Plato Meets Technology

By David Walsh

From the Washington Post, Tuesday, September 14, 1999.

Recently I welcomed the crop of new freshmen to our department. As I looked over the roomful of attentive faces it struck me again what a wonder teaching is. Despite all our sophisticated technology, despite the dazzling array of communication media available to us, we still end up following the same model as Plato and his students in the Academy.

Direct human contact is the essence. A teacher surrounded by students remains the only way in which education in the full sense takes place. We need more than the bare bones of information, and we cannot absorb raw data. Only if it is in the context of a meaningful human interaction can it really form as well as inform us.

This of course is the essential reason why college costs so much. There have been few productivity improvements in over two millennia. Information technology has advanced dramatically, but the ultimate recipients of information have hardly changed at all.

Humans cannot simply be plugged in and turned on. We lack the capacity of our computers to receive and manipulate data on command. Quite literally we are unable to take in meaningless information. Just try remembering a paragraph or even a sentence of nonsense syllables. But that is what our machines can do endlessly, effortlessly and with increasing rapidity all the time. No wonder we often feel dim-witted in the presence of these electronic marvels, or at least until we remember that we alone know what the results mean. Appearances notwithstanding, the machine ultimately serves man.

For that reason the machine cannot really accelerate or replace the human educational process. Learning must still occur within a human framework and at a human pace. This is why we still have colleges, as well as schools of all kinds. We live in a human space where proximity between teacher and students makes tangible communication possible. Body language, tone of voice, personality and emotion are all indispensable elements in the formal activity of instruction. More than the facts, we need that elusive intimation of how they are to be received, comprehended and evaluated. Teachers convey more than the subject matter under discussion. No matter what the topic they also embody something of what it means to be a human being.

Nor can the process be hurried. Human learning occurs within time and requires a pace that can hardly be made more efficient. Courses last for a semester, more or less, and they accumulate into the years of a college education. Some modest gains in efficiency can be made by increasing the ratio of students to teachers or by compressing the periods of instruction into longer blocks of time. But there are distinct limits and they are soon reached. A decline in the quality of education is encountered when students can hardly even see their teacher or they no longer have the time to learn.

In the academy, technology plays a prosthetic rather than an integral function. The availability and manipulation of data in different modes and with greater economy is certainly a boon. But it remains ancillary to the central concern of understanding. Our task is not just to amass facts but to locate them in a meaningful whole. Then they are more than a jumble of bits of information; they cohere into an intelligible unity. It can even happen that the wizardry of our ability to retrieve and manipulate data becomes an obstacle to the goal of reaching insight. But we soon discover the futility of technology as an end in itself. Only if technical abilities are anchored in an understanding of ourselves and the world does it serve any purpose.

Wisdom may be an overworked depiction of what a liberal education is all about, but it surely points us in the right direction. Information is important in every subject matter, but it can hardly be absorbed by us if it is not perceived within a meaningful whole. In contrast to our machines we are incapable of processing bits. Only what forms part of a larger picture can readily be perceived by us. We are made for understanding, putting it all together and standing apart from what is contemplated. Machines may vastly extend the reach of our knowledge and control of reality, but they are really only useful to us. Computers are not really in search of knowledge; it is only we who are driven by that goal. To the extent that both we and the goal have remained the same, the process of reaching it must also remain largely unchanged.

The writer is a professor of politics at Catholic University.