A New Task for Catholic Educators: Teaching How to Be Human in a Digital Age

As the school year begins anew for the Church in the United States, a familiar image comes to mind: teachers organizing classrooms and prepping unit plans while students and parents snip uniform tags and check items off annual school supply lists. There is a certain nostalgia at this time of year, and rightfully so, because Catholic schools help us remember what it is to be loved by the Church. At the start of each year, this love is presented to us anew in the form of the dedicated teachers and staff who create warm, vibrant, welcoming environments, and, above all, in the form of Christ the Teacher, on whom these schools are centered. Students come to know Jesus because Catholic schools privilege encounter with him through personal encounter with one another and with the Eucharist. The love we see is born of grace, of course, but also of the daily sacrifices that most of us outside of the school walls will never fully glean.

Behind all this nostalgic warmth is gumption and gritty determination. A seasoned principal, at the end of a decade in administration, recently remarked, echoing Pope Francis, that Catholic schools are the “field hospitals of the Church.” A dedicated few confront the wounds and wiles of the world that manifest themselves in the Church’s most vulnerable: children. And they do so with low budgets and fewer resources than needed, all with a vision of educating and caring for the whole child. Yet the world in which we find ourselves today is changing at breakneck speed, and confronting it requires, with ever more urgency, renewed attention to what educating the whole child in the digital age demands.

Now more than ever before, we spend more time living virtually than incarnationally, and artificial intelligence is propelling the limits of technology to horizons we can no longer see. But we already know this. The stories appear in our newsfeeds every day, ironically in the very feeds populated by A.I. We also know that children spend too much time on screens. Recent statistics show that children ages 8–12 spend an average of 5 hours 33 minutes daily on devices, not including homework or device usage at school; for children ages 13–18, the average on-screen time outside of school and homework is 8 hours 39 minutes per day.[1] Myopia is rising so rapidly that by 2050, studies show half of the world’s population will be near-sighted.[2] Our children’s neuropathways are being formed in specific ways by reading and working on screens[3], and the mental health crisis has yet to slow, as evidenced by the now over 200 school systems suing social media companies.

Most insidiously, children’s notions of encounter, dialogue, authority, community, and love of neighbor are being shaped by the disembodied, virtual interactions in the digital world. The effects of the digital age on children, especially after the pandemic, are too vast to list here. Yet parents and schools continue to supply children with devices, to move to electronic textbooks, to adopt Google Classroom for assignments and assessments, and to use the “latest and greatest” apps from the EdTech industry.

But how could it be otherwise? Less than four years ago, schools became totally dependent on digital technology, so it is natural that, in many cases, the technologically-based habits and procedures that were necessary for dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic have now become the norm. Thanks to federal grants during the pandemic, schools that once had to scrounge or resort to budgetary acrobatics in order to provide a simple computer lab for students are now teeming with enough technology to provide a device to each student and to replace at least one chalkboard with a screen. These devices open up amazing possibilities for teachers and students. But those amazing possibilities come at a heavy cost.

Teachers who used to teach with materials like models, paper, maps, chalkboards, books, and puppets find themselves teaching from digital screens. The interaction of those enfleshed materials with the hands of the teachers and students is being traded in for something virtual, mediated. Homework that used to involve books and paper increasingly involves a device, setting aside the benefits of tactility—of turning and fingering pages and having words become one’s own through handwriting—in favor of efficiency. Differentiated learning can now be determined and provided by apps even though an app can never know and teach students in the same full way a teacher can. Children are carrying devices with them from class to class over the entire school day, moving the laptop from a tool, used on occasion, to a fixture, the go-to solution, a part of the child’s identity as learners and citizens of the school. To further complicate things, this technology requires money, time, and extra resources for maintenance, storage, procedures, and oversight that schools and staff do not always have.

