originally posted at The Gadfly
A few weekends past we celebrated my mom’s sixtieth birthday - and before I posted this, you better believe I asked her permission to share that little fact. As my sisters and I planned for this shindig, we searched around for a good venue. We landed on a place that has been in the family for a long while: the Magnolia Ridge Plantation in Washington, Louisiana (the third oldest settlement in Louisiana). This sprawling sixty acres is quite the site, hosting a large antebellum plantation home alongside several other houses, all in the form of southern Louisiana architecture. There is loads of history behind this property, and its use during the American Civil War (which was not all that civil after all). I have fond memories of many summers at this place, running the trails with a golf cart full of cousins and an Igloo ice chest brimming with water balloons. Of course, those kinds of activities tend to create a certain amount of tunnel vision, clogging a young boy’s ability to see the historic beauty around him. Things change when you get older. And visiting it now with a wife and baby on the way, as well as a some good years of classical education under my belt, I saw things anew, which brings me to the point: it was nostalgically joyful to see Bunyan, Homer, and da Vinci represented in nearly every room of the main plantation home, especially the room which belonged to one of the daughters from the original family (buried outback with the rest of the Prestcotts in a family plot). Whether these artifacts are original to the house or not, it all hearkened back to a time when classical literature was not so far from our collective memory, and especially our educative memory; when ‘Homer’ was not just a dud father figure on a pop cartoon and ‘Christian’, now being popularly equated with past religious allegiances and restrictive intolerance, was the name of the most famous allegorical protagonist. In this way, Sequitur’s missions boils down to one word. Recollection.
Given this is one of the first entries to be posted to our new site, it seems fitting to give a few principles regarding technology and education. Fascination with technology is no new development for man. Our fascination with technology and man’s attempts to push innovative boundaries regarding travel, communication, and design is, in fact, one of man’s oldest preoccupations. This is so because, like our Creator, we enjoy creating, and creating in such a way that allows us to further understand ourselves and this universe.
Likewise, our ethical questions regarding technology and their place in society are also not new. This is so for a few reasons: First, technological advancement has always been closely linked with military action and reaction. A society’s military is always the most technologically advanced, which means technology and its various uses are informed by definitions of and reasons for war and peace, good and bad, fight and surrender. Second, we have a natural proclivity to understand the differences between and applications of right and wrong, eventually placing our tools – like technology - and the use of those tools somewhere along that spectrum. Should this hammer hit that man’s head? Should this airplane drop this bomb on that village? How is chemical warfare different than fire-bombing? Ought we to hack into our neighbor’s inbox and steal their identity? C.S. Lewis had a good word for this appetite for ethics. Its application here deals with technology, of all sorts and in the broadest sense an ology of techne, but particularly that of ‘webbing’ ourselves together in what has been dubbed ‘cyber space’, precisely as we are doing as you read this Gadfly entry.
So, if neither technology nor our ethical questioning about technology are new, then what is new about the ‘modernization’ of technology? What is new is exactly the modernization of it. This means that we take modern (or perhaps postmodern) categories, modern narratives of man, and modern values and cast them upon both domestic and social goods. One important aspect of what is new regarding man’s relationship to technology are the specific, ever-clever ways we use technology as substitutes rather than legitimate tools. This relates to education in some specific ways; but before we can get there, we must have some guiding principles about technology in general:
Technology is inherently good. This is not to say technology is an end in itself. This is only to say that technology, as both a broad arm of ‘design’ as well as just one of many effects from man’s faithfulness to the biblical and cultural mandate to make and subdue, offers by its material presence a good artifact of intelligence, which is to say it presents itself as the presence of purpose and intent. Thus, if you find yourself in the coffee line at CC’s staring at their many blenders, your first response should be toward gratitude and applause. Ecce homo!
Man is a master craftsman in idol crafting. One of the most striking similarities in both the Old and New Testaments has to do with man’s propensity and ingenuity in devising anything we can love more than the Triune God. Metalworking was used on the golden calf just as much as on Tiger Stadium. Greek pagans employed technologically advanced methods for disobedience and idolatry just as much as progressive scientists. On the other hand, Oholiab employed those same methods for obedience and fidelity. Still, when given good gifts, like the material world and the intelligence to fashion that material world for specific uses, man left to himself is ever bent toward corruption and disobedience.
