit of handwriting, the feel of a handshake, a shift of posture, a quick grimace or flutter of eyes, even an odor of stale tobacco. We look for something that betrays the unconstructed presence of another person. Even as we move headlong into "total immersion" (cf. Heim, 1998), we want something inaccessible to digits. But, very possibly, nothing is. Words, sounds, 3-D images, motion, and even smells and the feel of surfaces — all of these can now be melted into data streams. Soon no doubt, taste, balance and proprioception will follow. These challenges are mere technical problems. We know that once the given has been liquefied into data, the stream can be channeled, sorted, and temporarily frozen into any appearance one chooses. In the online chat rooms, these constructed presentations of self are rightly called "avatars" -- incarnations of gods. In such a world, teachers can program their avatars to lecture and to test; teachers need not be authentically present at all. Similarly, students can program their own avatars to receive, repeat and re-present assigned material as directed. In such a world, who teaches, who learns, who knows?


The Tensions of Virtual Learning

These are questions about a technically possible world, but not one we can endure, even if we were all equal there. They arise because students and teachers now reach out over huge distances to engage each other in learning. The very technology which allows them to connect also swells the tensions always present in education between freedom and control, authenticity and acquiescence. These distances are spatial, temporal, and multitudinously cultural. In virtual reality, we experience these distances as obstacles, but we can also experience them as a relief from inauthenticity:

My college receives a hit on its website. Someone wants to study philosophy, metaphysics; and so, an email is passed to me, from Calvin Smith. He’s preparing for graduate school in theology; he wants to study some of the main Western metaphysicians: the Greeks, the Scholastics, Descartes, Kant, Heidegger and so on. During our early emails in which we exchanged ideas about what his guided independent study would be, I learned that Mr. Smith is actually Brother Calvin Smith, dwelling in a Trappist monastery in Arkansas, a monastery with a website and a chicken farm. Apparently not bound by a vow of silence in audial any more than in virtual reality, "Brother Cal" (as he asks me to call him) tells me during a phone conversation about a draft syllabus I’d emailed him, "This will be a helluva study." I don’t know whether I was struck more by his slang or by his rich West Indian accent.

As we made our way from Parmenides through Aristotle and towards Aquinas, I learned from his essays and other emails that Brother Cal was having more trouble managing 20,000 chickens than understanding the nature of Being. Eventually, the needs of the monastery’s chickens overwhelmed all of Brother Cal’s non-liturgical activities. He had to take an indefinite break in his studies. It’s unfortunate that he could not finish, but the accessibility of the Web and the flexibility of my college will allow Brother Cal to pick up where he left off. Our academic business fragmented, but our companionship felt whole. If Brother Cal continues this study of metaphysics, I’ll easily remember him and comfortably resume "talking" with him and reading his emailed essays about free will and determinism, appearance and reality. I’ll do so because of the distances that virtual reality did not obliterate. Because of that single phone conversation, in which I heard the particularity of his voice, and because of those demanding chickens, I knew Brother Cal was for real. I miss Brother Cal, but not strictly because of our unfinished conversation about Being. Rather, I miss the quirky interweave of our somewhat generic philosophical study with the monastery, Arkansas, the West Indies, and, of course, the chickens. Strangely, although those idiosyncratic features of Brother Cal’s individuality, which make him "other than" or "distant from" me, contributed to interrupting our work, it was exactly those features which have made our work vivid and, in a way, enduring. I know that, just as one resumes conversing with a friend after a long absence, Brother Cal and I will be able to re-enter our inquiry if and when he emails me again. It was the irreducible localness of Brother Cal -- in space, in time, and within several layers of culture -- that make him an authentic intellectual presence. I miss the liveliness given by his distances.

These distances do matter. Certainly learning in virtual reality makes possible an efficiently abstract relationship between teacher and student. Generically professional teachers dispense and evaluate the learning of generically dutiful students. Individual differences of curiosity, ability or circumstance do not count. And yet in some way, the peculiarity of a monk chicken farmer struggling to study the meanings of Being with his Jewish professor in a secular state university a thousand miles distant, restored to the world a precious charm.

