by David Lewin
Should we expect the schools of the future to be saturated with technology? It has been widely reported (e.g. https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/319288) that some leaders within major Silicon Valley tech companies have, rather hypocritically, chosen to limit the influence of their products on their own children, by restricting access to screen time and social media. Take the following report:
“You can’t put your face in a device and expect to develop a long-term attention span,” [said] Taewoo Kim, chief AI engineer at the machine-learning startup One Smart Lab… A practicing Buddhist, Kim is teaching his nieces and nephews, ages 4 to 11, to meditate and appreciate screen-free games and puzzles. Once a year he takes them on tech-free silent retreats at nearby Buddhist temples. (https://www.businessinsider.com/silicon-valley-parents-raising-their-kids-tech-free-red-flag-2018-2)
Other educational spaces also appear to provide shelter from technology saturation, for instance Waldorf schools, which prioritise outdoor learning and low-tech play. This concern to shelter students reflects certain perceived risks of technology saturation: distractedness and diminished attention span, heightened depression and anxiety, poor health and obesity and, in extreme cases, suicide. Limiting access to technology has become newsworthy because of the prevailing assumption that technology enhances education. Whatever the truth of the matter, we currently know little about the long-term impact of many technologies on the educational formation of young people: the influence of technology seems widespread, indeterminate, and seldom given sufficient justification. This ‘knowledge gap’ is by no means unique to modern technology’s educational interventions, but is at the foundation of education itself: there is an interpretive gap between what educators intend and what students learn.
This raises two general questions: First, how do we justify influencing others? If the answer to this question is basically consequentialist (because the outcomes of influence are good), then we are presented with a second question which problematizes this response: namely, what are we to make of the gap between our intentions to influence or enhance, and the outcomes of these intentions?
Enhancement and Education
I would argue that human enhancements have existed as long as education itself. Nick Bostrom and Anders Sandberg (https://nickbostrom.com/cognitive.pdf) have suggested that education may be usefully labelled as a ‘conventional’ means of human enhancement, as distinct from nominally ‘unconventional’ means of enhancement, such as nootropic drugs, gene therapy, or neural implants. This distinction has its place, though Bostrom and Sandberg acknowledge the continuum between enhancements that are conventional (working through education) and unconventional (drawing upon recent technologies), making the distinction fluid, indeterminate and contextual. Caffeine is one thing, but gene editing for purposes of non-therapeutic interventions (e.g. selecting or removing traits in reproduction) remains controversial. Of course, convention is a rather unstable form of justification. In general, the question of the justification of unconventional enhancement parallels that of conventional enhancement. It is one of the key questions that shapes education theory: namely, how are our intentions to influence justified?
The gap between the intentions and the outcomes could be understood as a weakness or risk intrinsic to education. Gert Biesta speaks of the “beautiful risk of education” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QMqFcVoXnTI), arguing that it is a misconception to see education as a stable relation between inputs and outputs in which we can eliminate the unexpected or the risky. To construe education without risk is to miss something of its beauty. Education can make use of, or better, relies on this gap in order to create spaces that are essentially open to something unbidden, an opening that involves, as Hannah Arendt puts it, “the coming of the new and young.” By contrast, the sciences of learning have worked to eliminate this gap through the development of what is known as “the behavioural objectives model” in which measurable educational objectives and outcomes are made explicit and become the sole target of education. The behavioural objectives model can be interpreted as the expression of technical subjectivity in which all forms of insecurity are eliminated in favor of pure transmission, and the risks of exposure to the unbidden are minimised. The idea that behavioural objectives ensure control of the educational process is seductive but, illusory and ultimately corrosive since, as Arendt, Biesta and others have argued, the educational event itself depends upon the introduction of something radically new. What makes the new ‘radical’ here is that there is a discontinuity between the conditions in which newness may arrive, and the very arrival itself. Something about the new is necessarily unanticipated. Without the new, education becomes the reproduction of the old which, echoing Adorno’s critiques of Halbbildung (“half-education”), is only ever half the educational story.
