Philosopher Simon Glendinning reflects on the question of education in the technological era, drawing on Friedrich Nietzsche and John Dewey, he echoes Heidegger's concern of 'What really is happening in our age?', while asking whether it will overwhelm us or cultivate new heights and depths.
I want to begin this reflection on the question of education in the technological age by considering a text from 1955 by Martin Heidegger. It was delivered as a “Memorial Address” in his home town of Messkirch at an event marking the 175th birthday of the composer and his fellow townsman Conradin Kreutzer. Heidegger does not discuss education there, but he does articulate a conception of our “here and now”, which helpfully prefaces a consideration of that issue. The text will require careful handling. Heidegger’s view of modern technology strikes me as astonishingly prescient. However, it is also informed by his German exceptionalism, and his (in this text latent) anti-Judiaism; all in all prejudiced by what Derrida called his (Heidegger’s) “pathetic-fantasmatic-ideological-political investments” (Truth in Painting, 312). Nevertheless, in my view Heidegger’s attempt to get our time in view attests better than most, perhaps because of those problematic investments, to its distinctive character.
In that address Heidegger invites his audience to “dwell upon that which concerns us, each one of us, here, on this patch of home ground, and now, in the present hour of history”. Heidegger thinks that the “now” of our present hour of history is marked precisely by a distinctive “loss of rootedness”, the deracination of our lives from any “patch of home ground”, an uprooting from any definite “here”. In what follows I will try to introduce the problem this raises with respect to education. I should say at the start that I will not be able to do much more than introduce the problem. Nevertheless, I hope to lay out a challenge to thinking about this theme, which has trickled down through the twentieth century, and is now gathering its forces to either overwhelm us or to provoke us.
“What really is happening in our age?” asks Heidegger. Heidegger articulates the change he sees underway in terms of what he calls “a revolution in leading concepts”. The idea here is of a revolution in the most basic concepts, through which and in terms of which, we understand the world and the significance of our lives; the concepts which are fundamental to what he calls the pre-theoretical “understanding of Being” that has come down to us. It is a changeover from a conceptual formation that he regards as “traditional” to one that he calls “technological”.
This revolution, a movement that involves the radical wearing away of the traditional understanding, “developed in the seventeenth century first and only in Europe” but today, he suggests, it has grown worldwide and now “rules the whole planet”. And this revolution, the most fundamental revolution inside what we perhaps too casually call “the industrial revolution”, is not over. Even now something newly new is “beginning”:
Heidegger’s view of the history of (globalising) Europe is that it is characterised from its inception in classical Greek antiquity by the growth of a world-understanding, which draws human beings towards a distinctively scientific interest in everything that is, with the disclosed world understood increasingly as “the natural world” and ourselves as “natural creatures”. Hand-in-hand with this world-historical development is the growing prevalence of a “technological” mode of revealing everything. The point here is not simply that science delivers technological advances and new technological instruments and devices, but that our thinking and acting gets caught up in a world-understanding, which takes measurability, calculability and orderability (under orders, at our disposal) as criteria for the “objectively real”. This prevailing pre-theoretical orientation drives us towards ways of revealing reality that makes “nature” show up, and today to show up ever more exclusively, as what Heidegger calls “standing reserve”. In this prevailing set-up, the world-understanding that belonged to “the old rootedness” – to ways of living that had flourished on some “patch of home ground” – “is being lost”:
The language of roots and soil – and a corresponding anxiety regarding up-rootedness in the technological age – dominates Heidegger’s reflections. He quotes the poet Johann Peter Hebel approvingly: “We are plants”. I will try to graft a Nietzschean variant onto this fertile metaphor, but we should be prepared already to guard against Heidegger’s pathos-filled investments in it. What Heidegger picks up on in the movement of history into our time is the way the globalising technological age wears away the conditions, in which human beings had creatively “flourished” hitherto. However, his conception of the new more nomadic condition is freighted by his anti-Judaic investments, constantly figuring it as homeless, rootless, and even worldless (he stressed, for example, that “movies…give the illusion of a world that is no world.”). “Home”, for Heidegger, is always a “native home”, a “hometown” in a “homeland”, a people and a land, settled in a place, a “patch of home ground” where alone the plants that we are can flourish.
