If Class Outside Was Good Enough for Plato, It's Good Enough in a Pandemic

Virtual or masked classes are barriers to learning, not just disease.


The 1960s TV spy spoof Get Smart had a ridiculously unworkable piece of conferencing hardware called "the cone of silence." Unfortunately, that gives a pretty good idea of what's been happening in the pandemic-era college classroom, with its Zoom classes and its in-person classes held behind plexiglass barriers and mandated masks. These efforts to block viral transmission are blocking voices, hiding facial cues, and making the quieter students retreat even further.

Imagine if the makers of buggy whips had responded to the automobile's advent as colleges have dealt with the pandemic: "Try our new virtual whip, the Invisi-Smack—or upgrade to the Wonderwhip2000 whose extra-thick grip kills germs while spurring steeds to higher speeds."

That's not a compelling product; nor, these days, is an American college. By moving online and trying to retrofit classrooms for social distancing, colleges are building barriers between the school's two essential groups: teachers and students. The institutions are acting like their value proposition is the classroom when it's actually the learning that students get from teachers and from each other.

Certainly, we should all wear masks when we must be indoors. But here's the thing: We don't have to be indoors. Outdoors is where Plato taught, and it's where I taught. He used an olive grove outside of Athens; I used the central quadrangle, the Quad, at James Madison University (JMU) in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

Outdoor class at James Madison University.

A recent Swedish study found increased levels of engagement, motivation, and achievement with outdoor learning. American colleges already have plenty of grass and trees, and they've long been paying lip service to outdoor classes (as a glance at their promotional videos would indicate). But now it's time to put these campuses into the service of learning.

My students earned better grades last year than ever before, and the ones who showed up in person scored a letter grade higher on average than the ones who took advantage of my Zoom simulcast. Other students would approach me on the JMU Quad and express a wish that their professor would teach outside. One such student wrote an op-ed for the campus paper with the headline "Hold more classes outside."

Unfortunately, many professors routinely dismiss outdoor teaching by claiming "it's too hot" or "it's too cold." When we had classes in 90-degree heat, we'd sit under a tree and sip ice water. I took some hints from Susan Hrach's new book Minding Bodies: How Physical Space, Sensation, and Movement Affect Learning. She urges professors to stop treating college students as mere "brains on sticks." So when it was cold, I kept the class short and kept students moving with a motion-oriented workshop.

Did you notice the word "workshop"? Teaching outside means the instructor should develop a workshop, or at least a vibrant discussion, for practically every class. That gets to what might be the hardest part about teaching outside: Teaching outside works best after "flipping" a class away from lectures and into a seminar.

A seminar is based on outside reading. It's what they do at Oxford, Cambridge, and in upper-level American courses (though they're called "tutorials" across the pond). The seminar treats college students like adults, while a lecture presumes students are too lazy to read material in advance. The seminar frees up precious classroom time for discussions, guest speakers, and those aforementioned workshops.

"It almost doesn't feel like a class," exclaimed one of my students. "It's kind of this fun learning experience, which is why I think I benefit greatly from it."

My students often did not want to leave when class ended. Why would they? Zoom burn-out is real. And for many students, mine was their only in-person class; so they tended to linger in small groups even after the bell rang.

"I like this class," one student told the campus TV station, "because it gives me more of an opportunity to be with other people."

America has a history of outdoor education, but it's confined primarily to K-12 schools, some of which are devoted to learning outside. During this pandemic, however, we've seen many restaurants move outside. Some colleges put up tents, but there were none at JMU—and even where they were readily available, they seemed rarely used by professors, who are typically given wide latitude in the configuration of their courses. Why so many fair-weather faculty? The ones that I've asked keep talking about the weather. But I would remind them that current science says the safest way to hold in-person classes is outside.

Speaking of science, I must admit that moving a chemistry lab's Bunsen burners outside during, say, an icy day in Minnesota may be beyond my Platonic dream, but you never know. After all, my class did fire up a propane camp stove on the JMU Quad last February (though I must confess that it was for a pancake breakfast). Others have asked if my plan would necessitate the end of enormous freshman lectures. Probably, but would that be such a bad thing? A star professor with a 200-person class could be videotaped in advance. Students could then meet outside in small groups with a professor or teaching assistant.

