First Monday

The Virtual University and College Life: Some Unintended Consequences for Democratic Citizenship

Advocates of the Virtual University assume that the Internet can be used to replace the bricks and mortar campus. Even if the academic course work of higher education can be replicated online, what cannot are the organized extracurricular activities which have been a crucial component of a traditional college education. These activities create social capital, prepare students for civic engagement and combat the self-absorbed individualism which undermines democratic society. We would do well to think about their loss, and the unintended social consequences which flow from adopting the Virtual University as a model for higher education in the twenty-first century.


Community, College Life and Civic Engagement
Social Capital, Public Goods and Higher Education


In our society we generally assume that new is better than old [1]. We know that a new technology is unlikely to preserve all the features of the old one, but expect that the gains to its users will outweigh the losses. In the 20th century, the automobile replaced the horse as the primary means of personal transportation. Horseback riding had also provided people with exercise, but the automobile was by far the superior means of transportation. If we want exercise, we can get it in other ways. The typewriter was an improvement over the pen, and the computer over the typewriter. Often new technology increases the cost, but the superior performance justifies the expense. Sometimes it actually lowers the cost. A plastic electric fan is no better than a metal one, but it is cheaper. It is the best of all situations when the cost goes down and the performance improves. This is the expectation of those touting the use of the Internet as a new technology to replace traditional higher education.

For the sake of argument, let's assume that students can learn course material as well online as they can sullenly slumped in the back of a lecture hall. It is often assumed that online would be cheaper because online courses cost less to deliver than those taught in a regular classroom. There would be no need to pay for the bricks and mortar and the other services provided by traditional colleges. The so-called virtual university would also seem to have a number of advantages in addition to cost saving. It could deliver education on demand; courses would not be limited by the amount of classroom space; classes could be taken any time and any place; and course quality could be standardized [2].

Anyone concerned about the impact of distance education and the Internet on American higher education needs to ask whether the Internet can deliver what colleges traditionally delivered. Concentrating on course work makes it seem that the only purpose of higher education is to teach a number of distinct skills and pass on discrete bodies of information. If these goals could be achieved using an alternative that is more cost effective and efficient, then traditional colleges seem doomed, but college education has additional goals which were once thought to be just as important, or even more important than these. Traditional college education had a moral and civic component which was reflected in both the curriculum and the extra-curriculum -- organized activities which comprised college life outside the classroom.

Moral and civic education was facilitated not only by the traditional curriculum, but also by the old face-to-face educational technology. The fact that students have to spend time with each other is a necessity of old methods of instruction. Masses of students congregating at a college campus gives rise to additional expenses not borne by online higher education, but it also creates the college as a community.

Historically American college students were not considered mature consumers capable of exercising rational choice in the pursuit of educational services. Undergraduates were not regarded as responsible adults, but as immature adolescents needing guidance and nurturing. This attitude can be traced back to the origins of American higher education in the colonial colleges. In the 17th and 18th centuries, colleges were not simply collections of bricks and mortar where students were taught a number of different subjects. They were residential communities intended to shape the religious and moral characters of their young members in loco parentis. These paternalistic attitudes helped mold the response of colleges to the great increase in demand for their services in the twentieth century.

The old, small 19th century college with an enrollment of around 200 students who, for the most part, came from very similar social backgrounds simply could not meet the challenges of the new century. Higher education was becoming a gateway for the professions; college was seen as a straight path for upward social mobility. New social groups were demanding entrance, and they came with new needs and often with poor scholastic preparation. There were several strategies available to deal with this new mass of students. Colleges could simply admit everyone who wanted to come and flunk out a great many of them in their first year. This was considered insensitive and uneconomical. On the other hand, they could be very selective admitting only those of the highest academic qualifications and achievements. State laws precluded this option for public colleges, and elite private colleges thought this would be undesirable for social and other reasons. The promise of American democracy in the new century was to be "college for all," and while this did not mean literally everyone, it certainly meant higher education for more than the two per cent or so who had received it in the past.