Tools are not ends in themselves. Technology, while inherently good, is likewise not the same kind of inherently good as something like happiness. In this way, technology is a tool. Tools, by definition, are momentary and intermittent. They are to be used specific to a task and then set aside once that task has been achieved. Peter Kreeft’s notable Socrates says to his dialogue partner Peter Pragma, “A thing may be or seem good for something else, like a tool, or good for itself: a means or an end.” (page 24 in Peter Kreeft’s The Best Things in Life) Another way of saying this is to say that technology was made for man, not man for technology. Likewise, an ‘ethics of tools’ is not the same as a ‘work ethic’. Hard work, for example, should be prized and praised, which does not mean we should shy away from doing a job more efficiently or applaud the man who cuts his grass with scissors. But since hard work is prized, we should shy away from laziness or idol hands, which could be promoted by some technological advances. Comfort is a hot commodity among product designers. Consequently, the man who cuts his grass with scissors is more highly to be praised than the man who cuts his grass on the riding lawnmower only to go back inside and watch reruns of Access Hollywood. One might be acting foolish, but the other is a fool.
The medium is the message. Media and methods carry with them deep and abiding messages, perhaps more person-forming than the content being delivered. As Christians, this idea is deeply imbedded in our Christology. The way Christ died has everything to do with us understanding the fact of Christ’s death. Likewise, the way the New Covenant has been ushered in greatly defines what we have to say about the New Covenant whatsoever. Christ’s incarnation in space and time informs and restructures our whole view of the cosmos, space and time. This principle is the same with education and technology. A teacher’s pedagogy is not simply a set of vessels unrelated to the content of those vessels. A pupil, in their attempt to get at the water of knowledge and wisdom, will interact with those vessels in a particular way which does much more than simply change the way the water gets to that pupil. The path or method alters the pupil’s interaction and consumption of the water so that the way they received the water is likewise as informative as, if not moreso than, the water itself. In this way, Marshall McLuhan got it right, and so should we. A direct, educational application of this is to promote among our students the reading of primary texts rather than secondary texts or textbooks. As C.S. Lewis said in his introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, “The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that first-hand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than second-hand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.” That is to say, even if Scholar Joe were to paraphrase and explain basic Platonic thought with his Smartboard and PowerPoint, with catchy icons and audio effects, Lewis agrees that the change of method, in his case from primary texts to secondary texts, and in the case of Scholar Joe from secondary texts (or in some cases no text at all) to emoticons and intellectual yum-yums, could result in missing the content altogether, and certainly missing the joy of getting the content firsthand.
Technology changes us. A bit related to the previous point, methods and media bring with them societal, interpersonal, and intrapersonal changes over time. As roads of interaction, technology begins to set unintended boundaries where there should be freeways or unintended freeways where there should be boundaries. Technology, being as interactive as it is, informs both time and space. It informs our whole person. That is to say, it informs all of our being in such a way that makes for new rhythms and habits of relating to one another, ourselves, the natural world, and the Triune God. Because of technology, global markets come into existence, and concepts such as ‘global economy’, ‘world wide web’, and ‘world literature’ have their place in re-positioning national and personal identity. To get a bit more mundane, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, or maybe it was Matthew Henry, once spoke of an invention in his time that would change human society forever. He ranted for a while about the immense changes that would come to society because of this new invention. He said nearly everything short of saying this new invention would be something akin to that popular hellish-handbasket. To what was he referring during this admonition? The bicycle. While his accusation of the bicycle itself may have been a bit inflated, the overall principle that fast vehicular travel would change human society is precisely correct. Do a quick study on the history and societal effects of the bicycle in both Europe and America. Then, go out to eat and do another quick study on how many people are on their phones during dinner, swiping their finger across a magical screen sooner than they would swipe a bug from their neighbor’s plate, if their eyes were available to see it. Technology creates a kind of tempo, a kind of method within the madness which forms habits of thought and action.
Take, as just one important example, our use of metaphors. How have social metaphors changed over the past fifty years? One-hundred years? What kind of metaphors do we use when speaking of community, conversation, learning, or even thinking? I often hear fellow Christians speaking of leaving one church and getting “plugged in” to another, as if we were a household appliance and church was some wall outlet to ‘amp us up’. As a simple exercise, count the number of organic as opposed to technical or mechanical metaphors used in common speech. Technology changes the narrative of our lives by its presence and absence, and especially by our reliance upon it. It helps to form the window through which we view the world and its Creator (not Manufacturer). Thus, we must know the cost to such technological additions and subtractions.
