Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Distance Learning and Learning to Traverse Distance


It is not the increasing largeness or crowdedness of a globalized world which drives us inward to burden our neighbors with neonationalism and protectionism, but its increasingly habituated otherness.  It is not the presence of diverse individuals in the world which ramps up our individualism and makes us cling to it, but the lack of individuality which centuries of misguided scientific instinct have netted around individuals different than us in our history, philosophy, and media coverage.  We must fight against knowing only broad “facts” about other countries, against totalizing, monolithic visions of any of the equally complex and human corners of this world, with intentional outreach person to person.

The Quran advises that God will judge the sincerely religious according to their best actions.1  If we take this as a guide for the practice of friendship, then we aim to emulate the friendship of God for human by finding our friends’ best qualities and engaging with them in a way which celebrates these.  I began this article with the intimation that individualism is one of the greatest and least necessary ills of the modern world.  I do not suggest, however, that we should abandon it.  Let us try the opposite first: let us give it a fuller, fairer trial than we ever have and adopt an individualist sensibility toward the world more fully.

To rationally extend into more savory territory the values we already attest to in our least savory isolationist individualism, the best qualities and actions of our fellow human beings must be the qualities and actions that individuate them.  If we value the individual, we must agree to this.  Then, to be friends with the individual overseas or across a border means interacting person to person to judge each other according to our best merit, our individual personhood.  We can do this using the modern technology which enables distance learning between students and institutions around the world (in fact, why shouldn’t meeting one’s fellow students from around the world be an institutionalized part of distance learning?).

In a later edition of Human Capital, economist and sociologist Gary Becker proposes that education can be measured as an investment, its value implied by whether its monetary returns outweigh the capital put toward it.  Simplified in this way, the value of your college education is a matter of how much money you spent on it versus how much you are earning afterward.  This is the neoliberal economist’s view of education.2  The personal-globalist’s measure of education is this: how many people did you meet in college and how many different backgrounds were they from?

At dinner a few hours ago, I shared the aforementioned idea that distance learning technology could introduce individuals from far-apart countries to one another, particularly countries at war or with high diplomatic tension.  Becoming friends with real people, I said, has transformed how I myself think about countries I’ve never been to and conflicts I haven’t experienced.  I was at dinner with a fellow student who will be going home to Thailand in a few months to work in documentary filmmaking after graduating.  I have a friend from Thailand.  I have a professor from Iran, whose stories have transformed my relationship, as a distant in time and space Westerner, with the Iranian Cultural Revolution and Islam.  I have classmates from South Korea, Serbia, Armenia, Austrailia…a hundred other countries, who have all challenged my notions of the world by simply replacing categories and generalizations with irreducible humanity.

This is the benefit, the value, of my college education.  What I learn in conversations with these people is worth more than anything I will earn in the first five years after I graduate college.  The amazing strength of the modern institution of college is that it supports the coming together of young people from around the world to do things together for a number of years, doing together being an indispensable tenet of Aristotelian friendship.  As Sybil A. Schwarzenbach writes of the function and creation of civic friendship, “in civic friendship (unlike in personal friendships) the minimal traits of all friendship already noted by Aristotle—a reciprocal awareness of the moral equality of the other, reciprocal goodwill towards them, and a practical doing [together]—become embodied in the background ‘basic structure’ of society.”3  In this sense, a college is such a “society” which structurally nurtures civic friendship, by engaging students in the common work of learning, as well as demanding the morality and goodwill necessitated by living in a close community.  (Colleges need to do a much better job of bringing in students from all diverse walks of life, especially in terms of socioeconomic variety, but that is a soapbox for another time.)  From my own experience, I believe that friends learn more from each other when they come from different backgrounds than when they come from similar backgrounds, but, given that this is an academic article, let me present a theory which backs me up in, I hope, a surprising way, a theory from a background of study which I hope you weren’t expecting to find here and which I hope is less than familiar to you, for the sake of conversation between new and different friends:

In his many writings on theatre, the influential playwright Bertolt Brecht insisted that modern audiences had a propensity and aptitude for scientific knowledge-gathering.  Brecht worked in an age right after that defined by Freud, Franz Boaz, and Bronislaw Malinowski: the fathers of psychoanalysis and anthropology; an age defined by the legacies of these thinkers, Hegel and Karl Marx just before them, and the First World War just after them.  There was a new faith that society could be studied scientifically, that social interactions could be investigated and understood just as systematically and enlighteningly as plants, microorganisms, and the movements of stars.  Writing in this milieu, Brecht asserts that the goal of his epic theatre is to lay bare the structural workings of social history and the culturally-cultivated affectations of modern society.  “The epic theatre’s spectator says: I’d never have thought it—That’s not the way—That’s extraordinary, hardly believable…That’s great art: nothing obvious in it.”  (This is in contrast to the spectator of the “dramatic theatre,” who sees only the relatable and inevitable on stage.)4

Brecht meant to surprise his audiences and acquaint them with the inobvious through what he called “alienation effects,” stilted gestures and barriers which would remind anyone watching that they were indeed watching a play, not reality, actors, not real people.  The word “alienation” has an unfortunate cousin-word, “alien,” too often used to malign the national “other.”  But in Brechtian terms, maybe there is a productive way to reclaim the title “alien”—in Brechtian terms, difference, that is, just a bit of foreignness, is the tool which allows us to observe social conditions with clarifying, scientific distance.  I propose that we embrace this healthy dose of distance: that we employ more distance learning technology to make friends in other communities and countries, and that we practice being willing to travel further distances, physically and mentally.  I propose that we start a new habit, a friendly habit, of individualizing not ourselves, right here, moving only inches outside our own skin, but others, individualizing everyone, everywhere, “global personalism,” to rephrase a phrase from above.  I insist that we extend our valuation of the individual person as far as modern communication technology will allow and then some, to great distances, to encompass the entire globe.


1Quran, verse 16:97: And whosoever does a righteous deed, be it male or female, believing, We shall assuredly give him to live a goodly life; and We shall recompense them their wage, according to the best of what they did.  Trans. Arberry.

2Todd May, Friendship in an Age of Economics: Resisting the Forces of Neoliberalism (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2012), 46-47.

3Sybil A. Schwarzenbach, “Fraternity, solidarity, and civic friendship,” in AMITY: The Journal of Friendship Studies (2015) 3:1, 5.

4Bertolt Brecht, Brecht on Theatre, ed. and trans. John Willett (New York: Hill and Wang, 1964), 71.


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