Let Me Breathe the Water: Learning, Technology, and the Search for a Good Drink

Andrew Kern explains the importance of careful judgment in deciding whether a given technology extends or replaces a God-given faculty.

It is the part of the wise man to order and to judge.
— Thomas Aquinas

Having loaded my dishwasher, microwaved my coffee, and drifted over to my computer-desk to type this article (forcing me to turn off my Mp3 Latin course) my reflections on the benefits of technology fill me with gratitude.

Think of it: candles have been replaced by bulbs, quills by pens, animal hides by bleached tree pulp (paper), and paper by electronic bytes. Technology has promised an improved world since “Adam delved and Eve did span.” And who can deny that it has often delivered? Who would want to live in a world without ploughs and looms, horns and harps?

Yet, each of us has an uneasy relationship with our cars, computers, iPhones, and iPads. Enjoying and fearing them, we rightly view our tools as a form of fire: desirable, but by no means safe. Storytellers, after all, have been replaced by televisions, symphonies by CD’s, teachers by textbooks.

What then are we to make of technology in our schools?

In his book, Norms and Nobility, David Hicks provides perspective by reminding us that, “Our fascination with technical means, by the very nature of things, subverts the supreme task of education—the cultivation of the human spirit: to teach the young to know what is good, to serve it above self, to reproduce it, and to recognize that in knowledge lies this responsibility. Short of accomplishing this task, the training in our schools must seem purposeless.”

Since “the supreme task of education” is “the cultivation of the human spirit”, short of which our teaching is “purposeless,” and since we can neither uncritically embrace each new technology nor reject technology in toto, how must we decide what to use, where, and how? Is there a standard or purpose that enables us to think wisely on this matter? There is, and Hicks has expressed it for us. To reformulate his insight, we must ask whether the use of a particular technology undercuts or sustains the cultivation of particular human virtues in particular students in particular circumstances. This requires judgment.

Indeed, it may be that technology compels us to remember what we would rather forget. Rules and permissions can set context and parameters, but when they stand in for judgment, they become glib, unhelpful, and annoying. Policies are necessary, but they are not sufficient. We need wisdom.

For one thing, wisdom perceives an important distinction. She sees that some uses of technology extend human faculties while other uses replace them. A piano or a harp offers the musical faculty an opportunity for sublime and creative expression. Telescopes and microscopes extend the reach of the eye.

A calculator in the hands of a third grader, however, does not extend the undeveloped faculty of addition and subtraction. It replaces it. A keyboard in the hands of a child who has not yet developed what used
to be called a “hand” does not extend that child’s ability to extend his ideas and personality onto paper through a pen. It replaces it. Once the child has mastered the arts of calculating with his mind or forming letters with his hand, a calculator and a keyboard will have their place. Any earlier, they undermine the development of a unique God- given character and personality.

To reduce this point to a principle: if you use a technology to replace a human faculty, the human faculty will atrophy. If you remain unconvinced, try walking around on crutches for a few weeks. This distinction between the two general effects of technology on the human faculties (extension or replacement) combined with the principle of atrophy are tools that enable us to better judge the place and use of technology.

In addition, wisdom takes a long view on everything, including technology. For this reason, reflection on the appropriate use of technology extends through human history. That long reflection should inform ours today. Some of the best insights were raised as long ago as Classical Greece, when the Socrates of Plato’s Phaedrus expressed his concerns about the art of a relatively new technology in his day: writing. In particular, he was concerned about the effect of the technology of writing on the faculty of memory.

A longish extract follows because it offers so many layers and dimensions of insight and repays a close and repeated reading. Plato quotes Socrates:

There is something yet to be said of propriety and impropriety of writing…. I have heard a tradition of the ancients… At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth… and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters.

Now in those days the god Thamus was the king of the whole country of Egypt; …. To him came Theuth and showed his inventions, desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit
of them; he enumerated them, and Thamus enquired about their several uses, and praised some of them and censured others, as he approved or disapproved of them.