Good teachers cannot be replaced. It is an axiom of classical Christian education that education, at its roots, is person formation, as opposed to mere information transfer or technical training. This means the mantra “The teacher is the text” is quite right. While there are ‘tools of learning’ to be recovered and while a good education will certainly provide a student with good techne, we should as Christians be the utmost concerned with the kind of people our students will become, what kind of learners we are making, as opposed to which college they will attend or what company will pay their mortgage. What kind of men are we sending into the world and into our church pews? What kind of women are we offering to society and motherhood? One of the best ways we can answer this is by looking at who they, our students, emulate. Who are their role models? What role in God’s story is that model teaching them? Who do they seek to copy? Good teachers – personal, embodied, life-living teachers - are necessary for a good education because, again, education is ultimately about the life in the lived-body, with its desires, facial expressions, and incarnate relationships. Pixeled professors and lightning-fast word processors, no matter how efficient or convenient, cannot and will not usurp our natural inclination to follow our fellow man, to emulate before we inscribe. Any attempt to do so will create in us neither eyes nor ears, but fools’ gold.
Good books must be read. Given that we as Christains are ‘people of the Book’, illiteracy cannot be a badge of courage for Christians, neither can weak or incompetent literacy. Simply put, reading should be within the utmost concerns for the Christian educator and the Christian school. We should be more apt to find our hand digging into and formulating a good Christian idea of literary censorship, theory, and criticism than meeting about our sports facilities and new ‘spirit packs’. When is the last time your school’s in-service week hosted a scholar to discuss literary censorship and the Christian worldview? I can remember leaving the dean’s office after finishing my comprehensive exams at the end of graduate school. I thanked him for the work he had done with the literature and classics program. Turning to leave, I was giving a final goodbye when he said, “Well, what is a good education but the reading of good literature?” This has stuck with me, and with each passing year I see its deep and abiding truth as a basic approach to education in general. Clearly, by reading he does not mean merely phonetically sounding out words on a page. He means comprehending, chewing, wrestling, questioning, emulating, challenging, and synthesizing good books and the counsel they give to all parts of life. And doing all this alongside embodied peers and teachers. As Adler and van Doren once said in How to Read a Book, “A good liberal arts high school, if it does nothing else, ought to produce graduates who are competent analytical readers. A good college, if it does nothing else, ought to produce good syntopical readers.” This may not seem like a scathing accusation on modern education until we realize the majority of undergraduate students are hardly past the elementary level of reading. Likewise, Isaac Watts in his Improvement of the Mind said similar words, though with good, Puritan gusto. “A well-furnished library, and a capacious memory, are indeed of singular use toward the improvement of the mind; but if all your learning be nothing else but a mere amassment of what others have written, without a due penetration into the meaning, and without a judicious choice and determination of your own sentiments, I do not see what title your head has to true learning above your shelves.” And again, “Life is too short, and time is too precious, to read every new book quite over in order to find that it is not worth the reading.” Continuing with the theme of literary discretion, Francis Bacon in his essay ‘Of Studies’ states, “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.” But since this is not so much an essay about proper literacy, it is fitting to end those quotes here, as much as I want to go further in this direction. This last point, that good books are to be read, reminds of a good book which says some good things about technology: Peter Kreeft’s The Best Things in Life, which I quoted earlier. I will put the third dialogue here in medias res, though you should get your hands on it, opus totus. As a brief introduction, Marigold is a scientist with whom Socrates (a modern version of the ancient Philosopher) and Peter Pragma (typical college kid) began a dialogue after Socrates was questioning Peter’s intentions to study business or science at Desperate State University:
Socrates: Tell me, would you say a person is superior to a stone?
Marigold: In some ways, of course.
Socrates: In what ways?
Marigold: All things a person can do that a stone can’t.
Socrates: Including freedom of choice?
Socrates: So freedom is superior to nonfreedom?
Socrates: Then philosophy’s method is superior to technology’s. For the method of philosophy is the free appeal to a free mind, while the method of technology is to coerce an unfree nature.
Marigold: Hmmm. I never thought of that.
Socrates: And that shows another way philosophy is superior. We have illumined the role of technology by philosophy today, but we have not illumined the role of philosophy by technology.
Peter: By golly, Socrates. You’re beginning to make some sense. I can’t believe it!
Marigold: Philosophy still bakes no bread. It lacks the fire.
Socrates: But technology lacks the light.
Marigold: My profession is an honest and a useful one.
Socrates: Certainly. So is baking bread, which is a kind of technology. But it isn’t the highest good, unless there are no gods.
Peter: That’s the first question, isn’t it, Socrates? If there are no gods, then technology is the highest thing because there’s nothing to conform to, and we may as well make nature conform to us. What else is there to do?
Socrates: You are indeed becoming a philosopher, Peter. Do you want to face that first question now?
Marigold: Listen, you two, I have no time to get involved in some conversation about gods.
Socrates: That is indeed unfortunate.