How do we know Brother Cal was authentic? After all, in the regime of total immersion, a "Brother Cal" can be constructed. Even his accent could be produced from digital sampling. However, a technology which can obliterate distances, combined with a culture which seeks to ignore idiosyncrasies in favor of efficiency and homogeneity, would have little reason to produce him. And thus the probable "givenness" of his circumstances, his "nature," comes as a relief.

But idiosyncrasy doesn’t guarantee authenticity. Academic cheating on the Internet is a serious problem. Of course, prior to digitally constructed reality, students found plenty of ways to make themselves appear to know that which they did not. In answer to the professorial desire for control, students can effectively dissimulate the appearance of learning. Malicious or not, academic cheating is a way to free or distance one’s authentic self from the work and commitment required by professors. Internet education simply makes this effort much easier than ever. Virtual but inauthentic learning is now commonplace, profitable and, so far, legally protected ( Fritz; Rao). Websites, such as "Evil House of Cheat," and "school-sucks," at least acknowledge a distinction between one’s own learning and someone else’s. But term paper mills advertising themselves as "research services" deliberately blur even this line. So, when we actually do catch a student, not only do we proudly uphold intellectual honesty, we are also relieved to experience the difference between what is authentic and what is not. It’s ironic that when students fail to cheat successfully, we are then given the opportunity to make a genuine connection with them. We can talk with them about what they had hoped to do, what they desired, and especially, what they feared. One would never choose or need to program such uncomfortable moments into a completely planned virtual education. Yet, like the chicken farm, they break open the regime of artifice and control. We look forward to them.

Virtual reality education can erase even these unexpected features of authenticity. "Courseware" can be programmed to allow for a limited variety and number of predetermined paths of interaction between student, academic material and teacher. People who rarely, if ever, have any communication with students sometimes design such courseware. In this flow of knowledge transmission, teachers can largely administrate the delivery of the material and certify the results generated by an automated learning evaluation instrument. However, matching these techniques of professorial control, students can deploy a variety of devices to reproduce responses they know will pass. Indeed, students can even shrewdly simulate authenticity -- the authenticity of imperfection -- by using ready-made work which is not first class or to which they can add little slips. Thus, students have their own manipulations in this regime of knowledge as power. Everyone, both students and teachers, becomes a technician.

Distance learning in virtual reality creates nothing utterly new. But it fulfills several related tendencies in university mass education. To be sure, some critical theorists have optimistically envisioned "flexible mixed mode methods and autonomous learning" in a new generation or "post-Fordist" model of distance education. Students and teachers can make good use of the possibilities of sophisticated communication technology to create opportunities for genuine interaction and mutual inquiry. However, even these theorists worry that such opportunities in both "production" and "consumption" of learning materials will not be widely accessible, due to the customary organizational hierarchy of academic institutions ( Farnes, pp. 10-20). Although we share this hope and this worry, it is the very lure of power offered by virtual reality that may well hold teachers and students within the regime of control. Economically, distance learning, like the often-caricatured version of lecture-hall teaching in the "multiversity," can be extraordinarily cost-efficient. A huge number of students, supplied with identical textbooks or courseware, can be serviced by a tiny number of teachers (usually adjuncts). In this way, university education perfectly applies tenets of post-industrial productivity (cf. Aronowitz). Second, the virtual university can project the reach of professorial power to literally any point on the globe. No longer limited by the lectern rising at the front of an auditorium-sized classroom, professors and the expertise they’ve deemed canonical can now be world-class.

And, finally, this type of education, in its most perfect form, reduces learning and teaching to mere control and to instrumental behaviors. It fulfills Max Weber’s dark vision of modern society as a field of reason-as-calculation. What is known is completely systematized; what is to be learned and how it is be acquired are programmed; and who the learners are, doesn’t matter. This depersonalized intellectual culture is orderly, slick, and emptied of surprise. It is completely, as Weber says, "disenchanted." The knowledge likely to be achieved there is precise but irrelevant to illuminating the intrinsically precious and wondrous ends of human life: beauty, virtue, happiness ( Weber).

