The above diagram represents the happy compromise made by avante-garde educationalists between the world of technocratic domination and pedagogy.
Technology for its own sake? Never. Change the world through our use of technology and ingenuity. YES.
I definitely agree that we as teachers have a duty to prepare our students for the challenges of the future, but I also think there is something quite large at stake which is generally absent from the discussion about technology in schools – the humanist view (perhaps Aristotelian) that we aren’t just tools ourselves, tools for changing the world, and our education isn’t just a tool to wield once we leave the classroom. We are also beings that enjoy the world, contemplate the world, and enjoy being with one another in society. Raising children is not a series of problems to be solved, but a sacred duty.
Education in its truest sense, I would argue, is learning how to become fully human. Education is ultimately a highly personal endeavor, where teachers are really co-explorers and facilitators who try to draw out the best in their students. Our view of what humanity should be is not something we should take for granted.
With this educational goal in mind, the “technology for its own sake” vs “social change” distinction seems like a false dichotomy.
One of the main reasons we should be suspicious of this dichotomy is the illusion that humans exist solely to solve problems. This technological view of the world is characterized by “instrumental rationality,” or focusing on the means to an end, rather than the end itself, focusing the “how” rather than the “why”.
Heidegger, Adorno, Habermas, Strauss, and even Red Tories such as George Grant have spent much of their time thinking about the effects of this kind of thinking. Immanuel Kant (even though he deepened the problem by separating the Good from the True), was terribly concerned with treating other people as ends in themselves, and not as means.
Focusing on the “how” of solving problems with the help of technology is a convenient way to deny the effects of technology on the way we think and behave toward other people. Are relationships a problem to be solved by instant messaging? Is teaching a profession that will be “revolutionized” by big data? Is ecological damage something to be mitigated by technological discoveries?
The subtle tendency to downplay the effects of media on habits of the heart and mind was noted by Marshall McLuhan in his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (quoted in Nicholas Carr, The Shallows p. 31):
“The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts..
Rather, they alter patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance. Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot.
“The content of the medium is just
the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.
While I don’t agree with this decidedly gloomy view of the future – that our students cannot be genuinely inspired to act justly in this world and solve real problems without being lulled into complacency – there is something incredibly important at stake, something so fundamental that we can’t afford to stop having the conversation: What does it mean to be human? What is a good human life?
Answering this question used to be the domain of liberal education and the calm, focused, undistracted, linear, mind. It is greatly concerning to me that universities have largely whittled away their humanities departments to make way for more cost-efficient business and science programs that solve practical problems.
Educationalists who are worried about this problem should take a look at Dewey’s view of education and ask themselves whether the “why” questions were of any importance in his philosophy. As a pragmatist, Dewey was largely dismissive of liberal education in favour of democratic experiences and instrumental rationality. Yet without humanist disciplines, we lose the habit of thinking about the good life – “what is human?” “what is a good human life?”
Part of me thinks that this whole discussion is too much, too difficult to introduce in the classroom let alone think about as teachers. Isn’t this just a dry academic discussion for “liberal arts” types in their ivory tower? NO. It is everyone’s question. We want to live the good life, and we want our kids to live the good life. Let’s not be fooled into thinking we can find answers without asking the question.