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Classroom Technology as the End of Education

As recently as half a decade ago, popular opinion regarded educational technology as a panacea for struggling schools and the key to reimagining American education. The New York Times was feting Khan Academy and the Washington Post continually lauded the possibilities afforded by “ed tech.”[1] In 2013, Google Classroom was still in its infancy, and the “flipped classroom” was more a novelty than a widespread practice.[2] Just a few years later, the educational cognoscenti are less certain. Pundits warn against indiscriminate adoption, and anxieties over excessive “screen time” have grown.[3] Many have become wary of the cultural and economic dominance of Google, Amazon, Facebook, and the like, especially in the education sector.[4] The fact that many tech executives send their children to tech-free schools alone should give us pause.[5]

Yet most of these cautions are issued from a neurological, positivist-psychological, or otherwise materialist standpoint and retain the same criteria under which educational technology was applauded in the first place. We are told to be careful about the amount of technology in the classroom because it may in fact stunt student productivity or cognitive power. Perhaps ironically, a major scholarly report regarding digital education technology insisted that “the future of learning institutions demands a deep, epistemological appreciation of the profundity of what the Internet offers humanity as a model of a learning institution.”[6] Unfortunately, an authentic “epistemological” understanding is precisely what is lacking.

Educational institutions consistently fail to use the structure of the human person as a criterion for evaluating technology use. Instead, a positivist criterion of power and production dominates. Even Christian institutions, which have a privileged insight into the nature of the person, widely accept the technologizing of learning. Religious schools may even see technology as a strategic asset with which to improve quantifiable student learning or to leverage increased enrollment.[7] In doing so, they uncritically adopt both a methodology and an anthropological vision that is inherently anti-Christian. Here I first draw on the insights of Josef Pieper to critique the modes of learning native to educational technology. I then propose the thought of Msgr. Luigi Giussani as a model for a comparison between the conception of the person and education engendered by digital technology and a conception born of the Christian experience.

Josef Pieper and Digital Technology as Methodology

Christian schools often adopt technology using the rhetoric of the “neutral tool” whose adverse effects can be avoided if used properly. Unfortunately, its influence is by nature unavoidable. Neil Postman writes that all tools have an ideology or “ethic” which they impose on the user. They shape the structure of our interests, the structure of our thought, and the nature of our communities.[8] The ethic of the computer is ultimately positivistic. It measures, determines, quantifies, calculates—it computes. To the computer, the real is only that which can be measured empirically or explained logically. The great danger here is that technology tends to reduce the student and the object of study to its own limited, material horizon, refashioning students’ perceptions after its own.

The digital age has accelerated a singularly modern phenomenon, a radical change in the way we view learning. Josef Pieper describes knowing as properly containing two movements. Intellectus, a receptive or intuitive mode, is best described as the activity of a person in front of something beautiful, perhaps a rose. Wonder, joy, and awe are all native to intellectus, and for this reason, many rightly place it as the progenitor of all authentic knowing. A second movement, ratio, refers to “logical, discursive thought, of searching and of examination, of abstraction, of definition, and drawing conclusions.”[9]

Beginning with Immanuel Kant, moderns have slowly discarded intellectus as a legitimate mode of knowing. Kant even mocks the seat of intellectus—the heart—sarcastically calling it “the oracle in one’s breast.”[10] Consequently, all knowledge is reduced to ratio, the arduous process of analysis and discursion. What emerges is the modern conception of the “intellectual worker.” Knowledge becomes directly related to effort, not just as its correlate, but as its cause. The Kantian ideal, characterized by “an extreme tension of the powers of action, a readiness to suffer in vacuo unrelated to anything, and a complete absorption in the social organism, itself rationally planned to utilitarian ends,”[11] forms a frighteningly prophetic vision of digital education. It is marked by abstraction from the local reality, intensity of intellectual labor, and absorption in the collaborative online community.

The truth is that technology holds an immense appeal in the field of education because it has the capacity to make students intellectual super-workers. The mentality of modern educators certainly belies this attraction. Teacher development programs are dominated by the language of technical assessment design and student output. We accept as inevitable (and even natural) the phenomenon of overworked students. We refer to students as “on task” and “off task.” When one is “off task,” the conventional teacher response is, “Are you being productive?” Technology is proposed not as an overturning of this dynamic, but as a method to make it more efficient.

The result is that a student is reduced to a functionary, and his endeavors reduced to social utility. Ironically, for the medievals and for Pieper, the intellectual worker displays not a virtuous “work-ethic,” but acedia, sloth. That vapid stare into the warm glow of a screen could not be more perfectly described.

