Edtech and the Decline of the West
The apostles of #edtech – so quick to denounce their proudly Luddite critics as anachronistic – are themselves an anachronism. They collectively represent one of the last refuges of a centuries-old faith that has been losing ground for a long time now. They are among the last to talk of a great ascent when things are so obviously in decline.
“Together We Shape The Future” they were chanting not so long ago at the edtech conference in Texas. Who do these people think they are kidding? A dogma is being preached which belongs essentially to the 19th century, when a project some have called Faustian commanded the support of many of the greatest minds, and there was a widespread belief that the sacrifices being made in the industrial revolution would pave the way for a radically improved society. We can save ourselves, they thought, by penetrating and harnessing the forces of nature, making nature work for us, driving human activity to end the older passivity of a humanity that used to feel powerless in the face of implacable forces. There will be no destiny; human ingenuity will shape the future according to its own dictates.
The idea could be taken seriously 150 years ago. Now, the old Faustian dogma sounds laughably hollow and utterly unconvincing.
In the mid-nineteenth century the modern Western Faustian spirit reached its zenith among the mills and factories of England. The grand narrative of the Ascent of Man could seem self-evident to the best minds of the age. There were arguments about what was holding us back – about whether the problem was the private ownership of the means of production or whether it was something else – but there was a widespread agreement that these were problems that human ingenuity could solve. There was a tremendous confidence that the sort of problem-solving intellect that had figured out how to use something as light as steam to move the heaviest objects would finally enable humanity to manage everything perfectly, so that dreams which used to be projected into some metaphysical celestial sphere could finally be realised here on Earth. No need to wait for the Second Coming when a future-shaping human ingenuity was so obviously capable of creating the Promised Land all by itself.
We are well past that zenith of Faustian modernity now. The age of the grand-narrative is over. No one can take the narratives seriously any longer, not because the theories have been disproven, but because the faith in our ability to turn history into a grand narrative with a happy end has waned. Its place is being taken increasingly by a vague scepticism about the relativity of all the old theories. We see now how the old theories were too white, too male, too Western, too anthropocentric, too logocentric, or whatever – too relative to command our support any longer. We think of ourselves as wiser now, but if there is a gain in wisdom, it comes at a price: the drastic reduction in our ability to be shapers of history. We sceptics find ourselves in a new passivity, letting history take its course without us.
The loss of faith is rooted in experiences of the world that has been created by the Faustian future shapers. Partly they are experiences of a world grown so vast and incomprehensible that the idea that some group of future-shapers might bring it under control seems ridiculous. It is a system that bears a greater resemblance to a runaway train than a Starship Enterprise with identifiable benevolent individuals at the helm, in possession both of their senses and the craft. Despite the sporadic demonstrations, there is a growing sense of powerlessness on the part of people who might otherwise have been passionate future-shapers, but who now see themselves defeated by a system that has an inscrutable and unquestionable dynamic. A new sense of our powerlessness in the face of Destiny has come to the fore.
Against this backdrop, the slogan at the Texas conference rings hollow. It sounds like the talk of a salesman who knows he must believe in what he is selling in order to maximise sales.
So the #edtech discourse is one of the last bastions of the old dogma of ascent, but it is, at the same time, evidence of the more general descent. The very identification of ed with tech is itself a symptom. In the golden age of the mills and factories if it had been possible for pedagogues to tweet, they wouldn’t have been tweeting #edmills. No, there was no fetishising of the means. The end was what really mattered – the goal that motivated all that Faustian striving – the sort of goal school children were supposed to identify with when singing Blake’s “Jerusalem” in morning assemblies. Leaving aside the injustice done to Blake’s radical intentions, a faith was cultivated in the children that a New Jerusalem was to be built on the ruins of the Satanic mills.
Where are the ideas of a New Jerusalem now? The ultimate end has become obscure and dubious, but the fascination with the means persists. In this way the activity looks increasingly mechanical and increasingly pathological, like some obsessive compulsive disorder, cut off as it is from any understanding of what the point of it all is.
The intimations of an aim that do persist here and there are further symptoms, not indications of health and vigour. There is an idea of uniting the world, for instance – a key element of the Faustian mindset that rises up to survey the whole of humanity as the field of history-shaping action. There is the man who wants every child to have a laptop, and others who want every child to be able to tweet and google and use Windows Paint. There is a digital divide. It must be bridged. Everyone must be online. But when they are online, what then? Where, though, is the vision of what a digitally united humanity will achieve? Do the people marketing the tech really care what is to be done with it?