But this is how technology works. It instills habits in us, unconsciously for the most part, and eventually forms the environments in which we daily live and learn, and those environments, in turn, form us. Catholic media theorist Marshall McLuhan dedicated his work to explaining that our modes of media themselves, rather than the content they convey, shape our habits and our ways of thinking and being. McLuhan notes:

The formative power in the media are the media themselves, [and] that raises a host of large matters . . . namely, that technological media are staples or natural resources . . . [like cotton or oil, they] become "fixed charges" on the entire psychic life of the community. And this pervasive fact creates the unique cultural flavor of any society. It pays through the nose and all its other senses for each staple that shapes its life.[4]

Catholic schools in 2023 will indeed start to pay through the nose, as these technologically formed environments grow at odds with not only the nature of our faith but the nature of Christian formation we owe to our children.

Unintentionally born from these environments is a new confusion confronting both children and teachers: Are children, who are wholly body and soul, fully undergoing formation in our incarnate faith when they live over half of their waking lives virtually? Can formation of mind and heart, aimed at participation in the Christian life and the wonders of the created world, take hold while habits and sensibilities are being formed in our children by digital technology? In a well-known aphorism, Neil Postman explains that after the printing press was introduced to Europe, we did not have old Europe plus the printing press, it was a different Europe. And after the television in the United States of America, it was not the United States plus the television, it was a different United States. We must contend with the reality that in 2023 children are not simply attending schools plus SMART Boards and Chromebooks; rather, these are different schools. And in 2023 schools are not simply educating children who use devices, these are different children.[5]

We find Romano Guardini wrestling with something similar in the recent translation of Liturgy and Liturgical Formation. In early twentieth-century Europe, the industrialized, modern person, he explains, had unconsciously adopted the sensibilities of the technological era—its mechanization, systemization, and post-Enlightenment rationalism. As a result, people turned inward, having become individualistic, overtly practical, and intent on overtaking nature to form the world around them. They felt decreasingly part of a whole. Once orbiting with the rest of the community around something greater, each became the center of his own world’s orbit. The nuclear family replaced the extended family in daily life, schooling was ordered toward rational systemization, and religion became something simply spiritual, interior to people.

This stands in contrast with the medieval person—who “stood lively in his relation toward creation,” and whose senses were centered on God and connected to the world, the whole, in a unity of matter with his soul and in a unity to place and time—the modern person, Guardini argues, lost the ability to recognize his core human essence as body-soul.[6] That person could no longer understand let alone participate in the material-spiritual, corporate liturgy, which he instead perceived as purely ritual, public celebration. Thanks to the sensibilities cultivated by the formational power of his environment, the liturgical act demanded something of the modern person he could no longer fully give: action from the living unity of body and soul, participated in by an individual in a unified corpus, conscious of its symbolic efficacious meaning, in a co-realization of sacrifice with Christ.

In spite of their good intentions to remedy this development, liturgical reforms failed insofar as they neglected to recognize two things: First, it was not the liturgy, by and large, that had grown incongruent with people. Rather people, their sensibilities and consciousness, were being shaped by an environment incongruent with liturgy. Second, it was, therefore, not the content of the liturgy that needed the bulk of attention, but the liturgical sensibilities of the faithful.

Arguably, the same kind of incongruence Guardini identified in modern, industrial persons has been amplified by the discarnate, virtual, insulating modes of being in the digital age. “We have to accept,” Pope Francis explains,

That technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyle and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups . . . Technology tends to absorb everything into its ironclad logic, and those who are surrounded with technology “know full well that it moves forward in the final analysis neither for profit nor for the well-being of the human race,” that “in the most radical sense of the term power is its motive—a lordship over all” . . . Life gradually becomes a surrender to situation conditioned by technology, itself viewed as the principal key to the meaning of existence.[7]

Here, the pope pushes us to recognize technology’s “environmental” effects on people in much the same way that Guardini (whom he is referencing above) presented a century ago and that McLuhan asserted in the decades following:

