Frankenstein and the Monstrosity of Edtech
The novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley is a meditation on monstrosity in various forms. Unspoken in the background is a monstrous tumult that includes the terror of the French Revolution, the bodies of Luddites swinging from scaffolds in England, and the body of the abandoned wife whose place Mary took, floating down the Thames after committing suicide, and the child also abandoned by Mary’s beloved husband when he left his ex-wife.
What follows reproduces some of that meditation before indicating its relevance especially to the discourse of edtech.
There is a common misunderstanding that in Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein the monster is the creature brought to life by the scientist, Victor Frankenstein. In truth, Victor is the real monster. The creature is shown to be essentially good, and only becomes evil as a consequence of his ill-treatment by unthinking and insensitive others. Victor, on the other hand, is treated beautifully by his family and friends. He grows up in an idyllic setting with a father who provides the perfect role model of a well-adjusted father and citizen, living out a profound engagement with the affairs of the local community. And yet Victor turns his back on all this. And herein lies part of his monstrosity.
The monstrosity of Victor is underscored by the contrast with his adopted sister, Elizabeth. Indicative is the difference in their aesthetic sensibilities. Elizabeth has a taste for the beautiful – for things that speak of a settled life of order and harmony and reconciliation – a taste that fits nicely with the order of the humble life of the valley and the small town that the two children grew up in. Victor’s taste, though, is for the sublime. He hears the call of the icy mountain peaks in those inhospitable regions where the air is thin, high above the green and pleasant valley. At one point in the story, he climbs one such peak and recalls his earliest impression of the sublime landscape:
I resolved to ascend to the summit of Montanvert. I remembered the effect that the view of the tremendous and ever-moving glacier had produced upon my mind when I first saw it. It had then filled me with a sublime ecstasy that gave wings to the soul and allowed it to soar from the obscure world to light and joy.
Elizabeth seeks tranquillity in beautiful surroundings that appear blessed. Despite Victor’s genuine (and more than brotherly) love for Elizabeth, something drives him beyond this, seeking out a “sublime ecstasy”.
At the risk of sounding blasphemous, we hear echoes of Christ here. The desert is another sublime landscape. And who were the early Christians if not a people with a taste for the desert and a monstrous willingness to leave a tranquil life that had made its peace with Caesar, abandoning family and friends to walk into a political wilderness where the only certainty was persecution? The monstrosity we see in Victor (in its first form at least) is seen in the early Christians, and is present in all those who feel the sublime compulsion to refuse this world in the name of a better one.
Here we have a form of evil which has to be seen as good. There would have been no hope for humanity without this impulse to abandon the comforts of the tribe for a place in which the self might achieve a more profound experience of itself – an experience that might open a vista on a new set of values – a new sense of what humanity is to live by.
The book, though, tells a story of how this evil which is good turns into something which is an unalloyed monstrosity. The problem arises out of the vision that crystallizes. When one is out in the desert it is possible to see all the rocks and be convinced that they could be turned into loaves. The desert can play tricks on the mind. The greatest source of inspiration is also the greatest source of deceit.
The greatest form of deceit – the one which Victor falls prey to – involves what Albert Camus (in The Rebel) called metaphysical revolt. Instead of gaining a deeper insight into our human condition to help the warring tribe overcome its conflict, the idea emerges that the human condition itself can be overcome. Victor describes his vision thus:
Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world.
To Victor the world is dark because there is death. Death must be conquered, and Victor is determined to be victorious. A triumph of the will. There could be no blunter refusal of our human condition – our mortality – no plainer case of metaphysical revolt.
There must be ways of rebelling that can establish a more reconciled condition, but metaphysical revolt, by its very (anti-)nature, can never come to rest in any such condition. Hence, Victor’s inability to embrace his new “child”, and hence his becoming locked in a hopeless chase to the ends of the earth, in which victory becomes indistinguishable from defeat.
Victor is a scientist, but reading between the lines of the story we see a reference to the political revolutionaries. The subtitle of the book is A Modern Prometheus. And while Mary Shelley is working on this book, her husband, Percy Shelley is writing a long poem entitled Prometheus Unbound, which stands as a defence of the spirit of the French Revolution – speaking out in English at a time when the dominant forces in England are anxiously killing anything (like Luddism) that looks like the spread of this monstrous political disease. Percy is clearly in support. Mary, although far from being a reactionary, is ambivalent.