Yes, there is talk of a new horizontal, and there is talk of a shift away from an oppressive linearity associated for many with the old factory mentality. But there is a pathological aversion here to the kind of verticality and the kind of linearity that is inherent to any organised collective action. How are we going to shape history if we refuse the verticality that is an essential part of any organised endeavour, and also refuse the linearity involved in formulating a plan and organising its execution? Instead of a new direction what we see is an aversion to all directionality.
Periods of decline are not without their idealism. The ideal of a teacher who does not teach – someone who, in the extreme example, installs the tech and then leaves learning to happen – is a perfect example. But for adult ideals to count for anything, they need to be taught to children, who need to be helped and guided to develop an understanding of what they mean, where they come from and why they matter. There is content here that needs to be taught. Courses have to be planned to introduce that content in the most appropriate way for the young students, making it as engaging as possible – trying as hard as possible to make it seem more important than the thousand and one distractions competing for the children’s attention. In these and other ways there is no getting away from the fact that however horizontal the ideal is, the vertical is essential to its realisation. But who now is prepared to defend that necessary verticality, when so many feel obliged to put the verb “teach” in quotation marks, distancing themselves from all the vertical connotations?
Then there is the issue of the vocation that used to be so important in education. Teaching was once a calling. One could talk about teaching as a vocation, in the profoundest sense of the word “vocation”, without being considered a quaint anachronism. A teacher with a sense of vocation – a sense of duty to the students and the community to which they belong – is a very different being from the sort of entrepreneur that dominates the #edtech field – someone who is primarily an opportunist, seeing an opportunity here to intervene and set up a business and reap the rewards of a problem well solved before moving on to greater opportunities seen elsewhere.
The sense of vocation has built into it a concern for the highest good, which tends to exist more as an openness to the question of the highest good rather than an unreflective certainty that some particular intellectual conception of something is good. It is a mentality which is at home in cultures that are on the ascendancy, building something new of great value. The entrepreneur is essentially blind to that question of the highest good. He takes prevailing valuations for granted and is untroubled by them, focusing instead on the opportunities provided. Some area of inefficiency is seen somewhere, for instance, or something is seen to be proceeding more slowly than necessary, and some new technique is devised to increase efficiency or speed, and a business is set up to package and sell the associated software, hardware or the know-how. No time is wasted worrying about the value of the activity that is being speeded up or made more efficient. What are we doing exactly? What highest ends are being promoted as we do these things fast and efficiently? The entrepreneur cares not a jot. His is a prime example of the sort of shallow and thoughtless mentality that gains the upper hand when more thoughtful souls have abandoned the public arena, weighed down by their confusion and their debilitating scepticism. And they feel at home in this period of decline to such an extent that the decline is not even experienced as decline, but a wonderful field of opportunities, because as things fall apart the problems for which entrepreneurs can market solutions multiply.
The teacher with a sense of vocation is open to the question of belief. There must be something to believe in. It might not be clear what it is exactly, but the need is felt for something to believe in. The entrepreneur is someone who typically feels no such need. And if he is an #edtech entrepreneur, the chances are that there isn’t even a genuine belief in the tech. The #edtech entrepreneur will be the first to admit that there is no silver bullet. He is an unrepentant pragmatist – a late and decadent form of life.
The entrepreneurial spirit helps to stoke the engines of the runaway train. “Look at all the problems,” they say. “We must develop new techniques to solve them. Quick, we must innovate.” But no thought is given to the possibility that a problem-solving mentality blind to the question of the highest values is itself hugely problematic. No thought is given to the possibility that the supposed cure might itself be the malaise.
Perhaps there is a misperception that the rising entrepreneurial spirit is something youthful and hopeful in society – something that belongs to a new dawn, not a twilight. But have we not learned from Weber that at the historical dawn of our epoch the leading historical figures were not entrepreneurs, but people with a deep sense of vocation – people with a spirit rooted in religious convictions and concerns about values transcending the technicalities of industry and the profits to be gained through it? By contrast, the entrepreneur is the sort of twilight figure remaining after those high ideals and convictions have waned and the culture in the background is dominated by scepticism and doubt.
Periods of ascent are marked by a new public engagement; periods of decline are marked by public withdrawal. And here the hype about the digital revolution is especially interesting. The virtual world is marketed as part of a renaissance of public engagement. At last, the tech gives the brow-beaten individual, marginalised in an insignificant domesticity, the chance to become engaged in a new public arena. The facts are otherwise, though. The virtual world is being treated more as a haven to withdraw to from the disturbing noise of an incomprehensible world which clearly provides no opportunity whatsoever for us to shape it. Yes, there are ways of using the digital to become more involved, and there are those who use it in that way, but in general in the West it is the latest form of escape. And what holds our society together now is not a shared faith in our ability to work together to build a New Jerusalem, but a shared passion for all the possibilities for escape that this society now offers.