This most sophisticated development of academic access, delivery, and production is supposed to spread learning and prosperity. It also constructs a huge void. In the place of authenticity, destructive impulses grow. In their efforts to control and outwit, teachers and students become ever more contemptuous and cynical about one another’s practices and intentions. Both experience the corroding dignity of the institution -- the academy as an authentically collegial space -- on which they depend. Little slips and cracks appear in the regime: high student dropout rates, cheating scandals, a de-skilled professorate, and the disturbing transformation of the academy into a credential business. These pathologies poignantly remind us of the call of authenticity.

However faint that call, there must remain some mote of authenticity in any genuine intellectual transaction. Were there not, even the value of knowledge as mere currency in a system of power would become counterfeit. For example, the rare occasions when Socrates becomes exasperated happen when his interlocutors threaten to tell him merely what he wants to hear rather than what they really think. It’s not an accident that these moments appear in the dialogue when it has degenerated into "eristic," a game of verbal control. It’s also significant that these moments of exasperation occur when the claim in dispute is that power alone creates justice and truth. Both Thrasymachus in the Republic and Callicles in the Gorgias try to protect themselves from Socrates’ attack on that claim. They produce the answers they know he wants to his leading questions. Socrates begs them to speak their authentic minds, lamenting that if they do not, all of them will have given up the search for truth ( Plato, 350e; 495a). Socrates knows that there is no virtue in winning an argument against simulations.

But perhaps Socrates himself has not done quite enough to honor authenticity. To be sure, we applaud him for the truth and nobility of his claims. And, Thrasymachus and Callicles are rude, their positions malignant. Nonetheless, there remains something sympathetic about these two characters because they resist Socrates’ efforts to be too clever at their expense. We feel some solidarity with them, just as we do with students who refuse to let their pride and ideas succumb to shows of professorial power. If those hapless students are really going to learn something valuable, their integrity, whatever they bring to the dialogue, has to be respected. Therefore, two conditions are necessary to sustain educational authenticity: First, the participants must assume that they can safely say what they really believe and that they are hearing what others really believe. But in order for this trust to persist, a second condition is necessary. The participants must respect the differences which will appear between them. If we try to obliterate those "distances," whether by the force of authority or by technology, we reduce learning to simulation. As Jurgen Habermas would put it, "system" subverts "the lifeworld" ( Habermas). Truth becomes, precisely as Thrasymachus and Callicles assert, just what the powerful make it seem to be. Whether the educational environment is an august lecture hall or its infinitely expanded version in virtual reality, if teaching and learning are constructed for control, a disturbing state of nature will appear: What will be "given" in these super-sophisticated environments is education as a battle of wills. What will be given is a struggle to protect our authenticity, if necessary, by hiding it.

Hiding and revealing. The first virtuoso of simulated and authentic realities in our culture is Odysseus. He is insatiably and adventurously curious -- a perpetual student -- but he loves to lie. He lies to bend dangers to his will, to visit and safely leave fascinating places, and, always, to protect his quest to return to Ithaca, his true home. Kalypso, a beautiful, agreeable deity with whom he’s dallied for years, offers him immortality and perfect, bountiful comfort if he will stay with her forever. She offers him a life in virtual reality, where everything can be made to suit his desires. All of his desires but one: To be who he really is, a person always wandering and always returning. Odysseus declines this ultimate wish fulfillment. He knows that, as a result of this decision, he will die. But nonetheless, he chooses to return to wife and home, his authentic bonds, however imperfect they are. To Kalypso's offer, he replies:

"Goddess and queen, do not be angry with me. I myself know
that all you say is true and that circumspect Penelope
can never match the impression you make for beauty and stature.
She is mortal after all, and you are immortal and ageless.
But even so, what I want and all my days I pine for
is to go back to my house and see my day of homecoming."
(Homer, Book V, l.215-220)

For all his homing desire, Odysseus genuinely loves to experience strange, even horrible places for what they are. Whether it’s the Sirens, the cave of the Cyclops, or even Hell itself, he is always ready to say, "So let this adventure follow" (V, 224). Odysseus loves distances, as much as he loves to be "at home in sunny Ithaca" (IX, 21). Thus, it’s at the boundary between the given and the made that he lives most intensely. He thrives on his eager perceptions of bizarre places and creatures, and on his clever stratagems for heading home.