Here in Virginia, the total annual bill for an in-state student to attend a residential public university can top $30,000. Private colleges can be double this amount. With such price tags, it's unsurprising that the university system was under fire even before the pandemic. But making classes virtual has emboldened critics to suggest that colleges are hardly better than the videos students can find on YouTube, Coursera, or LinkedIn. It's also no surprise that undergraduate enrollment in America fell by a record 5 percent last year.

Many students and professors, faced with the pandemic's virulent delta variant, are understandably resisting their college's call to go indoors and risk infection. My advice is simple: Stay outside. It worked for Plato.

NEXT: The Afghanistan Lessons America Refused To Learn

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  2. Outside classes, in the winter, in the north, sound fun.

    Kids, your course requirements now include a 800 weight down parka, mountaineering boots, etc.

    1. Last winter I sent 3 days outside with a daytime high of -8F and I wore my mask entire time.

      1. 8 below? Short sleeve weather.

        1. He’s talking in Celcius, that’s 17 f

          1. Now 17F is tee shirt weather.

    2. I would have had the opposite problem.
      “Okay class, now do your calculus test in 105F heat, and try not to sweat excessively on your papers, I couldn’t read half your writing last time due to the smudges”.

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  3. Outdoors is where Plato taught, and it’s where I taught. He used an olive grove outside of Athens; I used the central quadrangle, the Quad, at James Madison University (JMU) in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

    Far out, man.

  4. One wonders if the Greek weather might be more forgiving in regards to outdoor classes.

    1. Everyone knows you have to be hardy to live in a Mediterranean climate.

    2. Plato had an advantage with the climate, yes. He also had students who really, really wanted to be his students. The latter doesn’t obtain in most U.S. high schools. And the former is only available for a small part of the year in virtually all of the U.S..

  5. I taught many classes outdoors. A very nice change-of-pace.

    On the other hand:
    “Certainly, we should all wear masks when we must be indoors.” Really? Then why did I bother getting vaccinated?

    1. Because you, like myself, are a sucker.

      1. Well, I was pretty sure this “mask” thing was going to go on regardless of my “vac-status,” and got the “poke” anyway. But I still don’t like it.

    2. One of my grad school professors held classes in a bar. Greatest class ever.

  6. Certainly, we should all wear masks when we must be indoors

    To be sure, of course. Naturally. It goes without saying. Reason, the ambassador of clown world.

    1. certainly … all … must. lol

    2. From the CDC:

      Disposable medical masks (also known as surgical masks) are loose-fitting devices that were designed to be worn by medical personnel to protect accidental contamination of patient wounds, and to protect the wearer against splashes or sprays of bodily fluids (36). There is limited evidence for their effectiveness in preventing influenza virus transmission either when worn by the infected person for source control or when worn by uninfected persons to reduce exposure. Our systematic review found no significant effect of face masks on transmission of laboratory-confirmed influenza.

      1. Who do you believe, the CDC, or the CDC?

        1. I believe the CDC study data that you have to dig for. I don’t believe what the CDC spokesbot tells me on television, because the latter is tempered by “political reality”.

          1. The latter is? Didn’t you see all those gun violence and alcohol disease studies during your excavation?

            1. I used to use the CDC website for gun death statistics which were in contradistinction to what the press was telling you.

            2. To the point, the CDC data on gun deaths showed that… compared to various other forms of death, esp. traffic fatalities, they paled in comparison.

              1. It’s almost frightening to have a commenter use such a close approach to facts and logic.

      2. The fact that Reason is trying to bargain itself out of an authoritarian diktat by proposing a patently ludicrous alternative to get around it says everything you need to know about the ever elusive “libertarian moment.” When push comes to shove, libertarians seem quite content to be pushed around provided they can somehow bring themselves to believe that the fall won’t be that bad.

        “If we have to be pushed, after all, we can at least make sure …..”

        Laughable. And pathetic.

        1. Lite Libertarians: We deserve choice! We want choice to wear or not wear masks!

          Tyrants: No.

          Lite Libertarians: We demand choice to choose the schools we can attend!

          Tyrants: No.

          Lite Libertarians: Well…at least let us have school outside…once and awhile? In the winter?

          Tyrants: *shrug*

          Libertarians: LIBERTARIAN. MOMENT.

        2. Especially when there’s a fully libertarian alternative:

          Close all the public schools and refund the money to the taxpayers, so they can afford high end computers and high speed internet to seek out the best virtual instructors, who can be located anywhere in the world and are likely to be superior to those assigned by accident of geographical proximity.

