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Education and the Technological Society

The dominant groups of this society are, from the revolutionary point of view, elusive. They prefer the politics of influence and indirect power, rarely flaunt their privileges, and are open to new recruits. It has been a century since they have told the public where it can go. The lack of clearly defined enemies is tacitly recognized in the vocabulary of the rebels: the use of words like “dissent,” and of actions like “protest,” “resistance,” and “demonstration” are an admission that they are reduced to seeking targets of opportunity within a generally benevolent system. Because the liberal, affluent, technological society is characteristically bland, accommodating, and good-natured, it renders the revolutionary powerless, allowing him to act out, outrageously if he wishes, his subversive impulses, encourages him to theatrical revolution, which means that he can shock but never destroy.

The affability of the managers of technological society is encouraged by something more than the fact that they preside over an economy which supplies them, as no other ruling group has ever been supplied, with a generous margin or surplus so that concessions are always possible and mistakes always corrigible. What they have in addition is the enormous power—also without historical precedent—which accrues to those who control a society of consumers, a power owing as much to the powerlessness of the subjects as to the instrumentalities of the rulers. In all previous societies, powerlessness was the consequence of deprivation: deprivation of rights, privileges, property, work, education. Although pockets of material deprivation still exist, the main source of powerlessness is not deprivation but consumption. Technological society lives by consumption, and its members live for it. They allow the quality and tempo of their lives to be set by the changing requirements of technology. They above all acquiesce happily in the reduction of control over the quality and intensity of personal experience which is one of the fruits of technology.

Think of the American who comes to Yosemite in a camper truck with a boat on top, a motorcycle strapped to the front, and a power-boat trailered to the rear. He thinks he has expanded his range of action and his powers of enjoyment, whereas he has really become the prisoner of his technology, restricted to where it can take him and what it can bring him. He suffers a reduction in personal power and experience even while thinking he has extended them. It is instructive that in the same state of nature the sworn enemy of the camper trucker should end in the same state of powerlessness. Deep in the wilderness one may meet a bearded and beaded hippie, totally stoned, incapacitated from encountering nature on its terms. He has renounced the powerlessness of active consumption for the powerlessness of passive consumption.

The powerlessness of the many forms the larger setting for the powerlessness of the campus rebels. The dominant groups in our society do not fear the latter; on the contrary, they find much that is charming and usable in their dress, idiom, and eternal youthfulness—so much so that constant efforts are made to absorb the culture of the young. It may come out wrong, sometimes emerging as Playboy culture and commercial advertising. Yet, as we know from recent accounts, the gap between Mrs. Luce and the rebels is not always great. What does alarm the elites, and helps to explain their willingness to support harsh measures against the campuses, is the possibility that the antics of the rebels will intensify and ignite the deep-seated fears and hatreds of broad sectors of the population: urban workers of recent foreign origin, small-town America, and the less sophisticated middle classes in the South, Middle West, Southwest, and Southern California.

The dominant groups do fear polarization, but they fear one of the polarities—the student rebels—not so much for what it represents as for the forces it may activate. They fear the other for what it does represent. It brings reminders, often unattractive, of what technological society is always trying to forget and to destroy: its past—a past in which work, self-denial, simplicity, and physical strength were celebrated. Whereas the technological elites can share with the rebels a common fascination for electronic marvels and for the endless movement which modern communications and transportation allow, and can enjoy in private the pleasures which the rebels flaunt in public, those same elites are repelled by honkies, Southerners, and citizens of Orange County. But because they know that the real threat to technological society comes from those who are frightened and confused by incessant change, they are willing to sanction, perhaps reluctantly, firm measures against those who are hip, mod, cool, and really plugged into the future.

The fundamental malady of technological society, then, is the nearly universal sense of powerlessness, disguised as consumption and maintained by rising expectations. That sense of powerlessness is expressed in various ways: in the rage and confusion of the working and lower-middle classes; in the aimlessness of the middle-class hippie; in the despair of the poor and the anger of the blacks; in the fear and harshness of the American Gothics who rallied first to Goldwater and then to Wallace.

Among the many causes which promote our common futility there is one that has gone relatively unnoticed. We may be the first people to experience what it means to live in accordance with the fundamental postulates of the scientific and technological credo. It is one thing to talk, as philosophers and scientists have done for a century, about the differences between scientific beliefs and moral, religious, and political beliefs; about the objective status of the one and the subjective status of the other; about how the one is grounded in empirical realities and the other in prejudice, superstition, or metaphysics; and about how the one gives us power over nature and the future, while the other gives us only solace for our ignorance.

