Monthly Archives: December 2014

Humanities, in the name of Democracy

In 1967, in its first season, the Star Trek television series included an episode titled “Space Seed.” This was the famous episode starring Ricardo Montalban as Khan Noonien Singh. The role would later be reprieved in the second Star Trek movie. Khan, a product of selective breeding, was a “superman” dictator of the late twentieth century who had spent more than 200 years in cryogenic deep-freeze until revived in the twenty third century. One may recall that Khan took over the Enterprise and tried to take over the galaxy until Kirk and his crew stopped him. Then, using his prerogative as Captain, Kirk mercifully drops all charges and offer’s Khan and his followers the opportunity to colonize a nasty but livable planet. There is the following exchange at the hearing:

Kirk: Mr. Spock, our heading takes us near the Ceti Alpha star system.
Spock: Quite correct, Captain. Planet number five there is habitable, although a bit savage, somewhat inhospitable.
Kirk: No more than Australia’s Botany Bay colony was at the beginning. Those men went on to tame a continent, Mr. Khan. Can you tame a world?
Khan: Have you ever read Milton, Captain?
Kirk: Yes. I understand…

Later, Lt. Commander Scott (Scotty) says: It’s a shame for a good Scotsman to admit it, but I’m not up on Milton.

Kirk replies: The statement Lucifer made when he fell into the pit. “It is better to rule in hell than serve in heaven.”

Perhaps Paradise Lost was required reading at Star Fleet Academy.  Either way, the creators of Star Trek in the 1960s assumed that leaders of the later twentieth century might allude to a great literary work of the seventeenth century to leaders of the twenty-third century and everyone would get the point. Indeed, at one moment in the episode Khan says to Kirk “you have made technological advances, but how little man himself has changed.”

Humanities, including history, languages, fine art and great literature, proceeds from the idea that human nature does not really change  much and that many of the great questions about how to live and die are as important to people from one century as from the next. Literature contains many examples of people who deny this only to create or become monsters. Think Frankenstein. Think of the brutal O’Brien in 1984 telling Winston that “men are infinitely malleable.” History provides its own monstrous examples.

An education system intended to serve democratic ideals and to prepare its children for citizenship needs policies that explicitly serve those ends rather than policies that serve their enemy; be it named scientific management, technocracy, or utilitarianism. A culture that retains a sacred place for the humanities has a layer of protection against those who will always be trying to sell some of us a better life in exchange for their technocratic management.

The struggle between the democratic and the technocratic mindsets is an important part of twentieth century education history.  In Experience and Nature (1929) John Dewey stated that “…the literature, poetry, ceremony, amusement and recreation which obtain in a community…do more than all else to determine the current direction of ideas and endeavors in the community. They supply the meanings in terms of which life is judged, esteemed and criticized.”

In Democracy and Education (1916) Dewey explained that true community cannot exist without common values, knowledge and language. Merely having a common purpose is not enough. “The parts of a machine,” he tells us, “work with a maximum of cooperativeness for a common result, but they do not form a community.” Dewey warned against social relations that exist merely on “the machine-like plane” in which individuals use their technical skills and their command of technical systems to wield power over others.

In Education at the Crossroads (1943) Jacques Maritain warned, “How could the common man be capable of judging about the good of the people if he felt able to pass judgment only in the field of his own specialized vocational competence? Political activity and political judgment would become the exclusive job of specialized experts in the matter – a kind of state technocracy which does not open particularly felicitous perspectives either for the good of the people or for liberty.”

Dewey the Pragmatist and Maritain the Scholastic disagreed on so much that we might forget they agreed that democratic America presented humanity with hope at a perilous time and that culture and the humanities gave our life meaning and protected us from becoming servants of a soulless machine whose power over the world was growing. They wrote during the first half of the last century when the struggle between democracy and technocracy was being fought in the open, most notably in the war against fascism but also in arguments over social policies including eugenics.

People who advocate education policies that militate against our democratic ideals are again being taken seriously and the nobler end of education in America, fostering the moral and intellectual qualities needed for citizenship, is being subverted. Some criticisms of public education are not aimed at improving education for citizenship, or for giving students access to the great conversation which is the humanities. Rather they serve to weaken the premises upon which American public education was created. To those who see the humanities as an essential component of civic education the danger is not that technocrats are offering a different approach to achieving the chief ends of public education. Rather, it is that they will convince enough people that those very ends are either unimportant or unachievable.

At the moment, no individual has greater influence over education in America than Bill Gates. Gates is a self-professed technocrat who expresses skepticism that democratic government is up to the task of solving the world’s problems. Last year for example, in an interview with FT he spoke of the challenges in his war on disease. Speaking of elected legislators Gates said, “The closer you get to it and see how the sausage is made, the more you go, oh my God! These guys don’t even actually know the budget. It makes you think: can complex, technocratically deep things – like running a healthcare system properly … can that get done?” He continued, saying “The idea that all these people are going to vote and have an opinion about subjects that are increasingly complex – where what seems, you might think … the easy answer [is] not the real answer. It’s a very interesting problem. Do democracies faced with these current problems do these things well?”