Some deep and intrinsic connection exists between authenticity and distance, loyalty to one’s self and readiness to discover what is other. Imagine how teaching and learning would thrive if students and teachers would meet each other at this boundary. There, teachers would not succumb to the desire to be gods who mold students to their image. Students would not succumb to their desire to insincerely reproduce what their teachers profess. Nonetheless, like Kalypso, virtual reality beckons us to forget the anxious but lively society of reciprocal relationships which thrives at that tense boundary between searching and certainty. For sake of this most human, vulnerable liveliness, we give up our effort to re-make any object, including another’s curious mind, to suit our will.

Yet, virtual reality continues to offer us a chance to become god-like. The Homeric gods can indeed pretty much have their way with the world and all the mortal things and creatures within it. Calm and confident in their power and immortality, they have no need for human goods and virtues: courage, endurance, love, modesty, wonder or even justice (cf. Nussbaum 1990, pp. 365-377). The gods have power but they lack passionate attachments, the very faculty which makes us authentically human (Nussbaum 1994, pp. 227-230). So Odysseus declines the invitation to be a god.

But our tradition records the persistent lure of this offer and the terrible consequences of accepting it. Gods flourish in virtual reality; we humans, suffering the ultimate alienation from our authentic natures, become nobodies. In a world where we can not die or fail, where everything is artifice, we lose our selves.

"Nobody." That is how Odysseus names himself to Polyphemus, the Cyclops whom he thereby tricks to save himself and his men so that they can continue their journey home. He is a virtuoso of lying, at creating inauthentic representations of himself in order to manipulate others. However, this power depends entirely upon his absolutely certain knowledge of who he really is and his uncannily acute sense of what others expect. Odysseus gets away with his love of lying and playing these godlike games, because he is passionately curious about the unfamiliar and passionately attached to going home. He is the restless seeker, the exuberant human in the world. Unlike many of his gullible literary descendents, Odysseus, the greatest liar in our literature, sustains his identity by exquisitely understanding the difference between appearance and reality. He teaches us that we can play with what is given without losing our allegiance to it.

Faust, another archetypal figure in our tradition, lacks this playfulness. Despite his immense learning, he makes a foolish bargain with the Devil in hopes of achieving omnipotence. Nothing given to him in nature or by his scholarship has satisfied him. When he acquires the esoteric, magical, or, as we might now say, "hi-tech" knowledge to make the world and even the people in it as he wishes, he loses everything, his soul. Marlowe’s Faust conjures up Helen of Troy, and he is carried off to Hell. We first come upon Goethe’s Faust translating the Gospel of John. He transforms, "In the beginning was the Word" into "In the beginning was the Power," and finally, as "In the beginning was the Deed" (Pt. I, Sc. 5, l. 1224-1237). Once the Devil has granted the wish behind this distorting translation, Faust is able to charm Gretchen into falling in love with him. Eventually, he is responsible for the death of her beloved brother, for Gretchen murdering the illegitimate child Faust has fathered, and for her suicide. His power brings him nothing but despair. Thomas Mann’s 20th century Faust character, the composer, Adrian Leverkühn, altogether loses the ability to love. This, he believes, is the price the Devil has commanded in exchange for granting him the power to literally remake the world with his music. A cold and immensely learned man, he does have one genuine love, his young nephew. When the boy dies in slow agony from spinal meningitis, the composer decides to create one last piece, an oratorio which parodies Beethoven’s "Ode to Joy." He announces that through this composition, he will "take it back," take back the very possibility of "the good and the noble" from the world ( Mann p. 634).

The Faust legend usefully cautions us not to take too seriously the avatars, the little gods, we can make of ourselves in virtual reality. Otherwise, we lose our selves, our passionate attachments, our very ability to love. Faust’s awful fate shows us that we should preserve and savor, as Odysseus does, the distances that technology can misleadingly appear to safely remove. Our health and happiness require that, during our forays into virtual reality, we keep in play the knowledge that we inhabit a place in which we helplessly but dearly are who we are. If we succeed, we won’t lose ourselves in struggling for control. Rather, we shall be caring for a world in which teaching and learning are acts of love.



Virtual reality will not go away. So we search for the authentic, something to cherish, within a world which contains a virtual world. This is necessary because this is what we are given. What can we make of education in such an ontologically complex state of nature?