It is quite another thing when an entire society attempts to shape its life by scientific and technical knowledge, making that knowledge the very foundation for the continuance and the security of society, and encouraging its pursuit even to the point of sacrificing the welfare and shattering the memories and hopes of many of its citizens. It is quite another thing because that knowledge is, by the admission of its exponents, silent on the questions of how a man should live, and what he should choose. Those who have interpreted the meaning, presuppositions, and methods of scientific and technical knowledge have insisted that it cannot prescribe ends. They have also asserted that other forms of knowing whose business it is to traffic in “values” lack the characteristics of genuine knowledge, e.g., empirical verification, quantifiability, even rationality.

Once the scientific culture takes hold, there is a scramble to emulate it and thereby avoid the stigma of inferiority; hence its spread to the social studies, history, and the humanities. The end result is the divorce between knowledge and values symbolized by the underlying agreement between the techno-scientist and the hippie, the one declaring that values are subjective preferences, the other mumbling, “Man, I’m only doing my thing.” The end result signifies that values are no longer shareable as knowledge, and hence one gets only their functional equivalents: sensation, feeling, spectacle.

But if it is in the nature of the techno-scientific culture to render values private and unshareable, perhaps there is still hope. Perhaps there is one important value crucial to that culture and yet a value to which all can subscribe and even share, the value of knowledge itself.

Knowledge permeates the whole ethos and structure of technological society. This is what mainly distinguishes it from previous forms of society. Consequently, higher education plays a vital role. Its institutions have become the foundation of a society based on scientific knowledge. We must then ask two questions concerning the universities and colleges. Are they succeeding in making knowledge something that can truly be shared? Are they realizing the goal of making knowledge power and hence a means of overcoming human powerlessness?

At first glance it appears that the university has the prerequisites of a community held together by the active sharing of knowledge. Many of the conditions one would want to postulate seem fulfilled. For some time now public universities have been committed to opening their doors to a wide variety of groups and classes. Along with the private institutions, they are now making a serious effort to enroll sizable numbers of students from racial and ethnic groups. Within tolerable limits, the communities of higher education are open; and, despite mounting costs, education is relatively cheap and available. Beyond these and other material conditions conducive to sharing knowledge, there have been the great changes in the nature of knowledge, typified by modern science, which also seem to promote communal ends. Of the many things that might be said to characterize the modern ideal of knowledge, these are the least disputable: it is rational, secular, empirical, cumulative, and public. No secret mysteries, no fixed dogma, no priest-hood.

Thus modern knowledge appears uniquely designed to be the stuff from which communities of scholars and students might be formed. In addition, the modern idea of knowledge has promised to help men to a fuller measure of personal freedom, liberating them from ignorance and superstition, and enlarging the efficacy and power of the individual. Unlike those who had trafficked in metaphysics, theology, aesthetics, and the like, the modern man would know something that could be applied directly to the world. He could be equipped to move into the world, confident of his ability to make a place for himself where what he did would make a difference in shaping his life.

Yet when we look at what the modern ideal of knowledge has become in the university, we find that at every turn it threatens to diminish what it had promised to enlarge: freedom, efficacy, and sharing. The modern ideal is summed up in the slogan about the “knowledge explosion,” which the universities have done so much to detonate. So great is the proliferation of knowledge that the problem now is how to retrieve it from the swelling data banks where it is stored. Realistically, the “knowledge explosion” means that a few know a great deal about how nature and society “work,” while the rest of us are about as ignorant as we have always been. Further, as knowledge has become increasingly refined, it becomes more inaccessible to the many, more esoteric, more removed from the world of common experience.

Comparable effects have also been produced in the life of the university by the pursuit of knowledge as a form of power. Repeating the pattern of the outside world, a few university men enjoy great power, while the many are about as powerless as they have always been, perhaps more so. Power within the university depends upon the demands of the “knowledge-market” outside. Those in the university who have knowledge which is in demand, or, equally important, know how to organize those who do have it, come to have superior power and influence. Their superiority is exhibited in countless “special arrangements,” higher salaries, lower teaching loads, more research support, more spacious accommodations, and more influence in university councils.

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