At the speed of light, in a culture that changes from day to day, when we can live a century in ten years, when every day of our lives we can pass through at least a hundred years of historical development, then we have to adapt our psyche and physical lives so that they change at the same rate. The task horrifies us. We are not designed to change at such a pace.[8]

What we are designed for and what the digital age continuously assaults is the fullness of human life, endowed to us by God the Father and realized in and purchased by the Son, in the unity of the Spirit. Really, what Guardini presents to us in Liturgy and Liturgical Formation is not simply the kind of formation the liturgy demands in 1923 but a pedagogy for being human in 2023. It is this kind of formation we are obligated to offer our children today, and Catholic schools have both the opportunity and the innate capacity to be the standard bearers.

How do we begin such a task, especially in schools where faculty and staff are already overtaxed? For starters, in the same way that Guardini does not recommend that we somehow go back to the Middle Ages in order to recover our liturgical sensibilities in 1923, it would be absurd to throw out all devices and digital technology today. Rather, Guardini tasks us to consider the age in which we live, what sensibilities, habits, and ways of being are formed in us by our environment, and how these things affect us as humans created for union with the Triune God.

Increasingly saturated in digital technology, Catholic schools must first recognize the formative power of their environments and evaluate how those environments are forming the children in them. They must ask themselves if the sensibilities they cultivate, as the usage of digital devices increases, are congruent with being wholly human, an embodied spirit, and an ensouled body.[9]

Questions might include: Is the classroom oriented toward personal encounter or encounter with digital technology? What is the first thing students do and see when they enter the room, and what is present during instructional time and free time? Do students carry devices with them all day? Is technology invited into the learning space as a tool or does it stand at the ready, powered on for use at any moment? When we talk about students, do we assume a grammar given to us by technology—i.e., data, performance, computation, bandwidth, indicators, outcomes—or the grammar given to us by the Gospel? How does this environment signal to children what is most important? What instructional and pedagogical habits have been formed around the technology available? Finally, what are the positive and negative implications of these observations on students’ and teachers’ sensibilities and ways of being and learning in the classroom? These kinds of questions invite Catholic educators to consider how their classroom environments can be arranged anew to fully and firmly center on personal, incarnate encounter: with one another, with creation, and with Christ.

Equally vital, Guardini’s example shows us we must also consider the kind of sensibilities and consciousness demanded by the whole Christian life and, thus, how we might cultivate both in the classroom. Incidentally, the sensibilities which, according to Guardini, are demanded by the liturgy are quite possibly even more relevant to recovering and forming children in their humanness today.

Among them, he identifies the essential recovery of a particular unity with and consciousness of the materiality of the created world, including time and space, and of embodied symbol, community, mystery, and an awareness of and care for the other—all arguably under threat in the digital age.[10] As a complement to these observations, he offers examples of practices heavily focused on materiality to help persons of the modern, industrial age recover themselves as liturgical persons. Similar practices could have transformative effects on school environments and children in the digital age, helping them to wholly recover themselves. Children should be encouraged to engage more with things, materials, and their bodies in order to be reminded of what is real, what is incarnate in life but too often lived virtually.

Other small but significant adjustments can be made in favor of materiality and personal encounter, such as affording children the feeling of a pencil as it scrapes across a page while following the rise and fall of their own handwriting, in lieu of typing words or facts on a screen, or giving them the opportunity to read flashcards along with the face of another instead of entering the solitary world of an online educational app. Rather than opting to generate a model on a computer, children might build one with their hands. Instead of defaulting to a digital slideshow for most projects, children might create a poster or artwork. And, rather than looking at nature on a device, children could go into nature and experience it with their senses.

