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Striving Joyfully (1) – Technology

Over the next six weeks I plan to rework my State of the School talk on Striving Joyfully into a series of six short essays. I will start by writing about three misunderstandings (technology, science, and love) that we need to be striving against, spend another week on how these three things converge, and then end by discussing how to pursue joy and how the Charis community can help us to strive joyfully. I hope you find these essays edifying.

Education has always included learning to understand the world around us (the sciences), learning how to transform the world around us (which we call applied science or technology), and the forming of the self (character development). For a variety of reasons, education in both Classical Greece and Rome as well as Medieval education focused on forming the character. This changed during the scientific revolution.

In the New Organon (1620) Francis Bacon argued that the primary goal of education should not be the formation of the self, but the transformation of the world. This new philosophy, coupled with the discovery of the Scientific Method, led to the unprecedented technological growth we have experienced over the past four hundred years. To be clear, it was not the case that before Bacon people did not care about improving the world; they did, but it was a secondary goal. With Francis Bacon the pursuit of technological advancement to create longer and more pleasant lives for man became the new summum bonum, the new ultimate purpose for man. And this was a significant change.

Bacon thought that technological innovation would be an unqualified good because he thought that technology was a good in and of itself. But the fact is that technology is neutral—it is neither good nor bad, all it does is increase our power. The problem with this is that people have not become more virtuous as they have become more powerful. Think about how we use something like social media—something that connects us instantaneously to nearly everyone around the world. Social media allows us to reconnect with old acquaintances and stay in touch with friends when they move, but it is also used by demagogues to inflame our fears and it has been successfully used to organize violence against socially marginalized groups (like women drivers in Saudi Arabia). Social media gives us power, but that power, like all power, is all too often used for destructive ends.

There is a secondary problem in the growth of technology. Men are not just evil, they are also shallow. Social media does not always encourage what is evil in us, but it nearly always encourages what is most shallow in us (e.g. the desire for something new and novel, the desire to engage in something superficially or as spectator—to tweet about how we feel about an issue rather than sacrificially love our neighbor). Not one of us is static—we are all in the process of becoming and technology can either help or hinder our growth. The way that many of us engage with social media (and streaming services and video games) encourages a shallow passivity, a vicarious engagement in memes and videos in place of deep and edifying relationships.

What is more, technology has transformed the way we view education. Grades are an example of a recent technological innovation that nearly all of us take for granted. St. Augustine did not get grades nor did Isaac Newton or Thomas Jefferson. Grades are a modern invention and they change how we view education into something that we either “win” or “lose” at; something we are “ahead in” or “behind”.

The images we use are important(!) and a race is a poor metaphor for education. A much better metaphor is that of a feast. Some students may have a greater “appetite” for learning and a greater desire to try all sorts of dishes, but that does not mean that they are enjoying the meal more than those that eat less and enjoy a simpler meal. Both can be nourished and both can enjoy the feast.

Obviously all metaphors break down at some point—if a student enjoys the educational equivalent of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches this does not mean he won’t be required to eat some broccoli. But I think the metaphor is helpful despite its limitations. I would encourage you all not to think in terms of “is this challenging enough?” or “is this moving fast enough?” Instead, ask questions like: is this enriching? Is my son being presented with models of courage and virtue, goodness and patience and kindness? Is my daughter growing in her imagination and in concentration, memory, and self-control? Our sons and daughters are not computers to be programed, but eternal beings made for glory and joy. From this fact it follows that our ultimate goal of education should not be to produce people that can do certain things, but to encourage people to grow in certain ways.