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Jack Whelan: Can Humanism Prevail Over the Technocracy?

By Anthony Cody — April 27, 2013 8 min read
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Guest post by Jack Whelan.

[W]hat is at issue here is evaluating the danger of what might happen to our humanity in the present half-century, and distinguishing between what we want to keep and what we are ready to lose, between what we can welcome as legitimate human development and what we should reject with our last ounce of strength as dehumanization. I cannot think that choices of this kind are unimportant. --Jacques Ellul

I have come to look at schools as a critical focal point in the fight for the soul of the nation. Our schools are foundational for our cultural life, and so much depends on our having a flourishing, humanizing public-education system. The battle over the schools is a microcosm of the battle that is going on everywhere else, but which most people feel too powerless to fight. Maintaining local control of our public schools system is essential for enabling even the possibility of such a fight.

Most people understand that it’s not good for their kids to have their schools run like the big corporation or governmental agency that they or their neighbors work for. They understand that it’s not good for their kids to have their schools turned into testing mills with a narrowly focused curriculum. But too many do not yet realize that it is critical for them to organize to fight off the aggressive, well-funded efforts by national corporate-reformers to destroy local control and democratic accountability and recreate public school in their own image.

If public-school education is a critical battleground for the soul of the nation, who are the combatants? I see them as broadly falling into two camps: technocrats and humanists. Let’s define terms. I mean ‘humanist’ in the broad sense as the affirmation of the value and dignity of particular, individual human beings and of their individual potential to become more densely realized as a Selves in community with other Selves. This contrasts with the technocratic tendency to see humans as abstractions in the aggregate, as data points on a spread sheet.

I also mean ‘humanism’ in its more common meaning as the study of the humanities, that is, the study of the human condition--history, languages, literature, philosophy, religion, the arts--and the free-ranging quest for knowledge through the sciences. I mean it in the classical, renaissance sense, in which humanist thinkers revolted against the utilitarian, dead, mechanistic scholasticism that had rigidified learning in the universities in the late 14th and early 15th centuries. Renaissance humanism was full souled; it concerned the whole human being, and it laid the foundation for a remarkably spirited efflorescence in literature, the visual arts, architecture, science, and scholarship that we now associate with the quattrocento in Italy, and later in the low countries and England.

The European renaissance was one of those moments in which the whole human being--as embodied, ensouled, and spirited was celebrated. Leonardo’s and Michelangelo’s genius would not have been realized had this underlying rich, deep understanding of the human and of human possibilities not been the soil from which they drew nourishment for their development.

Our culture no longer produces such great souls--at least none that are widely recognized. It produces plenty of smart people but few, if any, who could be called “big souled”. Can you name one person born in the developed world since World War I who 500 years from now will be ranked at the same level of greatness with Leonardo, Michelangelo, Goethe, Bach, Beethoven, Lincoln, Tolstoy, Dostoyevski, to name just the ones that come quickly to mind? The only two I can think of who come close are Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, and neither represents a typical 20th-Century, developed-world upbringing. And the one we killed, and the other we threw into prison for twenty-seven years. What then are the conditions that allow for the emergence such human beings? What is it about our culture now that seems to impede their emergence? What is wrong with us?

This Renaissance lasted for about 150 years, drying up around the time of Descartes and the subsequent obsession with a constrained, rationalistic need for certainty and measurement. Romanticism and German Idealism revived something of the full souled renaissance spirit, but it was quickly quashed after the mid-19th century as an anti-humanist, soul-crushing, reductionistic materialism came to dominate Western societies. The collective meaning framework of the West was shattered, and with that followed in the 20th century the loss of a broad cultural sense of purpose or of higher aspiration.

That is now our condition as diffident, no-longer-moderns. There was the Age of Faith, then the Age of Reason, and now we have devolved into the Age of Whatever, and the cultural vacuum created where there was once a soul is now filled with the craving to consume. And so everywhere the forces for the soulful ‘human’ are in retreat. A basic human decency still pervades the culture, but there is no greatness anymore, no big souls, only the parody of greatness in celebrityhood or in corporate buccaneering. That’s what’s wrong with us.

