Even if the teaching of art and literature had completely collapsed, academics would continue to write bloodless articles in “defence of the humanities”. They would drag out all the shop-worn phrases about how “enriching” books are, how they are “vital to a functioning democracy” and help to promote that buzzword of all buzzwords, “critical thinking”. They would arraign the usual culprits, from the shifting of funding priorities to the outsourcing of vocational training to universities.
In doing so, they would fail to describe humanities teachers’ unique vocation or identify our greatest adversary. We teach not just a particular subject but rather an entirely different way of thinking. This rigorous and serious thinking is under threat from many forces, but its greatest enemy is the relentless logic of technology.
You might say that I am being hyperbolic. But that is likely because you fail to grasp how technology actually works. The thinker who most perceptively interprets the essence of technology is the philosopher Martin Heidegger. He says that we discover the true nature of technology not in the tools we use but in the questions that we ask and the way we see reality.
The essence of technology is objectification. Technology converts qualitative experiences into standardised, manipulable objects uprooted from every meaningful context of feeling and thinking. Technology is therefore not the utilitarian application of disinterested theoretical science. On the contrary, the theoretical sciences are already technological insofar as they objectify. The mission of humanities, on the contrary, is to save thinking from technological objectification.
What is language? Such a question already assumes that language has an objective structure that appears in the same way to everyone regardless of history, community or mood. It already turns language into something that can be mastered and reproduced by techniques such as artificial intelligence.
But what if I asked, “How are we in language?” This question already yields a more qualitative and rooted response. A student might say, “Right now, you are speaking, and we are listening.” The answers might go further and describe emotions and moods: “We are bored, restless, anxious, interested, frustrated.” The “how”-question recovers all those concrete and open ways that we are involved in language.
One of our principal tasks as humanities teachers is to safeguard thinking from objectification, by moving from “what”-questions to “how”-questions. We do this, for example, by inviting our students to turn from what a poem, novel, play or painting is “about” to how the work of art is disclosing itself and appearing before us.
You may wonder whether these “how”-questions are really better than “what”-questions. Consider the following lines from one of Shakespeare’s sonnets:
When my love swears that she is made of truth I do believe her though I know she lies.
It is easy enough to ask what the speaker is saying and render a superficial analysis: “The speaker claims that he both believes a lie and knows it to be a lie. Such a claim is a contradiction.” But a more meaningful interpretation must ask how the speaker is saying the lines. With Machiavellian glee? With angry cynicism? With humiliated resignation? The answer partly depends on how we deliver the lines, the inflections of our voice, and the emotions and moods that we disclose in the act of reading. The “how”-question disposes us to openness in thinking and demands a certain rootedness in shared experience.
The technological objectification of thinking plagued education long before classes were conducted over Zoom. A degrading technocratic, managerial ethos has for centuries been reducing human beings to the status of administrative resources, and no one for decades has been able to avoid the empty quantified metrics for assessing teacher and student “performance”. But the new mania for all things virtual in the aftermath of the Covid lockdowns has made things worse.
In my recent experiences of virtual teaching, I have seen that the technological uprooting of living speech is calamitous for thinking. Students in virtual classes are all too eager to turn off their cameras, as if speaking were only a matter of what is said, rather than how we are saying; and as if listening and showing that we are listening were not an important part of how we are speaking. Even in courses devoted to literature and art, students demand “take-aways” in the form of bullet points, online discussion questions and itemised lists on PowerPoint slides. The superficial question, “What do we need to know?” now dominates their approach.
It will not do to respond to my provocations with the charge that I am a Luddite, in search of a pre-technological golden age that never existed. It will not do to bring out the bogus egalitarian rhetoric that destroying bricks-and-mortar education is really about “improving access”, when anyone not born yesterday knows that its real purpose is neoliberal austerity. I am not against technology: I am against the unthinking promotion of technological innovation for its own sake.
A technology-driven educational system can produce students who know how to objectify and calculate. It can produce hustlers with a shallow gift for “social networking”. But it will never produce people who are able to think.
Kishore Saval is senior lecturer in the Bachelor of Arts (Western Civilisation) programme at the Australian Catholic University.
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