“You can’t be my teacher.”
After reading Hannah Arendt’s essay “The Crisis of Education” some perverse masochistic urge impelled us to look again at that video of the boy with the menacing face wagging his finger at the camera, telling an imaginary low-tech university graduate (doubtless with years of teaching experience – because she is assumed to be way too old for the young and brash digital age): “You can’t be my teacher” – a boy who implies that the school itself is now obsolete (“Are you going to teach me in a school?” he asks).
What would Hannah Arendt say? We imagine her first reaction would be despair. Then she might make a connection with her study of the origins of totalitarianism, and warn that although the boy is obviously acting, if we were to find such boys emerging en masse in our classrooms, our political future could be bleak, for she would see a germ that (given a sufficiently grave crisis in society) could develop into the personality type that would be the perfect prop for a future totalitarian regime: a personality for whom there is little or no concern for human dignity, no sense of an order of the offline society that all of us need to respect (even as we challenge it), and no concern for whatever might be suffering beneath the prevailing apparatus of power (and the internet is a field for a new exertion of that power).
And if Arendt had to reply to the boy? I imagine that she would counsel against issuing an equally stern reply, such as: “And can you be a responsible member of the society that you have been born into and that has given you so much? And can you appreciate the things that are good in the world offline? And will you ever take the initiative to make that offline world an even better place? And will you later help the next generation to appreciate and build on what yours has done?” No, it would be silly to lunge back at the boy in that way. Instead, Arendt would (perhaps) suggest that steps be taken to help the boy gradually appreciate the value of his class and the school (it’s value beyond the merely instrumental role as a provider of the high-tech education that he demands) – appreciating both particular individuals in the school and the order that the school maintains (an order without which the boy – protected in the video by his dad holding the camera – could quickly fall prey to more menacing and equally unscrupulous individuals) – and help him also to appreciate a myriad other aspects of offline life including the best of the local culture, the natural environment and the rich history of which he is already a part and which he will later be able to advance.
Then the voice of Arendt fades and is replaced by the voice of a man who is now an orphan in a once holy land saying: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life,” and we are disturbed to think that the menacing boy in the video could be living as if the most advanced technology is itself now the Way, the Truth and the Life. And there for us is the greatest danger: that technology and the progress of technology become deified and placed beyond question, so that progress just has to be thought of as the progress of technology – a technology that must become more complex and more pervasive and to which all of humanity must adapt itself, even if it means leaving behind the features of life that were once believed to be essentially human and (looking far, far ahead into an inscrutable future) even if it means the annihilation of humanity itself for the sake of the evolution of a new, greater, form of artificial intelligence liberated from the confines of our corporeal individuality.
Appalled at the prospect, we feel we need:
1. Real brick and mortar schools at the centre of vibrant neighbourhoods.
2. To cultivate a sense of order, of form, of social standards in students in such a way that children come to appreciate the orderly offline world in which they live.
3. To help young people develop the most meaningful relationships with people of a wide range of ages and backgrounds in their local communities (including their classes at school).
4. To miss no opportunity to reaffirm the value of human dignity.
5. To help young people to begin thinking critically about the way digital technology is part of a larger offline world that is not centred on their needs and interests.
This doesn’t mean trashing particular types of technology. It just means making sure that the technology is part of ways of life that recognise the following fundamental principle: The truth is offline.