So what about technology in education? How do we apply the seven broader principles above to our local schools, and especially our higher institutions of education which are currently educating future teachers? A fellow teacher in the Baton Rouge area recently shared with me the absurd amount of meetings the teachers had to attend during their in-service week, the week before the kids arrive. The majority of the meetings were about technology, how to utilize technology to teach and interact with the broader school community. During one of these technopoly sessions, one speaker went so far as to say, “Socrates would be a good teacher now, but he wouldn’t be getting the job done, because he doesn’t use technology.” For multiple reasons, this kind of statement reveals significant gaps in how modern educators think through education, and technology’s place within education. It likewise begs a few questions, questions I find very few educators asking these days: 1) If Socrates’ obvious neglect of technology makes him ineffective, what characteristics would make him a good teacher today? 2) What makes us think Socrates did not then use technology to teach? 3) What makes us think Socrates would not now use technology to teach? 4) What do you mean by ‘getting the job done’? What exactly is ‘the job’ of education? This clear lack of understanding both ‘the job’ of education and technology’s place in ‘that job’, historically and presently, is indicative of a larger problem with modern educators, Christian or not: we lack a clear starting point of or goal for education, and we clearly lack a good understanding of ancient philosophers, for I would not put it past a contemporary Socrates to coin such phrases as “Unexamined technology is not worth having.” Getting new gadgets and fostering breakout training sessions on those new gadgets is a superficially expensive way to façade education as progressive, and therefore ‘good’. By contrast, raising men and women of the next generation to think, speak, write, listen, and believe God’s thoughts after Him is where the meat of education is, where the real frontlines are, and that, unfortunately, is what most schools avoid for a thrilling chase of Apple accreditation and larger-than-life (literally) athletics.
If a student is a good student, taught not subjects and facts alone but the basics of being a good learner, years of being acquainted with a particular technology is not needed. Likewise, the school or classroom which seeks to stay on the technology curve, because it is quite impossible to stay ahead of it, is ever-changing with the fickle winds of latest research and market trends and thus establishes few deep roots, if any. Technology can be learned much faster than we often assume. Teachers who have studied any amount of architecture and design, or parents who simply have their eyes open, should know this. Technology is often designed intuitively, which means designers utilize technology alongside universal principles of design. Therefore, ‘technology’ can be learned by a child, and especially a mature college student, with neither formal training nor formal interaction with that technology (i.e. my niece sliding her hand across an iPhone at two years old). Technology, like design, is a kind of language we speak, a kind of language that morphs faster by the minute. To run after a changing language, with the hopes that when our students get out into capitalism’s conversation they will be most proficient, is a fool’s chase. Why not teach them the basics of that language? Why not teach them universal principles of design? Why not teach them how to learn new languages in general? Why not teach them how to be a good student of the world and themselves so that, though they may be behind their counterparts in specific subject knowledge, they will soon surpass them by their ability to learn well. This means, for example, that a school which spends thousands on advanced technology and not a dime on a good logic curriculum or logic teacher has already staked its claim: it cares not much about true learning. A constant and nauseating appeal to the nebulous authority of ‘latest research’ is their battle cry. But perhaps I have overstated the case, creating a kind of a priorism, an either/or fallacy, presenting that one either hyper-technologizes students or offers students good education. That is neither my point here nor my stance. There is a way to do good education while also properly utilizing the latest technology. However, there is no way to serve two masters at once.
To close, I like the printing press. I thoroughly enjoy flashlights, refrigerators, canned soup, bottled water, fast cars, chocolate hot, and swimming pools cold. I appreciate that our baby’s first environment will be one filled with gadgets and pumps. Gummies pressed in a factory mold taste good, though my taste buds cannot distinguish Scooby’s face form Dora’s. Sky scrapers tilt my head upward, either to face the Heavens or make vulnerable my jugular. Either way, I sense mortality and am humbled. I have never had beef with technology, particularly because it is by technology that beef makes it to my refrigerator, next to my bottled water and chilled fruit snacks. And then I pray before consuming and thank God and His providence for providing both. I do have beef, as we all should, with foolish men and their attempt to overthrow universal principals of education with fads.
Still, with all this put forth, I type these words on an HP laptop which has rotated around the sun only three times (at least in its current molecular structure), equaling about sixty-five in computer years. And you are reading these words either from behind a computer screen or the screen of a smart phone, hopefully not while driving a car, a smart one or not. Either way, these words are here, brought to you by technology, not to create further distance between us, leaving us both stuck behind a computer screen with some vague, binary notion of the other. These words are here, like all technology and education, not for mere communication or career placement, but for true, sincere community with one another and the Triune God. May our educational methods and the content therein more fully reflect sound discretion and Biblical principles of the good life.