In so diluting his capacity to engage reality, the student forfeits his capacity for joy.[12] For St. Thomas, intellectus is not so much integral to humanity, it is beyond humanity. By it, man “participates in the angelic faculty of non-discursive vision.”[13] In fact, it is only due to a deficiency in our powers of reason that ratio is necessary.[14] If God has made man “a little lower than the angels” (Heb 2:7), technology has the ability to make man a mere work-animal. We must honestly admit that neither instructional technology nor internet-based learning can engender contemplation. And contemplation, according to Pieper, is not simply “one possible form among others in the act of knowing,” but the height and end of all knowing. “It is a knowing that is inspired by love.”[15]

Msgr. Luigi Giussani and Two Anthropologies of Education

Technology has the capacity to radically change the way we conceive of the educational project as a whole. Virtual learning frees the student from the particular school setting and from the authority of tradition. Proponents see these developments as in continuity with an emerging “democratization of knowledge”[16] and as enabling the implementation of a constructivist learning theory whereby students “create” knowledge.[17] The dominant narrative is defined by a vision of man in which knowledge acquisition and access is the key to human happiness.[18]

In an educational climate defined by its lack of clarity, the thought of Servant of God Msgr. Luigi Giussani greatly clarifies the Christian conception of education. A teacher at the seminary, high school, and university level, Msgr. Giussani wrote extensively on the subject of education. He sees the end of education as an awakening of a student’s reason and humanity to an awareness of Another at the root of reality. In contrast to the technological vision, Giussani shows us that true engagement requires a student to be aided in the discovery of the meaning of all the factors of experience. In The Risk of Education, Giussani enumerates three criteria necessary for this discovery. By examining each, we can see that the Christian understanding of education is inherently at odds with the technological.

First, an authentic education “must present the past in a suitable form.”[19] Giussani describes the past or tradition as a “hypothesis of meaning” for all of reality.[20] A student must be presented with a tradition—perhaps the intellectual heritage of the Christian West—as a coherent explanation for all the factors of experience. Far from being an imposition on the student, an ideology forced on him by his teachers, tradition constitutes an inextricable part of his humanity. For Giussani, “Tradition is that complex endowment with which nature arms us” and sets us on our path to discover the meaning of reality.[21] To discard or fail to consider a tradition that we are born into is to deny a part of ourselves.

Yet, this is exactly the premise of the technological vision. A young person, with all his innate desire for truth, for coherence, and for beauty, is thrown into the collaborative realm. The student must choose or amalgamate a worldview from a dizzying array of options, all of which are intentionally presented as value-equivalent. Giussani describes the disastrous results of this method: “The adolescent will automatically be overtaken by new phenomena, events, or statements that excite his instincts or drives, are less uncomfortable because they favor [cultural] inertia, or which make a violent impression or offer seductive proposals.”[22] This seems an apt diagnosis of increasingly popular attempts to use social media as a classroom tool.

Giussani’s second criterion requires this hypothesis to be verified in the context of a lived experience.[23] This can only be done in the milieu of a student’s daily life, through the companionship of an adult. Here again, the technological vision for education fails us. The ideal—freedom from the particular setting—undermines the whole project. Further, the democratization of knowledge and the emphasis on constructivism removes the teacher as the locus of the tradition. For Giussani, this dynamic of authority is not a limitation of freedom, but is the fullest expression of our personality.[24] Our desire for the beauty and coherence of life attracts us to one who “better feels and understand our experience, suffering, needs, and expectations.”[25]

Giussani’s third criterion requires that the hypothesis be compared to what he terms the “elementary experience”—the desires of the heart for truth, beauty, goodness, justice, and love. Far from being a subjectivist criterion, the elementary experience is objective and trustworthy, as it is given by Another—its origin and referent lies outside the person.[26] The student must be helped to awaken an awareness of these innate desires and to verify the proposal of tradition by a comparison with them. Otherwise, she will either irrationally reject the proposal as uninteresting, or she will irrationally adopt it, failing to understand its value to life. In contrast to this criterion, the technological vision adopts the criterion of popularity. In the collaborative realm, the ideas preferred by the greatest number—or by those who have power—hold sway.

For Giussani, failing to educate in this way ultimately results in alienation from the self. Students are alienated from their desire for a coherent hypothesis of meaning, from the innate human dynamic of authority, and from the transcendent desires of the heart. With the removal of the transcendent, the task of education itself is truncated, cut off at its root. That ultimate object of contemplative love to which Pieper referred is disqualified as an object of study on the basis of both the method and scope of education. No longer a quest for the referent of our deepest desires, education becomes a mere training exercise. Rather than engaging students with the momentary excitement of technology, a true education awakens the entirety of our humanity by stirring its core.

Finally, a note on the rather Promethean flavor of technological anthropology: the implicit premise of the technological vision seems to be that the person has yet to reach happiness, but that one can—with the help of technology—attain the knowledge necessary for it. While we should not deny that technical knowledge is certainly a good, this premise is, at its root, inimical to the Christian vision. Giussani describes the Christian claim—that God became man—as decisive for any account of man’s relation to reality. Prior to the Incarnation, the religious method—man’s attempt at discovering the answers to his deepest questions—was by necessity dependent on “the striving of the intelligence, the drive of the will to construct, the stretching of the imagination, the weaving of a complex moralism.”[27] With the possible exception of the last element, all of these are activities which technology is able to amplify. Our effort to adopt technology as a critical step in the future of education belies a subconscious belief that, at its height, the endeavor of human knowing is based on our power.