Colleges adapted by acknowledging the increasing heterogeneity of the student body. They introduced new curricula and instructional methods. They drew upon new organismic theories of psychology. No longer were we to think of the person in dualistic terms of mind and matter in which the faculties of the mind, such as judgement, will, and imagination could be developed through mental discipline. Now we were offered the holistic approach to the person. College administrators felt pressure to assume responsibility for developing the whole personality of the student. This meant being responsible not just for his intellectual development, but also for his physical, social, and emotional development. What happened outside the classroom was thought to greatly influence classroom performance. Colleges become increasingly concerned about such things as living conditions, study habits, and mental health. As one of the leading advocates of this approach put it, "Once a college has admitted a student it has a moral obligation to do everything within reason to help him succeed" [3].

This response to the needs of the new college population led to the creation of new and expensive services. In the late 19th century there was relatively little attention paid to how or where students lived. This lack of attention was replaced by a great concern for the improvement of undergraduate living conditions since it was believed that academic performance was significantly affected by what occurs outside the classroom. An increasing number of college presidents came to the conclusion that "good housing contributes to academic success, and the securing of proper housing is as important as providing proper classroom instruction" [4]. In addition to massive building campaigns, colleges also found themselves funding a number of new counseling services to help with academic and emotional problems. Vocational counselors helped students plan courses of study to prepare themselves for their careers. Nor was the physical side of life ignored. After World War I there was a significant growth in intramural athletic programs with an emphasis on sports which could be of value later in life such as golf, tennis, and swimming [5].

Colleges in the United States have always been interested in the "the whole student" -- in forming character and preparing young men and women to be citizens as well as professionals. Education historians attribute this to the impact of democratic values which make college life in America very different from Europe, even from England which had such an important influence on American higher education from the colonial period. The structure of many college organizations was democratic. Student councils, inter-fraternity councils, and other forms of student government became widespread in the early twentieth century because of the influence of American progressivism. The National Self-Government Committee was a typical progressive pressure group which advocated student self-government as a means of encouraging responsible democratic citizenship [6].

While activities outside of class were always central to undergraduate life at Oxford and Cambridge, British universities never developed the organizational structure which characterized college life in the United States. Writing in the 1940s, the British scholar Dennis Brogan observed that the activist American campus with its organized college athletics, fraternities, and publications was a result of the need for socialization and acculturation in a democratic, heterogeneous nation [7]. Has this need simply disappeared? Do the advocates of the virtual university think that online distance education will serve this need? Can it be met by the family, the high school and the discipline of the free market? The issue has simply not been discussed, as if the fact a virtual university can provide the formal intellectual content of a higher education were enough. But what about these other needs for socialization and preparation for democratic citizenship?

Community, College Life and Civic Engagement

What came to be called "college life," the organized life of collegians outside of the classroom, was born out of the student revolts on the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Students resented college discipline, and after they lost in open confrontation with the faculty they developed their own counterculture which centered around student activities not involving the classroom and the faculty. As one historian put it, for students in the late 19th and early 20th century "classes and books existed as the price one had to pay for college life, but no right-thinking college man worried about marks beyond the minimum needed to stay in the game. . . . No real college man ever expected to learn in the classroom, not at least the kind of knowledge that bore any relation to his future life in the world. No, college life taught the real lessons; and from it came the true rewards" [8]. Though not all who attended college were caught up in organized college life - there were always outsiders and rebels -- college life did play a crucial role in shaping the experience of young men and women.

The college was a small community with a flourishing civic life. The norms of college life insisted upon participation in extracurricular activities. To decline to participate in them, to hold off from engaging in group life because one wanted to study or pursue private interests, was considered selfish [9]. Consider the claim that a person who goes to college and is only interested in studying and getting good grades is "selfish." In the context of the virtual university such a claim would be almost incomprehensible -- not simply wrong, but extremely puzzling. In what way is such a student selfish? In the virtual university there is a simple perfectly just exchange; the student pays money and receives a product, the online courses. To use the product effectively the student must devote time and energy to learning the material. If he or she does not, the money is wasted. The virtual university simply reinforces the logic of markets; it encourages students to invest time and money to create their individual human capital. Their education is treated as a purely private good. Students are then free to employ their human capital, the skills acquired by completing the curriculum, in whatever way they wish.