Everyone’s lives will become more dependent upon virtual education. More of our experiences will occur there. Virtual reality may have begun as an artifact, a construction, but now it is as much a part of the world we’re given as a weathered, crowded city. It may as well be a part of nature. We would no more give up the power of simulation and crossing distances than we would give up sturdy, comfortable buildings or relaxing under beautiful trees. We must acknowledge and savor this digital nature (as Odysseus most certainly would), just as we do the roar of winds and crowds, or soft voices in earnest conversation. Virtual reality does not invite us to keep distance from it, but that is exactly what we need to do in order to learn about its nature and use it well.

Its nature is two-sided. On one side, virtual reality entices us to believe that within its seemingly boundless bounds we can make anything and do anything to anyone. On the other side, because every participant in virtual reality possesses this power, no one can control anyone else. Everyone is Odysseus. The ironic and ethically powerful meaning of virtual reality is that it is a world-system saturating us with promises of control but authentically offering us the choice to be free and vulnerable together. Everyone wants to dissimulate, but everyone needs to discover what is real and to find a true home. Ironically, the best guarantee of getting what we need is to decline domination and accept our equality.

So what if we - both teachers and students - choose reciprocity rather than control? We might agree to respect and get to know our distant places and times, our authentic identities. Then, as in every curious person’s dream of education, all the whole wide world - in all its enchanting and uncontrollable strangeness - becomes uncovered. Like Socrates in the afterlife, we can travel through the virtual environment and ask anyone, anywhere, at any time, what he or she really thinks about a good and happy life. We can discover that on a chicken farm in Arkansas, there is a man in a monastery who wants to learn about the nature of Being, what we can make of it and what it gives us.End of article

About the Authors

Lee Herman is a professor at the Auburn site of Empire State College, the State University of New York's college of independent study and individualized education. He is co-founder of ESCĀ¹s Mentoring Institute.

Alan Mandell is a professor at the Manhattan site of ESC and current director of the Mentoring Institute. Alan and Lee have written collaboratively for many years about the philosophy and practice of adult, distance and student-centered learning.


A version of this paper was given at the 8th Cambridge International Conference on Learning and Teaching with New Technologies in 1999.


S. Aronowitz, 2000. The Knowledge Factory: Dismantling the Corporate University and Creating True Higher Learning. Boston: Beacon.

W. Benjamin, 1968. ‘The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction,’ Illuminations, Translated by H. Zohn, edited by H. Arendt. New York: Schocken.

N. Farnes, 1993. ‘Modes of production: Fordism and distance education,’ Open Learning, volume 8, number 1, pp. 10-20.

M. Fritz, 1999. ‘Draw conclusions but cite your own work’, Los Angeles Times.

J. Goethe, 1949. Faust, Part I. Translated by P. Wayne. New York: Penguin.

J. Habermas. 1984, 1989. The Theory of Communicative Action. 2 volumes. Translated by T. McCarthy, Boston: Beacon.

M. Heidegger, 1977. ‘The Question Concerning Technology,’ In: Basic Writings. D. Krell (editor). New York: Harper and Row.

M. Heim, 1998. Virtual Realism, New York: Oxford University Press.

Homer, 1967. Odyssey. Translated by R. Lattimore. New York: Harper.

M. Leibovich, 1999. ‘A new brain drain from America’s universities,’ Washington Post (12 April).

T. Mann, 1947. Doktor Faustus. Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer.

M. Nussbaum, 1990. ‘Transcending humanity,’ Love’s Knowledge. New York: Oxford University Press..

M. Nussbaum, 1994. The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Plato, 1963. Republic. Translated by P. Shorey,Gorgias, Translated by W. Woodhead). In: E. Hamilton and H. Cairns (editors). Collected Dialogues. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

N. Rao, 1999. ‘Paper trail,’ Village Voice (20 April).

M. Specter, 2000. "The Pharmageddon Riddle,’ New Yorker (10 April).

M. Weber, 1946. ‘Science as a vocation,’ Translated by H. Gerth and C. Mills. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Editorial history

Paper received 24 July 2000; accepted 27 September 2000.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2000, First Monday

The Given and the Made: Authenticity and Nature in Virtual Education by Lee Herman and Alan Mandell
First Monday, volume 5, number 10 (October 2000),