          If it saves even one kid, how can anyone argue with it?

  7. the Greeks barely *had* indoors but the point is fine.

    >>The institutions are acting like their value proposition is the classroom when it’s actually …

    trading money with the government off the backs of the students & their parents

  8. If Class Outside Was Good Enough for Plato, It’s Good Enough in a Pandemic

    So did Socrates, and he ended up being kidnapped by 2 stoner assholes from California.

    1. To quote Bill and Ted “fag”

    2. San Dimas High School Football rules!

  9. “Certainly, we should all wear masks when we must be indoors.”

    Certainly, we should consider the past record of failure of any proposed preventative action before blindly accepting it and forcing it on others.

  10. The big reason Sweden was able to keep schools going in-person during 2020 and now is because they spend a lot of time outdoors in school. They even have a word for it incorporated into their setup/curriculum – friluftsliv – open air living. Otherwise, they would have had the constant problem of kids staying home then in school then staying home etc.

    1. I ordered a friluftsliv leather sofa from Ikea. They gave me a cow and an allen wrench.

      1. Hey I did too. The best part was the critical pieces – geocached under a rock – somewhere in Canada.

  11. Those supporting this have no class.

  12. “Certainly, we should all wear masks when we must be indoors.”

    With what little respect is due, you are wrong.
    My doctor and I both agree the small risk to me, as an individual, of the Communist Chinese Virus is much less than the certain damage of restricting my breathing with a “cloth face covering”.
    Please be advised using the phrase “we should all” in any context will never be appropriate in a libertarian article.

    1. It’s also triggering and non inclusive and doesn’t advance equity.

    2. You sir, complete me.

  13. Good idea! However, because a bunch of right-wing buttholes delayed action on doing something about CO2 emissions the sky outside is Orange to red with soot due to global climate change. Some fucking clean air would be nice, but unfortunately that ship has fucking sailed.

    1. Far superior to asshole lefty ignoramuses trying to pitch their post-modern religion on the rest of us, asshole lefty.


      Haha. What a doosh.

  14. …and the Greeks played their Olympics naked.

    1. That tradition should return.

  15. Allegory of the Cavid

  16. If Class Outside Was Good Enough for Plato, It’s Good Enough in a Pandemic

    If class outside was good enough for an authoritarian, elitist asshole living in a warm Mediterranean climate with people who spent most of their time outdoors, why shouldn’t it be good enough for Minnesotan college students?

  17. Why would anyone want to attend a college or university except for more Marxist indoctrination and brainwashing? Why would anyone wish to put themselves into massive debt while holding a degree that isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on? Why would anyone attend college classes and expose themselves to the lunatic Marxist, woke brainwashing that is now the curriculum of nearly every college in America?
    Stop giving America’s colleges and universities the credit they don’t deserve.
    Unless you’re there for an engineering degree or some other equally important field such as medicine or related, you’re wasting your time and money.
    Remember, the reason why certain people choose academia is because they have no marketable skills on the outside and they are lazy.

    1. People with college degrees earn more than those with just high school Diplomas on average. Even if something unrelated it can open up to better jobs and help someone move up the ladder more quickly. While not true for everyone it just depends on what you do with it.

      Just because you majored in anthropology doesn’t mean you have to be an anthropologist but it will help you when you interview at Amazon.

      One mistake people make is spending too much on a big name university when a lower cost state college could do just as well.

      1. Why are so many jobless, then? What good is a degree that ends with “Studies”?
        Why are so many jobless college grads stuck with massive tuition bills they can barely pay off if at all?
        College is not for everyone, there are great vocational schools and other choices.
        Airframe/powerplant mechanic
        electrician, plumbing and heating. The airlines will soon be needing replacement pilots as many are now nearing or at retirement age. Truck drivers. Maritime and dock workers.
        Construction and framing.
        Most of these are skilled trades but the jobs are there for those willing to work for them.
        Those with useless college degrees are already finding out the hard way.

  18. or people could just be personally responsible for their own hygiene and health decisions based on their personal risk tolerance.

  19. “Certainly, we should all wear masks when we must be indoors.”

    To be sure, this has been commented on several times already.

    But let me add: Fuck you. Royally.

    1. I love Mark Dice’s new Tee shirt” Arrest Fauci”.

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