This gap between educational intention and what actually takes place demands something of those involved: speculative, or interpretive judgements. We might say that interpretation constitutes the pedagogical relation between educator and student: the educator speculates that the student is educable, projecting ideas about what capacities the student could realise through certain educational influences; the student speculates about what the educator intends and is capable of, e.g. that they are (or are not) both interested in and able to support the student’s growth. Then there is speculation about the outcomes of the educational event: the enhancement of a capacity may not be immediately obvious to the student or educator, taking days, months or even years to be properly realised or recognised. In short, there is a great deal of faith in pedagogical structures, processes and relations. This is significant because unconventional means of enhancement likewise involve speculation, risk, and judgement. Just as writing may enhance or diminish human memory, so ubiquitous access to google may extend and undermine certain cognitive capacities; at least an ambivalence should be noted. Unconventional means of enhancement through, for instance, drugs like Ritalin or Modafinil, might be thought to involve unacceptable risks in comparison to conventional schooling, but risks are part of any effort to influence because they are defined by the gap described between intention and outcome.In the end what guides justification for any kind of enhancement, conventional or otherwise, is a concept of what it means to be human. Because of the gap between intentions and outcomes in both conventional and unconventional enhancement, we should approach both with a speculative attitude and a degree of humility. From the educational perspective, the presence of such a gap is not a technical issue to be resolved, but reveals something of the fundamental structure of enhancement: that any kind of change or transformation entails a disruption or alienation of the old in order to bring about a kind of renewal in the form of the new or the young. This can be interpreted as a kind of self-transcendence.
In her essay “The Crisis in Education,” Arendt says that “hope always hangs on the new which every generation brings; but precisely because we can base our hope only on this, we destroy everything if we so try to control the new that we, the old, can dictate how it will look.” Indeed, the older generation cannot fully anticipate changes brought on by the young but can, indeed must, show the world and let go, hoping that in doing so conditions are created in which the new may arrive. Education involves creating conditions in which it is possible for the new to come in to the world, conditions that might also be described in terms of openness: openness to the mystery, the unbidden, the Other, or as self-transcendence.
Transhumanism and Education
I would not be the first to challenge the view that the technologically defined immortality of transhumanism would be an enhancement, though my challenge is based on educational insights. Specifically, the transhuman quest for immortality, in which the old seeks to sustain itself indefinitely, seems to oppose the radical renewal of education described by Arendt and others. There is the basic problem of resources: the old must make space for the new by the renewal of life through death, which perhaps could be solved by extraterrestrial colonization or through digitization and uploading. However, the educational principle that life is constituted by a creative tension between those coming in to the world (the young) and those going out (the old) is a basic condition for life itself. The necessity of education correlates with the necessity of the renewal of the world.
Rather than being regarded as revolutionary or radical, transhumanism is, then, fundamentally and ruinously conservative: it seeks to sustain what is, as it is. Transhumanists sometimes berate those who are hesitant about the scale and scope of technological change as bio-conservative, though maybe the transhuman community itself that is the most conservative of all: it fails to see how the preservation of the old world is an affront to the ongoing renewal that sustains the world.
This renewal is not a case of the new entirely replacing or displacing the old, as a cult of youth might have it. By no means does this jettison tradition and the past. In order for children to arrive in the world, they must, says Arendt, be introduced to it. Herein lies the legitimate but limited authority of educators: that, by showing the world, they are able to take responsibility for it, while letting the forces of renewal remake it. Arendt ends her “Crisis in Education” essay with the following appeal to love:
Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable. And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.
For Arendt, this renewal is not realised in a techno-utopia in which we may exist indefinitely, but a common world in which the old order is in constant transformative renewal. This means convention and tradition provide the ground for representing the world to the young, who then are able to introduce something new through invention and transformation. This balance between old and new, past and future, makes education both necessary and possible.
My concerns are less that transhuman prospects for extended or unending life are real possibilities than what these prospects indicate about contemporary attitudes to human formation and education: namely, the current technologisation of education disregards the interpretive gap which makes education more than a mechanical process of construction. Bringing to view the interpretive gap reminds us that renewal is both possible and essential in order to exceed the conservative forces that seek only to recreate the patterns of the past.
Every parent, educator and transhumanist has an idea of the good and a belief or hope in the possibility of realising it; what might be called a faith in the future. Faith is necessary because of the gap between our intentions to make change, and the outcomes of those intentions. There is a twofold problem: we often don’t know whether change is good, and even if we did know this, we often don’t know if change can, or has, been realised. It is the human condition to live in this gap, a gap that requires us to live between the conventions and traditions that ground us, and the inventions and transformations that develop us. This gap ensures that, thankfully, the influences of the old on the young are not entirely mechanical or predictable, and that our humanity is staked upon a wager to affirm the world without hanging on to it indefinitely. Because of this gap, it is incumbent upon us to reflect upon the judgements that we must inevitably make, and the possible futures in which we put our faith, hope and love.