The Christian claim that the object of all our intellectual efforts and the key to the coherence of reality became a man has enormous consequences for our conception of education. In fact, it puts the Christian ideal directly at odds with the technological. As Giussani observes,

“The hypothesis that the mystery has penetrated man’s existence by speaking to him in human terms alters the man-destiny relationship which will no longer be based on human effort, the fruit of man’s construction or imagination, the study of a distant, enigmatic thing, or on waiting for something absent. Instead, it will mean coming up against something present.”[28]

While the technological vision involves an exhausting tension, a waiting for the deposit of human knowledge to advance, or a stretching beyond our natural capacities, for two thousand years, Christian educators have been able to proclaim that the key to the heart’s desire for truth and for happiness is here and accessible to the unaided human faculties. The only task is—as Giussani puts it—a “simple recognition, the reaction of one who, watching out for the arrival of a friend, singles him out of the crowd and greets him.”[29]

What Is at Stake?

Amid the tides of the current educational climate, Christian educators must seek a judgment on the question of educational technology that is borne out of the understanding of the human person’s relation to reality generated by the Christian event. If not, we risk subjection to the dominant cultural current. What is at stake in this question? For students, the adoption of the technological ethic serves to reduce them to intellectual workers. No longer is it possible for learning to be something gratuitous, a gift, something surprising, a joy. No longer is the summit of the school experience the contemplation of an object of love. Instead, it is a loveless labor. The task of education ceases to be an introduction to the transcendent present in experience. It becomes an efficient exercise in constructing knowledge. It ceases to be the verification of a coherent hypothesis of meaning, guided by a teacher who has a more mature insight into life. It becomes a scramble to affirm one’s own ideas or reactions in the collaborative cloud. No longer simultaneously an announcement of and possession by Another who corresponds to our deepest longings, education becomes a slow alienation from the heart. It is the death of education.

Editorial Note: This essay is part of a developing series on media studies.


Renewing Nouvelle Théologie

Featured Image: Classroom in Jansons School of Business, Coimbatore, India, Taken on: 8 October 2007; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD.

[1] Kate Murphy, “Catching Up with Sal Kahn,” New York Times (November 3, 2012); Claudia Dreifus, “It All Started With a 12-Year-Old Cousin,” New York Times (January 27, 2014); Richard Culatta, “Reimagine Learning, Using Technology: It Can Be Hard and Fun,” The Washington Post (November 13, 2013); Ovetta Wiggins, “Teachers Learn to Integrate Technology into Curriculum,” The Washington Post (August 19, 2012).

[2] Tina Rosenberg, “Turning Education Upside Down,” New York Times (October 19, 2013).

[3] Valerie Strauss, “Silicon Valley Teacher: Don’t Confuse Educational Technology that Helps Kids Learn—and Doesn’t,” The Washington Post (March 1, 2017); Rob Waters, “The Backlash Against Screen Time at School,” The Atlantic (November 9, 2018).

[4] Natasha Singer, “How Google Took Over the Classroom,” New York Times (May 13, 2017).

[5] Chris Weller, “Silicon Valley Parents are Raising Their Kids Tech-Free-and It Should be a Red Flag,” Business Insider (February 18, 2018).

[6] Cathy Davidson and David Goldberg, The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009), 2. Emphasis in original.

[7] Anthony D’Augustino, “The Technology Revolution and Catholic Education,” Il Sussidiario (March 13, 2012).

[8] Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Vintage, 1993), 20.

[9] Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, trans. Alexander Dru (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2009), 28.

[10] Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, 27.

[11] Ibid., 43.

[12] Ibid.,, 43.

[13] Ibid., 29.

[14] Josef Pieper, Happiness and Contemplation, trans. Richard and Clara Winston (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine Press, 1998), 74.

[15] Pieper, Happiness and Contemplation, 72.

[16] Allan Collins and Richard Halverson, Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology: The Digital Revolution and Schooling in America (New York: Teacher’s College Press, 2009), 52.

[17] David Jonassen, Learning to Solve Problems with Technology: A Constructivist Perspective (New York: Prentice Hall, 2002).

[18] Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010), 152.

[19] Luigi Giussani, The Risk of Education: Discovering Our Ultimate Destiny, trans. Rosanna Giammanco Frongia (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2001), 8.

[20] Giussani, The Risk of Education, 50.

[21] Luigi Giussani, The Religious Sense, trans. John Zucchi (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997), 37-38.

[22] Giussani, The Risk of Education, 55.

[23] Ibid., 8.

[24] Luigi Giussani, The Journey to Truth is an Experience, trans. John Zucchi (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006), 29.

[25] Giussani, The Journey to Truth is an Experience, 56.

[26] Giussani, The Religious Sense, 9.

[27] Luigi Giussani, At the Origin of the Christian Claim, trans. Vivian Hewitt (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1998), 31.

[28] Giussani, At the Origin of the Christian Claim, 31.

[29] Ibid., 31.

Brett Bertucio

Brett Bertucio is a doctoral student in education policy and curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.