It is important not to get things back to front. The syllogism is not: “I tweet, therefore I shape the future,” but: “I do not shape the future, therefore I tweet.”
The edtech crowd have for a while now been spreading the message that schools need to be #futureready. Ready for the future. In the marketing material (see the video below, for example) they try hard to make it seem as if the children are the future, creating an impression that the future will manifest a perfect harmony between the deepest drives of the individual and the affordances of the social environment.
No matter how it is hyped, the reality refuses to be concealed. It is not a question of making sure the future will be ready for the children, but of making the children ready for a future which is oblivious to their deepest drives. The future is something that commands – a source of imperatives. If children are to succeed, they must comply. And no one is going to ask the children if their drive to succeed is their deepest and most spiritually significant inclination. The success-obsessed route of high-tech exploitation is not an option; it’s an obligation.
There is no hiding the contradiction between the hype depicting the future as the spontaneous expression of individuals and the reality of a future experienced in the present as a set of systemic imperatives that must be complied with.
In the early days of our civilisation the imperatives did spring from the inner lives of pioneering individuals. Now, the imperatives are experienced as burdens imposed by the gargantuan system we find ourselves in, which moves like a treadmill that we either keep up with or fall off. The result for those not blinded by the opportunities for material gain that the treadmill offers is a trend described back in 1932 by Oswald Spengler. He observed that the Faustian project of dominating nature was beginning to lose momentum:
A weariness is spreading, a sort of pacifism of the battle with Nature. Men are returning to forms of life simpler and nearer to Nature; they are spending their time in sport instead of technical experiments. The great cities are becoming hateful to them, and they would fain get away from the pressure of soulless facts and the clear cold atmosphere of technical organization. And it is precisely the strong and creative talents that are turning away from practical problems and sciences and towards pure speculation. Occultism and Spiritualism, Hindu philosophies, metaphysical inquisitiveness under Christian or pagan colouring, all of which were despised in the Darwinian period, are coming up again.
The edtech discourse would have us believe that the future is still a source of collective inspiration – something that people might feel called to work towards.
Spengler was writing more than 40 years before the emergence of a popular perception that the modern epoch had given way to a post-modern one (the latter being what remains when the modern faith has been lost but the mechanics of modernity continue to grind on). The #edtech discourse assumes that some new marketing drive can rekindle the old faith in the Faustian Future. But it is too late now. Those of us who also work in the vacation industry know that a key word for many holiday makers is “retreat”. People are looking for various forms of retreat – places to withdraw to, places to get away from it all.
At this juncture the old reflex might lead us to ask the question: What is to be done? But that is an essentially Faustian question – a question for those who still want to be future-shapers. Perhaps what is more important now is to see the decline for what it is and to develop a deeper understanding of how the Faustian project has come to undermine its own foundations.
It is common to see those foundations as primarily environmental, and to see the problem first and foremost in the destruction of the natural preconditions of social life. We tend to forget the spiritual foundations and the way in which the experience of an overwhelming and increasingly mechanised world erodes the faith in the underlying project.
Spengler’s essay on Faustian technics ends by suggesting that it is folly to imagine that the fundamental problems with the Faustian project might be solved by some reassertion of the Faustian Spirit, with all its human ingenuity and it’s will to finally sort things out and put everything in its proper place, as if the current crises were merely a temporary blip that should not shake our faith in the permanent Ascent of Man.
But Spengler doesn’t just call the residual Faustian optimism baseless, he calls it cowardice – a cowardly inability to face up to the facts of the epoch we find ourselves in – an epoch of decline.
His final paragraph is this (and we will resist the temptation to edit out the sexist and racist elements, respecting the integrity of something written in 1932):
We are born into this time and must bravely follow the path to the destined end. There is no other way. Our duty is to hold on to the lost position, without hope, without rescue, like that Roman soldier whose bones were found in front of a door in Pompeii, who, during the eruption of Vesuvius, died at his post because they forgot to relieve him. That is greatness. That is what it means to be a thoroughbred. The honourable end is the one thing that cannot be taken from a man.
In opposition to the #futureready hashtag tweeted by the #edtech salespeople, we would suggest an alternative: #endready. Of course, it could never be official public policy to prepare children for the end of the civilisation into which they are born, but teachers who see this twilight time for what it is will feel a duty to do just that. Rather than lending our support to the outdated talk of future-shaping, we should be opening the eyes of students to the runaway train that they are on, in the hopes that they or their children or their children’s children might one day find the brake.