So then, what of technocracy and why is it a problem that should concern us? What are the characteristics of the technocratic mindset that pose such a serious threat to the soulful human? The technocratic mindset feels at home in governmental, corporate, and foundation bureaucracies. It is procedure oriented and lacks practical wisdom or adaptability to the unforeseen or the uncontrollable. It is mentality obsessed with measurement: if it cannot be measured it does not exit.

Large organizations are hierarchical, and they attract ambitious people who seek to climb to the top. It recruits the best and brightest, but filters out anyone who would challenge its narrowly defined assumptions. The people who succeed in rising into positions of leadership are Hi-IQ, very articulate, and have been promoted precisely because of their aggressiveness and confidence in promoting the technocracy’s mission. Their success within the parameters defined by the technocracy’s mission has reinforced their self-perception as the best and the brightest, and this breeds in them a we-know-better arrogance, and so they are too often contemptuous at worst, patronizing at best, of anyone who disagrees with them, especially if they are “soft” humanistic types.

Technocracies as systems are very uncomfortable with what they cannot control or predict. They therefore see the lively, eccentric, and unpredictable as irrelevant or as a problem to be eliminated. It revels in the general, and is allergic to the concrete and particular. It cares about the abstract and quantitative and regards the qualitative as soft, unmeasurable, and thus trivial. As Ian McGilcrhist points out, it lives within a rigid template of reality, in its own mirror world, and anything that doesn’t fit gets chopped off.

And so technocratic projects are always naively, if not cynically, “data driven”. Naive because technocrats don’t understand the limitations of the impoverished interpretive framework they use to find meaning in the data, and they don’t understand how irrational interests shape their supposedly rational methods. They are cynical when they know their interpretations of the data are arbitrary or manipulated to serve predetermined agendas. While they present themselves as “impatient optimists”, they too often develop elaborate and fundamentally wrongheaded, if not delusional, strategies to change the world for the better by some limited metric of their own contrivance, and in doing so too often create even bigger messes than the one they hoped to clean up.

This is the mindset that supported, for idealistic reasons, the invasion of Iraq and is also the mindset that makes it impossible for those who have it to see that they were wrong until the evidence is overwhelming and incontrovertible. It’s the mindset of economists who believe in things like perfectly competitive markets and have a hard time understanding why reality won’t conform to their theories. Technocratic thinking starts with an abstraction, and then insists that the world conform to it, and if it won’t do it willingly it will use force if it can.

It’s the driving force behind idealistic social engineering projects that so often lead to destructive, bloody ends.

These impatient optimists, all with the best of intentions, in extreme cases gave us Vietnam, the Cultural Revolution in China, the Terror in France, and the Spanish Inquisition. It’s the abstract, delusional thinking behind the idea that there can be a war on drugs or that all kids who live in poverty can succeed academically if we improve their teachers without changing their life conditions outside of the school building. It’s the McDonald’s mentality that wants to standardize everything so the hamburger you get in Dayton, Ohio, is the same one you get in Anchorage, Alaska. But our kids are not hamburgers or widgets or anything that should be treated in a standardized way. Don’t be confused by the humanistic rhetoric of technocrats. Look at their policies. Obama talks like a humanist, but Duncan’s policies are technocratic through and through.

No, our culture no longer produces great souls--we produce instead celebrities, experts, and technocratic warlords like Bill Gates, Dick Cheney, and Michelle Rhee. They are in their own minds right, and everyone else wrong. They don’t realize, however, that they are working with only half a brain, hypertrophied though that half might be. They have their arguments, and some of them are very clever if you accept their basic assumptions, but how do you talk to someone about an alternative vision that embraces the beauties of red and green and blue when he is colorblind and thinks that anybody who isn’t is crazy?

What do you think? Can we build a humanistic vision for education that can prevail?

Jack Whelan teaches Strategic Communications at the Foster School of Business at the University of Washington. He ran for and lost his race for a position on the school board for Seattle Public Schools in 2011.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.