The paradox of being fully human in a technological world: A sustainable future for education, Part 4

Our vision for education at Amesbury School is:

“that EVERY child will experience what it means to be fully human and continually fulfil his/her potential”.

Often when I share this vision, people’s eyes glaze over. Some will just smile politely, but more forthright ones will ask something like, “But what about national standards – shouldn’t your vision for education include something about student achievement?” When that happens, I am always caught off guard, surprised that people think our vision is too fluffy and not concrete enough, because we, at Amesbury School, experience our vision as a hugely pragmatic, concrete and incredibly difficult undertaking as we try to put it into practice. It requires us to do things that we have not been at all well prepared for as teachers, and, which the “institutional” aspects of being a school continually militate against.

Though the idea of a humanising education, which is encapsulated in our vision, has been around for a long time, it has never really become mainstream. The humanisation of education, for which John Dewey was a great proponent, was central to the progressive education movement in the 1940s in America. But it did not take off. This is not surprising given how influenced we have been, and still are, by industrial, formal (Piagetian), 20th century thinking (see my article). Being fully human has little to do with industrial thinking which was focused on reducing things to their component parts rather than treating people as whole and contextually located.

I have always believed in our vision for education – after all, I penned the words that reach for what we, as a school community, said we wanted for our children; and, in spite of the language used still not being particularly embraced, I have never been more sure than I am today, that it is exactly the right vision, not just for our school community, but for the complex times in which we live. This was brought home to me recently when I read Harari’s, “The Rise of the Useless Class”. In this article Yuval Noah Hararisuggested that, perhaps, the most important economic question likely to be asked in the 21st century will be, “What should we do with all the superfluous people, once we have highly intelligent non-conscious algorithms that can do almost everything better than humans?” He suggested that it is becoming increasingly easy to replace humans with computer algorithms and that, as a result, we may witness the creation of “a massive new unworking class: people devoid of any economic, political or even artistic value, who contribute nothing to the prosperity, power and glory of society….This “useless” class will not merely be unemployed – it will be unemployable.”

Artificial intelligence is dramatically changing the future. Many of the jobs currently done by humans now, will, in a few short decades, be able to be done much more accurately and efficiently by machines programmed with algorithms. Some futurists(fatalists?) have suggested that humankind will come to the end of its potential and superior machines will take over the world. Harari suggested, “The idea that humans will always have a unique ability beyond the reach of non-conscious algorithms is just wishful thinking.”

Derek Wenmoth in his Blogpost asked the important question: “What if all of this is really true?” What is our response as the human species? Are we going to sit with our heads in the sand pretending that we are not living in a time of epochal change that requires a response from us?

Are we going to escape into the world of Virtual Reality with its invitation to create worlds that are just how we would like them and become Gods in our own individual VR lives?

Are we going to continue to be the most connected generations (via social media), but not actually be connecting, resulting in loneliness being rampant in the western world (The Australian Financial Review, 11 May, 2012). Like Hugh Loebner, is our idea of a utopian future one in which unemployment rates are nearly 100% and virtually all human endeavour and industry is outsourced to intelligent machines? (Christian, 2011). What is the next evolution of humankind? As educators, what is our response to be? Are we going to continue to “do” education as we have always done it regardless of the future? Sadly, the reality seems to be that little is really, deeply changing in our schools (See Wenmoth’s Blogpost).

Personally, I don’t believe that the idea that humans will always have a unique ability beyond the reach of non-conscious algorithms is just wishful thinking.My faith leads me to a different conclusion. However, at the very least, let’s find out. I believe our response to the times in which we live, needs to be to urgently ask ourselves the question, “What does it means to be human?” Abraham Maslow (Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs) suggested that the highest need of mankind is to “become fully human”. So, an even more important question to ask is, “What does it mean to be fully human?” We need to explore whether we are maximising (or continually fulfilling) our potential as a human race and whether we can continue to evolve?

In his first book, Steve Tobak, Silicon Valley management consultant and former senior executive, argued that in increasingly digital times, it becomes more important than ever to be human. He said, “Now more than ever we need a renewed sense of humility and genuine self awareness.” In The Most Human HumanBrian Christian suggested that being human is “more than showing up” and that the recent advances in artificial intelligence provide us with the opportunity, “to rethink what it means to be human, and what it means to be intelligent in the twenty-first century.” He asks an interesting question, “does the fact that computers are so good at mathematics in some sense take away an area of human activity, or does it free us from having to do a nonhuman activity, liberating us into a more human life?” (Christian, 2011, p. 13). Here he is alluding to the fact that, perhaps, being human is less about what we do and more about who we are and how we be. Artificial intelligence, he suggested, can enrich human life by illuminating what is distinctive about human intelligence.

Thus, the times in which we live provide an opportunity – not to escape from the real world - but to run towards our humanity and embrace it more fully – whatever that looks like. We have an opportunity to reframe or reimagine what being human in the 21st century is, just as we need to reimagine what it means to be a human teacher in the 21st century and reframe education as a humanising endeavour in which students experience what it means to be more fully human and continually fulfill their potential. Hence, my view that our vision for education is exactly right for this time and this space.

So what does it mean to be human?

There are a number of ways of thinking about what it means to be human. Brian Christian suggested that our most human abilities are to learn, to communicate, to intuit and to understand. It is these human abilities, he said, that we need to understand, enhance and grow in order to become more fully human. Nietzsche suggested a coherent sense of identity is one aspect of what makes us uniquely human; and many philosophers, such as Parker Palmer, acknowledge our propensity towards the polar opposites of strength and weakness as a central aspect of what it means to be human.

(For further discussion of what it means to be fully human, please follow thislink)

I think the rise of computers need not be a threat to the human sense of self or to the very existence of humankind. Rather, it provides an opportunity to become much clearer about what it is that makes us different from machines and what it is that makes us uniquely human. The conversation about what it means to be human has been going on among philosophers for eons. However, it is certainly time for it to move into the mainstream and gain momentum… now.