The ambivalence is justified where revolution takes the form of metaphysical revolt. The problem would be summed up best by Proudhon: “No government could ever be called revolutionary for the very simple reason that it is a government.” Metaphysical revolt is either the monstrosity of permanent revolution or it is nothing at all. It is not the refusal of this particular world in order to create a better particular world; it is the refusal of all particularity. Just as Victor refuses his “child”.
As a political project that insists in a Proudhon-like way on its purity, metaphysical revolt leads nowhere. But by a strange twist of history it has found a home in the economy. What Mary Shelley didn’t foresee is that Victor would actually turn out to be victorious, not as a lone scientist, but as a global system that refuses the very idea that its project is limited – a project locked in metaphysical revolt. Describing the new economy, one of the unnameable authors of a mid-19th century manifesto puts it like this: “All that is solid melts into air.” Each and every stone will be transformed one by one into bread. And nothing will be allowed to stand in the way. If textile workers, for instance, protest that the very fabric of their lives is being torn apart, they will be hanged by the neck until they are dead. The fires beneath the mill chimneys must keep burning at an ever faster rate ad infinitum. The white heat of the permanent revolution must not dim.
When Victor looks from the icy peak down at the darkness of life it is clear that he is imagining himself in the place of God. The naïve reading of modernity is that it creates a godless, secular world. In truth, it attempts to establish a new religion of the victorious human will that conquers everything weaker predecessors accepted as our lot. The world must submit to the divine will, meaning it must all – every last nook and cranny – must be charted and recorded and drawn into a system where it can be put to work and become “of value”, as Sir Ken Robinson would say when trying to put his finger on what is most elementary in life. And triumph must be measurable (because this is the triumph of something obsessed with the abstractions of the intellect and insensible to everything else, just as Victor confessed to becoming insensible to the incalculable beauties of nature). There must be an index that can be seen to rise, year on year, ad infinitum.
There is outrage from time to time about geneticists trying to play God. The folly here is that our entire way of life is premised upon the idea that humanity can play God – can become the real Παντοδύναμος Παντοκράτορας – the all-powerful, all-creating. The folly that the true light of the world is the one that we create.
The ultimate monstrosity is that although human subjectivity was supposed to rule victorious, the reality thereby created is one for which human subjectivity becomes day by day less and less significant so that almost nothing rests any longer on the heartfelt beliefs of the individual. The brute interest of self-preservation (keeping oneself sheltered, clothed, fed and warm) and the unreflective interest in reducing the unhappiness created by the system itself are enough to keep the wheels of the perpetuum mobile turning. And it becomes harder to imagine that the convictions of even the president could make any difference any longer to public policy. Do not waste time trying to imagine something better; there is no alternative.
The monstrosity of edtech
The monstrosity of the edtech discourse is its framing of education to slot children as smoothly as possible into the monstrosity of the adult world.
The very term “edtech” implies that the ultimate telos of education is the triumph of the will through the infinite expansion of our technical know-how. Marc Prensky:
If we really offered our children some great future-oriented content (such as, for example, nanotechnology, bioethics, genetic medicine, and neuroscience presented in neat interactive ways by real experts), and they could develop their skills in programming, knowledge filtering, using their connectivity, and maximizing their hardware, and they could do so with cutting-edge, powerful, miniaturized, customizable one-to-one technology, I bet they would complete the “standard” curriculum in half the time it now takes, with high test scores all around.
Future-oriented content is science and technology – disciplines valued not because they reveal the deepest truths about ourselves and our world, but because they sustain the Promethean project of domination. The idea that the search for the truth about the human condition might matter more than programming, knowledge filtering, connectivity and maximizing hardware is not worthy of consideration – a laughably antiquated thing with a yellow eye from the point of view of the edtech futurists.
Everyone is agreed on the bankruptcy of the banking model of education, but what goes uncontested is what might be called the Promethean model of education – one for which the knowledge that matters most is knowledge as power – the knowledge from which we develop new techniques of control. This appears in the talk of education training the disruptive-creative problem-solvers of the future. The future is a problem to be solved. Solving it means working out a new technique to control what is currently beyond control. Prometheus unbound. An education of victors.
