What would Kierkegaard have thought of MOOCs?

For every communications technology, there are those who want to exploit its potential to “revolutionize” education. Surely, some enterprising chap in the 1840s thought of turning the telegraph into an educational platform. Ah! Schelling’s latest lecture is coming over the wire now! Quick: tap out a question before it finishes, and he may respond!

Kierkegaard cared a lot about learning, but cared very little for the new media of his day. We can make a fair guess about what his attitude toward MOOCs would be, based on his attitude toward the technological progress being made in mid-nineteenth century Europe. In this scene from the Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, published in 1846, Kierkegaard reports on an afternoon’s reverie in Copenhagen’s Fredriksberg Gardens:

So there I sat and smoked my cigar until I drifted into thought. Among other thoughts, I recall these. You are getting on in years, I said to myself, and are becoming an old man without being anything and without actually undertaking anything. On the other hand, wherever you look in literature or in life, you see the names and figures of celebrities, the prized and highly acclaimed people, prominent or much discussed, the many benefactors of the age who know how to benefit humankind by making life easier and easier, some by railroads, others by omnibuses and steamships, others by telegraph, others by easily understood surveys and brief publications about everything worth knowing, and finally the true benefactors of the age who by virtue of thought systematically make spiritual existence easier and easier and yet more and more meaningful—and what are you doing?

So only one lack remains [in our time], even though not yet felt, the lack of difficulty. Out of love of humankind, out of despair over my awkward predicament of having achieved nothing and of being unable to make anything easier than it had already been made, out of genuine interest in those who make everything easy, I comprehended that it was my task: to make difficulties everywhere.

One recurring theme in Kierkegaard’s work is that no matter how much we invent, no matter how much we “improve” physical or intellectual or spiritual life, each one of us always remains just as far away from what really matters. The railroad and telegraph can shrink the distance between Copenhagen and Berlin, but you remain every bit as alienated from yourself, from God, and from the truth. If not more. If education is about immediacy (as Gregg Graham argues), then no medium can truly be said to improve it.