Acton Institute Powerblog

‘Forgetfulness in the learners’ souls’

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A most worthy piece in The New Atlantis by Matthew B. Crawford, “The Computerized Academy,” examines some of the implications of computerization and technological advance on the traditional liberal education.

Among the important trends that Crawford observes is the application of a consumer/producer relationship model between student and teacher. This trend is facilitated by technological advances, especially the free flow of information possible on the Internet. But Crawford wonders “what education will become—or already is—when it becomes so sensitive to the demands of those who are not yet educated.”

Here’s a key paragraph on this point:

Ideally, a teacher’s judgment about what is good for you is not colored by what is immediately pleasant for you. But increasingly, what is good for the teacher (professionally) is determined by what is immediately pleasant for the student. The career incentives for professors can be managed to some extent by judicious deans and department chairs, for example, by norming a professor’s teaching evaluations against his or her grade distribution and the demands of the course, so that tough grading and a choice of difficult material, even if penalized by students in their evaluations, will not be allowed to threaten a professor’s tenure prospects. Absent such a contrarian, clear-eyed defense of excellence by those in charge, all the pressures on a professor tend toward dumbing things down: giving fewer assignments (less work for him), grading generously (less whining and pleading from students), and choosing subjects that are not too remote from the students’ experience (a sure path to popularity). Since that prior experience is constituted to a large degree by mass forces, there is a certain uniformity of perspective and taste that begins to assert itself in the curriculum.

I have noticed an analogous situation asserting itself in the congregational life of churches. A certain measure of independent authority is necessary for a pastor to properly exercise his ministry. This is true in the same way that “in the more interpretive disciplines of the humanities and social sciences, the initial disorientation cuts at passionately held certainties of the present; a teacher can challenge students in this way only if he has a certain independence from them, and only if he is able to speak authoritatively.”

Crawford gets at many more important developments flowing out of and catalyzed by technological innovation and computerization. One final important point is on the mechanical nature of much scientific research done these days via computer.

Crawford writes that “when our knowledge of nature reaches the limits of our ability to do symbolic math, further advance requires the brute force of number-crunching, which is literally a mechanical process.” The computer that allows such complex calculations to be performed is at the same time a force that pushes towards programming and away from scientific thought. Crawford states, “My point is not to suggest that the use of computers in science is somehow wrong, but rather that those (mostly grad students) who have been consigned to spend most of their time programming are missing out on the full experience of doing science…. one may speculate that in the future the sciences might attract a different sort of student. This student is not so much curious about the world he sees around him (he spends most of his time at his terminal) as he is entranced with the feeling of his own competence at manipulating code. This would be a disposition more willful than receptive, and by that token perhaps more deeply technological.”

Again, with the blessing of technological innovation comes a corresponding threat of and temptation to sloth. Socrates notes this in Plato’s Phaedrus with the innovation of the written word, when he relates the mythical origins of the Egyptian language.

SOCRATES: …when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • David Michael Phelps

    Having recently left the classroom, I can attest that this consumer mentality amongst students is very real. It got so bad, that I started even my first semester freshmen classes with the C.S. Lewis essay “Lilies that Fester” which warns against promoting education primarily as a means to power (notice how many recent T.V. ads plug their school as the most efficient means to a better job and more control over your life). Lewis warns that when students begin to view education as primarily a means to power, they will learn to ‘sound’ educated and will refrain from putting in the work that actually benefits them. As a result, we will have an entire generation of ‘power-holders’ who are in the position to make educational policies, but who a) aren’t educated enough to do so (but they sound like it), and more dangerously, b) THINK they are educated enough to make effective policies. If this essay is not a prophecy that has been fulfilled in recent years, I don’t know what is.
    From personal experience, I have noticed more and more students who view education as something they are given instead of something they achieve. Tragic and ultimately, extremely dangerous: such a mindset leads to a sitution where the people with the power are elitist dunces. Hmm…