Are We Human, Or Are We Dancers? #edcmooc

Humanity-2.0I’m not quite on my knees looking for the answer, but the second (and final) block of study on the E-Learning and Popular Culture MOOC kicked off this week with a challenging look at what it is to be ‘human’, how that definition has shifted throughout the ages, the ways in which it is perceived to be under threat from the advance of technology, and the implications for the future of education. To listen, as we have done, to Professor Steve Fuller’s wonderfully erudite and idiosyncratic take on the history of ‘being human’ and to reflect on whether the ‘humanist project’ as it is described is still worth pursuing, click on this Tedx Warwick lecture from 2009. Believe me, you will be a better person for it.

In the Encyclopaedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory, Nimrod Aloni tells us that the term ‘Humanistic Education’ is generally used to designate a variety of educational theories and practices that are committed to the world-view and ethical code of Humanism; that is, positing the enhancement of human development, well-being, and dignity as the ultimate end of all human thought and action – beyond religious, ideological, or national ideals and values. Historically, humanistic education can be traced back to the times of classical Athens with its central notion of Paideia, a few centuries later to the times of ancient Rome with it central notion of Humanitas, then the Renaissance’s Humanists, and in the early 19th century it was the German educator Neithammer who coined the concept of Humanism as indicating liberal education toward full humanity. Today, you will often hear this expressed in terms such as, ‘the need to educate the whole child‘. UNESCO, in its Education For The 21st Century, talks about being ‘committed to a holistic and humanistic vision of quality education worldwide, the realisation of everyone’s right to education, and the belief that education plays a fundamental role in human, social and economic development.’

The question before us now is this: does technology enable or inhibit such an ideal? There is no doubt that it is new technologies which allow us to connect and to network, and to provide access for many of those people who would otherwise be isolated from mainstream educational institutions – otherwise there would be no such thing as the MOOC – but for some, losing other ‘human’ attributes as a result of our over-dependence on machines is too heavy a price to pay. For my generation, this topic first arose as a serious concern with the introduction of electronic calculators in schools, and the debate shows no signs of abating. Consider this, from a 2004 article called ‘The Human Touch‘ by Dr Lowell Monke, an assistant professor of education at the University of Wittenberg:-

“A computer can inundate a child with mountains of information. However, all of this learning takes place the same way: through abstract symbols, decontextualized and cast on a two-dimensional screen. Contrast that with the way children come to know a tree–by peeling its bark, climbing its branches, sitting under its shade, jumping into its piled-up leaves. Just as important, these first hand experiences are enveloped by feelings and associations–muscles being used, sun warming the skin, blossoms scenting the air. The computer cannot even approximate any of this. Here we encounter the ambiguity of technology: its propensity to promote certain qualities while sidelining others. McLuhan called this process amplification and amputation. He used the microphone as an example. The microphone can literally amplify one’s voice, but in doing so it reduces the speaker’s need to exercise his own lung power. Thus one’s inner capacities may atrophy.

heartThis phenomenon is of particular concern with children, who are in the process of developing all kinds of inner capacities. Examples abound of technology’s circumventing the developmental process: the student who uses a spell checker instead of learning to spell, the student who uses a calculator instead of learning to add–young people sacrificing internal growth for external power.

Often, however, this process is not so easily identified. An example is the widespread use of computers in pre-schools and elementary schools to improve sagging literacy skills. What could be wrong with that? Quite a bit, if we consider the prerequisites to reading and writing. We know that face-to-face conversation is a crucial element in the development of both oral and written communication skills. On the one hand, conversation forces children to generate their own images, which provide connections to the language they hear and eventually will read. This is one reason why reading to children and telling them stories is so important. Television and computers, on the other hand, generally require nothing more than the passive acceptance of prefabricated images.”

I wonder how Monke would respond to this recent television advertisement to promote an Indian mobile communications company, which plays with the concept of a born-digital baby.

I believe that Monke is setting up a false dichotomy here, and that developing children need a balance in their lives between technology-enhanced learning and healthy physical activity, wherever possible in an outdoor environment. Nor do I accept that television and computers ‘require nothing more than the passive acceptance of prefabricated images’. What they require is that the viewer has the literacy skills necessary to understand how, why, when, where and by whom the images were created, and most importantly the purpose for which they were designed – in other words, that they learn to become digitally literate. However, in the interests of fairness, I will leave the final word on the matter (for now) to Monke, who is ready for the ‘all about balance’ argument;

“The response that I often hear to this criticism–that we just need to balance computer use in school with more ‘hands-on’ activities (and maybe a little character education)–sounds reasonable. Certainly schools should help young people develop balanced lives. But the call for balance within schools ignores the massive commitment of resources required to make computers work at all and the resultant need to keep them constantly in use to justify that expense. Furthermore, that view of balance completely discounts the enormous imbalance of children’s lives outside of school. Children typically spend nearly half their waking life outside of school sitting in front of screens. Their world is saturated with the artificial, the abstract, the mechanical. Whereas the intellectual focus of schools in the rural society of the 19th century compensated for a childhood steeped in nature and concrete activity, balance today requires a reversal of roles, with schools compensating for the overly abstract, symbolic, and artificial environment that children experience outside of school.”

Footnote:

It would appear, from what I have learned this week, that in a recent blogpost, The Power To Make A Difference, I was espousing Aloni’s fourth form of humanistic education, that which is most often identified with Radical Education or Critical Pedagogy and with the counter-hegemonic pedagogical theories of Freire, Apple, Giroux, Simon, and Kozol. From this vantage point, to consider educational issues independent of the larger cultural, social, and economic context involves either serious ignorance or cynical, if not criminal, deception. Poverty, crime, homelessness, drug addiction, wars, ecological crises, suicide, illiteracy, discrimination against women and ethnic minorities, technocratic consciousness, and the disintegration of communities and families, to name some of our most pressing problems, are facts of life that effect directly the physical, emotional, intellectual, and moral development of the great majority of children in our culture. Hence, radical educators argue, ‘pedagogy should become more political and the political more pedagogical’. This implies three major changes in our educational system. It requires:

  • that educational discourse, policy, and practice would deal directly with the notions of power, struggle, class, gender, resistance, social justice, and possibility;
  • that teachers would aim to emancipate and empower their students towards the kind of critical consciousness and assertive point of view that allows people to gain control over their lives; and
  • that teachers, in the words of Giroux, ‘would struggle collectively as transformative intellectuals. . . to make public schools democratic public spheres where all children, regardless of race, class, gender, and age, can learn what it means to be able to participate fully in the ongoing struggle to make democracy the medium through which they extend the potential and possibilities of what it means to be human and to live in a just society.’

 

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