At the heart of the claim about selfishness is the assumption that college life would not be possible if students weren't willing to participate and contribute. College life was not just fun; it was important for life after college. The propensity to join organizations, to participate in extracurricular activities, to engage with others was thought to be a desirable trait well worth encouraging through social pressure. After graduation these propensities to participate became important resources not just for the individual, but for the community at large. Participating in the civil society of college was a preparation for participating in the larger civil society of America. The college as a community instilled the virtue of loyalty and a willingness to engage in activities which require bearing the burden of volunteering for the common weal.

Virtual U could try to produce the experience of a virtual college community online. It could provide chat rooms for its students, but except for specific course-related discussion, why should a student spend time there with other students enrolled at Virtual U rather than participating in any of countless of discussions continually on the Net? After all, the whole world awaits to interact with them. More important, who would really want to devote their free time to helping good old Virtual U? Would the experience of taking online courses there be sufficient to create a desire to attend an online class reunion after 10 years? What is a class in this sense anyway?

Civic engagement has long been believed to be at the core of a successful and flourishing democratic society. The classic description of America as a successful civil society appears in Alexis de Tocqueville. In his classic, Democracy in America, de Tocqueville was struck by the willingness of Americans to join associations: "In the United States, political associations are only one small part of the immense number of different types of associations found there. Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of dispositions are forever forming associations. There are not only commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but others of a thousand different types -- religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and very minute" [10].

Tocqueville claims that the success of the democratic project depends upon this feature of American life: "In democratic countries knowledge of how to combine is the mother of all other forms of knowledge; on its progress depends that of all the others" [11]. He warns that "if they did not learn some habits of acting together in the affairs of daily life, civilization would be in peril." Interestingly enough, acquiring these habits requires participation in civil life: "feelings and ideas are renewed, the heart enlarged, and the understanding developed only by the reciprocal action of men one upon another" [12]. I doubt that life online, however useful, can in the long run be as effective in providing such experiences as interaction among people in the real world.

Tocqueville not only insists that the habit of participating with others in civil society is necessary for the flourishing of modern democracy, he also claims that our democracy is continually challenged by another deep tendency in American society. He fears that it might be undermined by American individualism which he defines as "a calm and considered feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends; with this little society formed to his taste, he gladly leaves the greater society to look after itself " [13]. He also points out that individualism is combated by the doctrine of self-interest properly understood. As he says, "it gives them pleasure to point out how an enlightened self-love continually leads them to help one another and disposes them freely to give part of their time and wealth for the good of the state" [14].

This doctrine of self-interest rightly understood is in constant tension with self-interest understood very narrowly and individually. Tocqueville suggests that this doctrine is frequently a way of justifying actions that really stem from altruistic and disinterested motives. It is often more a matter of emotions than rational calculation, "the Americans are hardly prepared to admit that they do give way to emotions of this sort. They prefer to give the credit to their philosophy rather than to themselves" [15]. It is not really reason that provides a good part of the motivation to engage in collective action; rather, it is the habits of the heart. Democratic citizens require an education not just in the philosophy of democracy. They must be habituated to its ways and their emotional life must also be molded to support it. This too can be called higher education.

Social Capital, Public Goods and Higher Education

Many of Tocqueville's insights into the requirements of democratic citizenship and worries about its future have returned in the current debates about social capital. Social capital refers to aspects of the social structure which can serve as resources to enable actors to achieve their ends. It is created through changes in the relations among persons. Scholars who have been concerned with civil society and the health of our pluralistic democratic society have worried about the loss of our social capital.

In his well-known article "Bowling Alone," Robert Putnam argues that the effectiveness of representative government depends on the social capital created by networks of civic engagement. These networks foster norms of reciprocity, facilitate the creation of social trust, and embody past successful collaborations that can serve as a template for future collaboration. He sounds the alarm that American society is in trouble because there has been a significant decline in our civic engagements, symbolized by the fact that more Americans are now bowling alone rather than in bowling leagues. He believes American social capital is being eroded because our civic associations have been in decline for at least a generation, and he worries about the future, asking us to consider whether there may be changes in social relations which could compensate for the decline in social capital (Putnam, 1995). Interestingly, he considers the possibility that electronic networks will have a positive effect on the creation of social capital, but concludes pessimistically that "My hunch is that meeting in an electronic forum is not the equivalent of meeting in a bowling alley -- or even in a saloon, but hard empirical research is needed" [16]. While I do not take up the challenge to provide such hard data in this paper, I share Putnam's skepticism about the effectiveness of online groups in creating social capital.