These practices seem, on the one hand, obvious, but on the other, they are slipping away, becoming rare. We must retain them. Helping children learn to see familiar, unmediated things anew cultivates wonder that leads to an engagement between their senses and the essence of those things, and thus, the essence of themselves.[11] “Our task,” Guardini writes, “is to stand in awe before the intrinsic sense of things; to call them by name, as they are; to hear their expression, and at the same time to target them with the will of formation.”[12] When we engage with materiality, we form habits that make us capable of embodied symbol, of self-expression in those things, and we begin to form a consciousness of ourselves as embodied souls and ensouled bodies, a consciousness essential to being human.[13]

This formation of consciousness must be stoked by supplying children with a grammar of what it means to be human and an awareness of how our human essence is challenged by the digital age. To that end, schools must demonstrate how to rightly order technology in daily life via the daily life of the classroom. This can be done, for example, by talking about devices as tools and modeling their usage. As such, devices might be fruitfully brought into the learning space and then be put away when they are not in use. In the same way Catholic schools educate children the grammar and habits of virtue, schools must also help children learn how to apply those habits to their digital lives, to become conscious of how they are being formed by their devices, and how engaging with virtues can confront those things.

These are vital points of reflection for Catholic schools in our age, and they grow ever more necessary as technology advances beyond our imaginings. Yet, it is important to note that the vitality of such reflection lies in what both McLuhan and Guardini illustrate: it is more the media than its content that shapes our habits, consciousness, and ways of being and learning. It is not so much a question of what is on the screens than the presence of the screens themselves. Evaluating school environments with this notion in mind must be part of the triage process in our “field hospitals of the Church,” for our age implies that caring for the whole child now includes attending to their digital lives.

Such care involves the necessity of refuge from the digital world where, at the most tender stages of life, the line between real and virtual is tragically blurred and where disembodied encounter has replaced the kind encounter for which we were made. It also includes equipping children to boldly confront that world with the fullness of their Christ-centered humanity. To that end, Catholic schools must be willing to rethink their own environments, to order them toward encounter and incarnate reality, and to teach and re-teach students what it means to be human.

[1] For higher income households, average entertainment screen use per day by teens is 7:16, for lower income households, 9:19. “Common Sense Census: Media Use by Tweens and Teens,” Commonsense Media, 2021.

[2] “Myopia and high myopia estimates from 2000 to 2050 suggest significant increases in prevalences globally, with implications for planning services, including managing and preventing myopia-related ocular complications and vision loss among almost 1 billion people with high myopia." Brien A. Holden, Timothy R. Fricke, et al., “Global Prevalence of Myopia and High Myopia and Temporal Trends from 2000 through 2050,” Ophthalmology, Volume 123, Issue 5 (2016): 1036-1042.

[3] Maryanne Wolf, Reader Come Home: The Reading Brain in A Digital World (New York: Harper Collins, 2018).

[4] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994), 21.

[5] Neil Postman, Technoloply: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Knopf, 1992), 18.

[6] Romano Guardini, Liturgy and Liturgical Formation, trans. Jan Bentz (Chicago: LTP, 2022), 36.

[7] Francis, Laudato Si’, §108–110.

[8] Marshall McLuhan, The Medium and the Light: Reflections on Religion, ed. Eric McLuhan and Jack Szklarek (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 1999), 46.

[9] Guardini, Liturgical Formation, 20.

[10] For Guardini, these sensibilities include man's consciousness of and relationships to materiality and symbol, to community, to his essential attitude, and to mystery. These must be stoked, nurtured, and consciously connected. In tandem, man must rediscover liturgical activity as the caretaking of souls, which leads him to experience the liturgy, ultimately, as “the self expression of man as he is supposed to be” (Guardini, Liturgical Formation, 68).

[11] Anders Schinkel, Wonder and Education: On the Educational Importance of Contemplative Wonder (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2022).

[12] Guardini, Liturgical Formation, 40.

[13] Guardini, Liturgical Formation, 20.

Featured Image: Photo taken by , Children in school; Source: Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.


Lesley Kirzeder

Lesley Kirzeder is the Program Director for the McGrath Institute Contours of Wonder Initiative, which seeks to reimagine and renew children’s liturgical formation in our age.

Read more by Lesley Kirzeder