Robots, Man and the Future of Education

Discover Magazine in May had a wonderful “article” (I use quotation marks because it read much more like an editorial) about robots. “The Body Shop” by Bruno Maddox launched immediately into a discussion of “robo-fear”, how we used to be afraid of “War of the Worlds” and “Terminator” robots, but now we don’t seem so afraid. I thought of one of my favorite bad movies, “Runaway“, where the robots, programmed by a demonic Gene Simmons, killed people as good cop Tom Selleck tried to figure out the mystery.

This is a trail that reaches back at least to Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” — I would argue that Shelley’s monster is just the start of a pattern of “manufactured people” continuing into characters from “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (“Klaatu barada nikto“, for goodness sake) to “Westworld” to R2D2.

Maddox claims we aren’t afraid anymore, and I want to have him explain why. Unfortunately, the May issue is not yet on the open web, and even though I subscribe the online version I’m allowed to access won’t let me copy anything. Luckily for me, I don’t keyboard, I type, so we’re good.

I’d argue that the revolution of the last 20 years has quenched our robo-fear, not so much by giving us a taste for change as by taking the gleam off that spark of humanity that we used to be so proud of. What is Man? people used to wonder. Is consciousness divine in origin? Or is it a mere accident of nature that we alone, of all the matter in this Great Universe, adrift upon this marbled speck, have the power to dignify and enoble our condition by understanding it, or at least attempting to?

Then along came the Internet, and now we know what Man is. He enjoys porn and photographs of cats on top of things. He spells definitely with an a, for the most part, and the possessive its with an apostrophe. On questions of great import or questions of scant import, he chooses sides based on what, and whom, choosing that particular side makes him feel like, and he argues passionately for his cause, all the more so after facts emerge to prove him a fool, a liar, and a hypocrite. If a joke or a turn of phrase amuses him, he repeats it, as if he thought of it, to others who then do the same. If something scares him, he acts bored and sarcastic.

That’s pretty much it for Man, it turns out after all the fuss. And so our robo-fear has become a robo-hope. Our dreams for ourselves are pretty much over, having been ended by the recent and vivid reiteration of the news that we really are just grubby and axcitable apes, incapable by our nature of even agreeing on a set of facts, let along working together to tray and change them….It’s already clear that we’re not building robots in our own image. We’re building them in the image of the people we wish we were….

You know I never quote extensively, but this seemed to speak to me. Then it turns out, this week in the Education Futures online MOOC, a free massive online class being led by Dave Cormier and George Siemens, the topic for this week is How Do People Decide? I would no longer answer this with a glib “Badly.”

While I understand the desire to do research and create formulas in order to enlighten us on this issue (see the assigned readings), I’m not sure it’s helpful in predicting the future. This is partly because, as a historian, I know the future is not really predicted anyway. Rather it is dreamed. Parts of the dream become reality as persistent, and often manic or obsessive, individuals, make it happen. Other parts are stored or forgotten (or both).

We do not get the future we expect, and many people have different and competing visions. For education, there is a dream of openness which reminds me of the Progressives pushing for mandatory public education from the 1880s to the 1920s. I thought of John Dewey, of whom I know little. When I looked him up on Wikipedia, I found a quotation of his that seems to be the same argument about pedagogy we have now:

The older type of instruction tended to treat the teacher as a dictatorial ruler. The newer type sometimes treats the teacher as a negligible factor, almost as an evil, though a necessary one. In reality, the teacher is the intellectual leader of a social group, He is a leader, not in virtue of official position, but because of wider and deeper knowledge and matured experience. The supposition that the teacher must abdicate its leadership is merely silly.

Elsewhere, I see the progressives who created public schools that allowed children to learn instead of work in factories referred to as both fascists (with reference to the KKK’s support of mandatory education) and socialists.

All education reformers have a vision of the future. The visions of those who would like to see Greek-style tutoring revived as an ideal form will be in conflict with those wanting free-form internet-based personal learning environments based on connectivist ideas. If history tells us anything, the “result” (assuming perhaps 25-50 years hence) will be neither, but some combination.

The industrial education model, with too many students and too many underpaid teachers and instructivist pedagogy, will likely continue to hold sway regardless. Why? Because we do not always represent, as Lincoln put it, the “better angels of our nature”. We foolishly regard convenience and the acquisition of personal property in the short term more highly than long-term sustainable goals that provide justice and comfort for all people. Perhaps the robots made in our better image of ourselves will create a better future, but as they too are manufactured by the obsessive Dr. Frankensteins of our age (and I mean that in a good way), I doubt they’ll replace our visions of what could be. Instead, the visions will guide small steps, incremental reform, a betterment so slow it may be hard for one generation to see. And that, I think, will have to do.

One thought on “Robots, Man and the Future of Education

  1. Is “robo-fear” really dead? And if it is dead is it dead forever? Part of the answer lies in Leo Marx’s Does technology drive history?: the dilemma of technological determinism which contains a chapter or two on American’s vacillating hopes and fears about technology from the colonial period to the late 20th century. If I remember Leo Marx’s argument, in the 20th century these fears in some ways became more acute in the wake of disasters like Bhopal, the Holocaust, and Rachel Carson’s silent spring. And Hollywood has certainly exacerbated these fears in dystopic movies like The Terminator, The Matrix and 2001 A Space Odyssey. Following Maddox, perhaps these fears are not as prevalent as they once were (wasn’t “Drill Baby Drill” a popular slogan for a while?) but I’m not sure they are gone for good.

    More topically, the spectre of robots and technology out of control is also a provocative framing device for making sense of our evolving attitudes toward technology in the university. I make an attempt to outline some of these issues in “Frankenstein in the University” (I hope you can forgive the personal plug: )….but of course much more could be said on the matter.


Comments are closed.