Some critics are skeptical about the empirical evidence for a decline in social capital (Ladd, 1998). I do not intend to enter the debate, but I do wish to point out that traditional undergraduate colleges are an important source of social capital. Their possible replacement by virtual universities has the potential for accelerating a decline in civic engagement, and this has not received any attention in the debates about the advantages and disadvantages of online higher education.

The concept of social capital has been used to explain how communities solve the problem of collective action. Those who possess social capital are able to act together to get things done, while those who lack it are unable to cooperate for common purposes. This suggests that social capital may be considered a public good for a particular group, and as such, it runs into many of the problems associated with the creation of such goods. Markets have difficulty providing the optimum level of public goods because they often don't generate bottom line profits. If social capital is a public good, as I believe it is, then we might very well expect that market oriented virtual universities would not have much of an incentive to provide it.

Public goods are things such as clean air and national defense which, if they are provided for any members of a group, must be provided for all. This creates the classic free rider problem because, while all members of the group get the benefits, the cost of producing the goods need not be born by all. Coercion can solve the free rider problem by forcing all who benefit from public goods to also bear the costs, but where there is a voluntary component to the provision of public goods the free rider problem remains. In a great many contexts the provision of public goods requires the existence of what might be called a special type of collective good, the disposition of the group to act collectively to provide public goods. This disposition is an emergent property of the group. It depends, of course, on the disposition of individual members, but the corresponding disposition need not exist in all members of the group. In social and political contexts, collective action does not require unanimous action. Not everyone needs to have the disposition to vote to provide the public good of a democratic political system, but assuredly some significant subset of the citizenry must have such a disposition. Similarly, the flourishing of our civil society depends upon the disposition of a great number of people to participate in civic life. This disposition is a type of human capital, or to use an earlier terminology, a social virtue.

If social or civic virtue, understood as the disposition to bear the costs of producing public goods, is desirable from the social point of view, then it is in any society's interest to produce it. Recall Aristotle's understanding of virtues and habit. In Book II of the Nicomachean Ethics he argues that moral virtue is formed by habit because "we are by nature equipped with the ability to receive them [the virtues], and habit brings this ability to completion and fulfillment" [17]. Virtues are not innate. We acquire them by acting, "we become just by the practice of just actions, self-controlled by exercising self-control, and courageous by performing acts of courage" [18]. It is by doing good things over and over again that we eventually acquire the disposition which we call a virtue. For Aristotle a just man is not someone who performs one act of justice, but rather someone who has the disposition to perform just acts. In order to become good we must acquire the right habits.

If we want citizens to have civic virtue, they should be raised and educated in ways that foster it. This sort of moral education was once at the center of higher education in America. Colleges provided the opportunity and social support to develop the habit of civic engagement.

Traditional undergraduate institutions, especially elite colleges, have an elaborate admissions policy. In a great many institutions, in-class performance in high school and SAT scores are not enough. Being elected to student council, participating in sports, acting in plays, playing in the band, working on the student newspaper and the like are aids to getting into the college of your choice. Colleges like applicants who have excelled in areas outside of academics and, other things being equal, prefer students who have engaged themselves in the civic life of their high schools and communities. They want interesting people who will make something of themselves after graduation. Ideally they want their graduates to play leading roles in the economic, social and political life of their respective communities.

The skills and habits nurtured by college life are crucial for democracy. In the afterward to his book on contemporary civic engagement, Ladd observes optimistically that present trends are encouraging because "In today's postindustrial, knowledge-based economy, far more Americans than ever before are getting educations that help confer the skills needed for active participation" [19]. This statement rests on the findings of innumerable empirical studies that participation is correlated with education, but for the most part higher education in the past was conducted within the context of the college community. If we replace the bricks and mortar college with the virtual university I doubt that the graduates will acquire the same social skills and motivations which have lead to active participation in the past.

