With YouTube, Are Teachers Necessary?

YouTube as a complement to education
Unsplash, Christian Wiediger

In a scene from the movie Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon, playing a once-in-a-generation genius, encounters a pompous Harvard grad quoting verbatim from famous scholarly books to impress girls in a bar. Damon promptly puts him in his place, noting that pseudo-intellectual “wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for $1.50 in late fees at the public library.”

This quote, meant to get across the point of the importance of genuine learning and erudition, is today the bane of many teachers at all levels; the modern “public library” of the internet is the world’s biggest repository of knowledge ever. From podcasts to websites, video clips to social media pages, anyone who wants to learn anything can — at least, in theory.

Nowhere is this more apparent than that great repository of recordings and original channels known as YouTube. Alongside Facebook, YouTube is the most used “social media” website in the United States. Furthermore, most people use it to learn how to do things or to learn new things.

There isn’t a subject studied in schools today for which there aren’t dedicated channels, old recordings and documentaries, and university lectures, all available for free to enjoy in the privacy of your own home. The best channels are made either by professionals or the kind of dedicated enthusiasts who pour hundreds of hours into accessible and informative material for their listeners.

Do We Need Teachers?

Modernity only accentuates Damon’s challenge: why do I need teachers and years of classes when I can get an incredible education for the cost of a functioning computer and internet connection? 

It’s not a question we can or should so easily dismiss. Much of the educational material on YouTube, though of varying quality, is valuable and informative, and indeed many teachers already incorporate the best of it in their own classes. Furthermore, we can no more dismiss much of it as dreck or superficial or wrong than we can many of the books that end up in physical libraries or the documentaries we used to watch on VHS or educational channels (and which are often, also, available now on YouTube).

Even so, the answer to Damon’s question is simple: yes, we need teachers. Perhaps the best explanation came from a music teacher that I met years ago. A teacher, she said, shows you when you personally make mistakes and how you as an individual can improve. 

This is critical. 

If you want nothing but self-affirmation, there’s no need for teachers – you can just go to all sorts of videos and memes telling you about how incredible you are and how there’s no need to change. A teacher is there to show you what you didn’t quite yet absorb or understand from those videos, or the information and knowledge that the videos didn’t cover.

That brings us to another advantage good teachers have over YouTube videos: experience and knowledge.

Ideally, a teacher teaching a subject has already read the main books and seen the main videos on what they’re teaching; no-one can read or see it all but they’ve already sifted through much of the dross. Unlike the often quite young, fresh-out-of-high-school-or-college channel makers, teachers accumulate a long period of lifelong learning of what they pass on. What is new to viewers of the video or TikTok clip will likely be quite familiar to the teacher – including what’s missing or wrong or incomplete. 

Good teachers are a reminder that older generations possess a lot of wisdom that students lack, wisdom that cannot be gleaned just by surfing the net.

We’re Not All Matt Damon

That’s as far as the teachers go. But students are another reason a YouTube-only diet cannot alone suffice. If the statistics on literacy and numeracy and knowledge from K-12 and college are any indication, most students are not self-directed savants who need to merely be tossed into a library or given Wi-Fi to become knowledgeable citizens. Far from.

They need prodding, guidance, encouragement, and discipline. They need a rich store of knowledge provided to them by those who know more than them – ideally far more – otherwise they won’t even know what to look up on YouTube to learn more, as they will have never heard of it or know it exists.

Instead of playing down the incredible value provided us by either physical or digital libraries to buttress our own insecurities about our own value, let us see how we complement each other. The libraries are a treasure trove; teachers provide the map and the possible routes, the fruit of generations of exploration. 

Avi Woolf
Avi Woolf is an editor and translator who hosts an ongoing series on the Gilded Age entitled Stumbling Colossus at Avi’s Conversational Corner.