It would take a long time to repeat all that Thamus said to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts. But 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.

This ironic criticism of writing spoken by Socrates and written by Plato reminds us that the human faculties of memory and wit held an esteemed place among the Greeks, so much so that Socrates may have been willing to resist writing technologies in order to preserve them. Socrates intuited what Christians should know deeply: that every human faculty is a God-given gift to be cherished and husbanded. That is why appreciation of the faculty of memory and concern over the effect of writing technologies extended well into the late Middle Ages. Indeed, when the Medieval schoolmen defended writing, the core of their argument was that writing could be used to extend and fortify the scholar’s memory.

Their vision of the value of memory is breath- taking, as described by Mary Carruthers in The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture. “The primary factor in its conservation lies in the identification of memory with creative thinking, learning (invention and recollection), and the ability to make judgments (prudence and wisdom).” Compare this understanding of the uses of memory with the conventional attitude. Then ask: with which do my thoughts and practices more closely align?

Further, a well-trained memory was seen as an intellectual virtue that served as a foundation for moral virtues. Carruthers says, Memoria was also an integral part of the virtue of prudence, that which makes moral judgment possible. Training the memory was much more than a matter of providing oneself with the means to compose and converse intelligently when books were not readily to hand, for it was in trained memory that one built character, judgment, citizenship, and piety.

And again, “To form one’s character and furnish one’s memory – they were the same goal in educational practice and philosophy from antiquity throughout the Middle Ages (and indeed well into the twentieth century).”

This is not meant to be a digression on the virtue of a trained memory and its relation to writing. Rather, it serves as an example of how to think rightly about the use of technology and learning. The Medieval educators gave us the golden age of memory because they regarded it as a divine gift, not a mere tool with which to collect and sort facts. To Medieval thinkers, the question was not whether technology would make life easier, but whether it would cultivate or enfeeble the virtues.

Consequently, if the new writing technologies were going to be accepted, they had to show that they would not undercut the human faculty of memory. According to Carruthers, the Medieval educators concluded that they passed the test. “Writing, as we have seen, was always thought to be a memory aid, not a substitute for it.”

Whether they were right matters less than that they cared so much about the human faculty. This concern arose from their understanding that man is the Image of God and that a virtue is a refined faculty. What other divine gifts do we neglect in our quest to stay current or even to be accepted by a world we renounce? Things are different now. Forgetting that we are the Imago Dei, conventional educators neglect the Divine gift of memory and don’t ask if the new technologies or techniques will strengthen or weaken it. More than that, virtue simply does not matter as much as ease.

We live in the golden age of comfort and convenience. We are convinced that if something makes life (or teaching) easier, it is, by definition, good. This is not so. Our goal cannot be to make grammar or Latin or Geometry or any other art or science “easy.” They are, by nature, not easy. It is their difficulty that makes learning them so valuable.

If you learn an art (e.g. rhetoric, logic, geometry) or study a science (e.g. physics, ethics, philosophy) according to its nature, you will better understand the world you live in. More importantly, you will refine your God-given gifts of attentiveness, recollection, contemplation, expression, and naming, thus becoming more like our attentive, remembering, delighting, creating, and naming God. If you replace that nature-based study with a technological substitute, you will lose all those benefits while you fail to cultivate wisdom, virtue, and the Image of God in your student.

So here is my glib summary: When a technology helps your students become more like Him, use it. When it interferes, set it aside.

Technologies are powerful and dangerous gifts that must be handled responsibly. Rules and permissions won’t suffice. A purposeful, gentle wisdom that seeks to cultivate virtue in students will remember that our use of a tool can either extend or replace a human faculty. Used wisely, a given technology can cultivate a faculty so that it becomes a virtue.

Wisdom never undercuts the cultivation of the virtues on which she depends. She labors endlessly to guide her votaries to refine their God-given abilities to a pitch of excellence. She attends to the particular gifts, inclinations, temptations, and needs of the child before her. And she groans like a mother in labor to see Christ formed in him.

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