Because the students of the virtual university have no extracurricular life, they have no student political life. They do not engage in college athletics -- gaming online is simply not the same thing. They do not join organizations and learn to run meetings, make budgets, and plan activities. They do not socialize over lunch or meet casually after class to talk about their work. They are not forced to grow up with others. They do not read the student newspaper. They do not form intimate friendships or develop institutional loyalties. They are not encouraged to take responsibility for the quality of their communal life because there is none. Life online is no substitute for all of this. It is diffuse; chat rooms and discussion lists are too easy to join and exit. Netizens need not associate with those they do not like in order to achieve common purposes. Real communities have members and boundaries and common experiences. They constrain choices and possibilities. Graduates of a virtual university will have to live in the real world, and they need an education that prepares them to function well within it.


Any serious reflection on the changes that the Internet will bring to college life must confront its long term consequences for society. At first colleges educated only elite males, then elite males and females, and finally a broad spectrum of the population. A traditional college education was not simply a collection of job skills acquired through college courses. It was a life-shaping experience that turned youths into responsible members of the greater community. College education was also civic education. Students participated in extracurricular activities conducted outside the classroom, but as part of the collegiate experience. Undergraduates had their own civil and political society. As members of a civil society they joined groups and learned how to organize and run membership associations; as members of a political society they stood for office, participated in electoral campaigns and voted. These experiences helped overcome the tendencies towards privatization and the narrow conception of self-interest so powerful in our liberal society. They helped to mold community leaders and willing participants in pluralistic politics. I contend that as we move into the twenty-first century, civic education is as important as ever. College and university administrators, faculty and concerned citizens need to think seriously about how to provide it. We cannot afford to suffer its loss.

About the Author

David Resnick is a Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for the Study of Democratic Citizenship at the University of Cincinnati (Ohio). He is the co-author with Michael Margolis of the recently published book Politics as Usual: The Cyberspace "Revolution" (Sage Publications, Inc.).


1. An earlier version of this paper was delivered at the annual meeting of Midwest Political Science Association in Chicago on April 29, 2000.

2. There is an increasing body of empirical evidence that distance learning is just as good as classroom instruction or perhaps even superior. Anyone interested might well start with the book The No Significant Difference Phenomenon: As Reported in 365 Research Reports, Summaries and Papers, which provides an extensive bibliography on technology and distance learning. (Russell, 1999). There is also a Web site which provides access to studies published or discovered after the release of the book, as well as a companion site which features comparative studies which do document differences.

3. William H. Cowley, "The College Guarantees Satisfaction," pp. 47-48, cited in Brubacher and Rudy (1997), p. 333.

4. Brubacher and Rudy (1997), p. 336.

5. Brubacher and Rudy (1997), pp. 344-345.

6. Rudolph (1962), pp. 369-370.

7. Brubacher and Rudy (1997), p. 435.

8. Horowitz (1987), p. 12.

9. Horowitz (1987), p. 41.

10. Tocqueville (1969), p. 513.

11. Tocqueville (1969), p. 517.

12. Tocqueville (1969), p. 515.

13. Tocqueville (1969), p. 506.

14. Tocqueville (1969), p. 526.

15. Ibid.

16. Putnam (1995), p. 76.

17. Aristotle (1962), p. 33.

18. Aristotle (1962), p. 34.

19. Ladd (1999), p. 155.


Aristotle, 1962. Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by Martin Ostwald. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

John S. Brubacher and Willis Rudy, 1997. Higher Education in Transition: A History of American Colleges and Universities. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers.

James S. Coleman, 1998. "Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital," American Journal of Sociology, volume 94 Supplement, pp. S95-S120.

Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, 1987. Campus Life: Undergraduate Cultures From the End of the Eighteenth Century to the Present. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Everett Carll Ladd, 1999. The Ladd Report. New York: The Free Press.

Robert D. Putnam, 1995. "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital," Journal of Democracy, volume 6, number 1, pp. 65-78.

Frederick Rudolph, 1962. The American College and University: A History. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Thomas L. Russell, 1999. The No Significant Difference Phenomenon: As Reported in 365 Research Reports, Summaries and Papers. North Carolina: North Carolina State University Press.

Tocqueville, Alexis de, 1969. Democracy in America. Edited by J.P. Mayer. Garden City: Doubleday.

Editorial history

Paper received 13 July 2000; accepted 29 July 2000.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2000, First Monday

The Virtual University and College Life: Some Unintended Consequences for Democratic Citizenship by David Resnick
First Monday, volume 5, number 8 (August 2000),