And education, of course, is something that must itself be controlled in accordance with the latest scientific research. This is spun as a movement of liberation, freeing the individual child from a stifling one-size-fits-all policy, sparing him or her from being consumed by the insatiable system, but this is a lie. Control, rather than loosening, becomes tighter (when every keystroke is logged there is nowhere to hide for those who wanted to sit at the back of the class). The scales applied to the student multiply and become less crude, but their fundamental character remains unchanged. This is education for the most efficient achievement of prescribed goals that have been carefully matched to the skill set and ability level and neurology of the pupil so that his contribution to the Promethean project will be maximised. Education for individuality would be utterly different. And so the word “individual” moves closer to its older meaning of “horribly eccentric” – something grotesque, almost monstrous.
From the standpoint of this discourse, the individual teacher, when not framed as a budding entrepreneur, also starts to look horribly eccentric – another monster. Although all the talk is of ending standardisation for the pupil, the opposite is the case for the teacher. Her idiosyncrasies are seen as factors to be removed. Why should her students be stuck with her odd introduction to a subject when the lesson can be flipped and every child around the world benefit from the online introduction unanimously judged to be the best? The teacher as an individual with her own approach to things is on the way out.
All the talk of personalisation in education is yet more complicity with the prevailing monstrosity. And this is where the metaphysical revolt being waged on a global scale rears its monstrous head and we can look deep into its eyes. The individual is the origin, they assume, following Victor, who imagined himself as the great creative force and the origin of the new species of the future. The global triumph of the institutionalised will owes its rise to this myth – a myth locked in an insane denial of the simple and incontrovertible fact that every single content of the individual is of social origin.
And yet within the lie of personalisation in education there is a grain of truth. Before the children walk through the school gates their innocence has long been lost and they have already become hardened hagglers in the local bazaar, able to hoodwink the naïve bumpkin out of his day’s wages. The category “person” has its reality in the marketplace and in all relations of shrewdly bargained contract – a reality of civilised barbarism that in less barbaric times fortunate children were either shielded from or able to flee from in their secret offline gardens. There is nowhere to flee now, and all children have been habituated to the prevailing barbarism by the time they get to school. Education, which ought to keep alive an alternative to this, capitulates entirely when it frames the infant as a legal person and applauds the idea of children “owning” their learning.
Equally complicitous is the edtech hymn to digital natives. As teachers who are hesitant about the dominant trends, we are instructed to learn from the children. What sounds like a deep faith in the child is merely an enthusiasm for the image of a child who has been well and truly hooked by the system – by the digital equivalent of the dog catcher. Marc Prensky, for instance, cherry picks a student opinion he wants the hesitant teachers to hear loud and clear: “We see technology as a foundation. It underlies everything we do.”
The way a child can perceive values that are antithetical to the triumph of the will is not considered for a single moment – the same fault seen in Sir Ken Robinson’s call for a paradigm change in education, where he cherry picks a form of thinking in infants which, as if by miracle, turns out to be just what the economy needs to keep the West a few percentage points ahead of the East in the GDP rankings. The childhood that is not yet connected to the adult world and hints at its untruth is passed over in silence.
“These digital natives are born into digital technology,” says Prensky. The word “born” slyly naturalises the cynically orchestrated process of co-opting every last instinct of the child – a baptism in a font that habituates children to the very thing which education, if it has anything to offer humanity, must resist.
There are times when children, playing on their own, inhabit a world that rests on nothing other than their imagination. Hope diminishes as those times become less frequent.
By the standards of the prevailing order, the monstrous is what does not fit into it (just as Victor’s needy creature reaching out to him in its dark innocence didn’t fit into the theoretical framework of triumphalism). The crusaders of edtech go along with this, eliminating from education everything that is by implication monstrous: an unconnected childhood, the individual with all her idiosyncrasies and with the depth of her subjective experience, a more profound thoughtfulness cultivated far from the buzz of the digital feed, and a deeper truth at odds with the Promethean imaginary.
The only hope of an end to the prevailing monstrosity lies in learning to embrace so much that is currently deemed monstrous.