In the same interview Gates explained his decision to focus his philanthropic efforts on fighting disease more so than underwriting the arts. Gates channels utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer and equates spending money on expanding an art museum to actually blinding people whose eyes might have been cured with that money. This binary reasoning is unnecessarily dismissive of the cultural arts and to the idea that all people’s individual and collective lives can be enriched by them. The plug for Singer is disturbing and should be taken seriously.

Peter Thiel, in his speeches and writings, offers a critique of both k-12 and higher education that deserves serious attention. But rather than proposing reforms that redirect these institutions toward engaging all students with great questions and the humanistic enterprise, he seems to favor abandoning them.  His frustration is understandable and one hopes that political correctness and other forces that drive real inquiry and deliberation from our education system will not win the day. Thiel’s solution is exemplified by the Knewton adaptive learning technology, in the promotion of which he has partnered with Pearson and others who seek to profit from this technology.  Their approach is one of automated education in the form of online courses and algorithms that would exquisitely individualize education. Through his Fellowships program, Thiel has promoted eventual escape from institutionalized learning altogether, paying students to drop out of college in order to develop their ideas for start-up businesses; at least the most promising students, meaning those most likely to be successful entrepreneurs. Technocracy is generally accompanied by meritocracy.

Five years ago on the Cato Unbound website, Thiel posted an essay detailing his version of libertarianism plainly stating that he no longer saw freedom and democracy as compatible. “In our time,” he wrote, “the great task for libertarians is to find an escape from politics in all its forms — from the totalitarian and fundamentalist catastrophes to the unthinking demos that guides so-called ‘social democracy.’” Reminiscent of a 1930’s technocrat Thiel wrote “… we are in a deadly race between politics and technology… Unlike the world of politics, in the world of technology the choices of individuals may still be paramount. The fate of our world may depend on the effort of a single person who builds or propagates the machinery of freedom that makes the world safe for capitalism.”

The technocrats are declaring themselves openly and they are plainly calling the question: Why teach for democracy if democracy doesn’t work? Why provide ordinary people with a humanities-rich education when it has no immediate value in the marketplace? Whether or not these moneyed supermen have an inordinate sway on our educational politics may be of less concern than the way so many educators and policy makers have uncritically embraced their success, their businessman’s way of thinking, their techy mindset and their wonky personas as heroic attributes or as models for learning.

The chief end of education in America is to impart to students the knowledge and intellectual skill needed to meet their civic responsibilities. These include a willingness to communicate with fellow citizens and elected officials about political and social issues that are in dispute. They also include the ability to think critically about political life, social issues, and all technologies and media. Students who feel that citizens can influence political outcomes are more likely to believe that it is worthwhile to participate in the political and civic activities from which Peter Thiel wants them to escape. Students who read and discuss the political and moral experiences recorded in our great literature deepen their understanding that we all confront complex moral questions and that it is possible to find dignity and hope in unpleasant or unfair situations. They also sharpen their capacity to reason.

We need a curriculum that fortifies our students’ faith in the ability of ordinary people to understand the world and its challenges. Our public education system ought not to be made to further track students into vocational “pathways” for those more or less suited for the humanities or for high or low level technical careers. All students need a curriculum rich in substance and literature that explores the human condition and that promotes a sense of our common humanity.

Curriculum leaders and teachers should not remove book-length fiction and other great literature from their students’ course of study in the name of increasing success on new standardized tests.  Moreover, discouraging students from bringing their own life experiences and their knowledge of other texts into their analysis of assigned reading is in effect telling students not to have conversations with the dead and thus, not to develop a fuller sense of the humanity they share with those who came before them. Taking “close reading” too far privileges the technical at the expense of the human.

Professional development that trains teachers to use new technologies without helping them teach students to use these technologies carefully and critically serves the technocratic machine. This is especially true of so-called “free” technologies whose business models are built on the extraction of personal information and on corralling us all into their “suites.”

Educational policy makers who propose that knowledge of coding should be accepted as a substitute for knowledge of a foreign language are either ignorant of the difference between these two forms of knowledge or contemptuous of the benefit, imparted by even a rudimentary study of another language, of having insight into the lives and cultures of other people . In the same way Gates spoke of spending money on curing diseases instead of spending money on culture, they speak of learning a specific technical skill instead of learning languages.  Legislators in at least four states have introduced bills to allow such a substitution. Their vision is narrow and instrumentalist but what’s worse is that an increasing number of educators, enamored of technology as an end in itself have come to share it.

We must build students’ confidence that nature has hard-wired them with the capacity for reason, and that they can use this reason to choose among the recommendations of society’s bickering experts.  Whatever happens at the State policy level, local leaders should require book-length literature at all grade levels, create schedules that make possible seminar discussions about seminal texts for all adolescents, and empower all students to ask questions about the origin and the purposes of the technologies we put into their hands. We should avoid using the language of business and commerce when discussing subjects that are not commercial and repeatedly expose students to values other than those of commerce, utility and careerism. In order to maintain a coherent liberal arts curriculum, rich in humanities, schools should limit elective opportunities.

As educated educators we must have confidence in our own reason and the courage to trust our hunches and our muses. If it feels like a bunch of billionaires are trying to take over the education establishment in order to increase their own wealth and power it just might be true. If you are clever enough, take their money and use their stuff but, for the love of humanity, don’t trust these men. Like-minded people have gained power before with monstrous results.