Flourishing, I want to say with Heidegger, does presuppose some kind of milieu which provides what we might call a “racinating function”. However, what we need to take our leave from is the disastrous temptation to represent every “nativisation” in “blood and soil” terms. Against Heidegger, I will want to affirm another nativisation – the being-at-home of a more cosmopolitan plant – that belongs, as Nietzsche stressed, to a human being who has achieved “independence of any definite milieu” (BGE, 153). I will describe this in terms of the new rootedness of what are today called “digital natives”. And the problem of education in an age, in which the old rootedness is being lost concerns, especially, them. It is not about how to offer young people the opportunity to flourish in the absence of rootedness, still less to celebrate a liberation from it. Rather, for me, the problem lies in simultaneously, appreciating that the old rootedness really is being lost, and calling ourselves to think whether “a new ground and foundation”, a new rootedness (no longer opposed now to every “nomadism”) can be cultivated in the environment of the massively delocalising forces of the newly new technologies, especially social technologies, and to consider the role of education in this context.
Heidegger had something to say on this too. In a lecture for science teachers that he delivered in the vocational school of the State Academy for the Continuing Education of Teachers seven years after the “Memorial Address”, Heidegger suggested that “the whole school system…lags behind with regard to the goal of its work in this age”. “It can be doubted”, he continued, “whether the talk about the professional training school, about general education, about education as a whole, still meets the circumstances that are formed by the technological age”.
What should we understand by the “goal” of the school systems work? Anticipating somewhat, I want to suggest that the goal of its work remains what it always had been: to cultivate the young plant “human being” so that it can flourish in its environment. Today we have the special question of how to cultivate such a plant in an altogether different environment from the traditional one, an environment in which the old rootedness is being lost, an environment which might even seem no longer an environment, no longer a soil in which to take root. I want now to turn to this question, and will connect the foregoing discussion with the ground-breaking work in educational theory by the American philosopher John Dewey in order to do so.
Heidegger stresses how far developments in the school system “lag behind” in taking into account the deracinating developments that concern him. However, changes in the school system were (as he indicates) certainly happening and, indeed, a transition from “traditional” to “modern” and “progressive” school systems was well underway when he was writing. Those changes were, in my view, profoundly caught up in and continuous with the more general cultural mutation in Europe’s globalising modernity that Heidegger attends to. This mutation is not only associated with ideas of scientific and technological “progress”, but also and equally with a political transformation that Nietzsche summarised (“without implying any praise or blame”) as “the democratic movement in Europe” (BGE, 153). As John Dewey saw, this general cultural situation gives the developments in education reform of this time a somewhat complex aspect, marked simultaneously by, as Dewey put it, two “tensional situations”: the first relating to the general cultural transition from traditional to scientific and democratic cultural ideals; the second relating to the transition from traditional to modern and progressive educational practices (Dewey, Lectures in Philosophy of Education, 1899).
Traditional education for young children in Europe (including as Nietzsche put it “the lands where Europe’s influence predominates” BGE, p. 106) can be broadly characterised in terms of a “rote school” or “three-Rs” system. Dewey’s basic claim is that the “tensional situation” concerning the transition from this traditional school system towards a more “modern” and “progressive” one must be seen “in the light of a larger social situation” arising from European and American scientific and political modernity. Educational reforms underway in the course of the industrial revolution belong inside a transition from the cultural reproduction of “the lore and wisdom” of the old “self-sufficient farm economy” towards a more scientific and technical approach in a new industrial and increasingly urban and democratic culture. Dewey clearly saw that the programme of the rote school was “bound to disintegrate” under the impact of the changing social situation. It is in this context that modern and progressive movements in education emerged.
Given Dewey’s sense of the historical specificity of the progressive education programme it is perhaps not surprising that his own reflections on educational reform are interesting and complex. Dewey is rightly regarded as a reformer in educational thinking. However, it is less frequently acknowledged that he refused to take sides in the debate between “traditional” and “progressive” educational theories. For Dewey, the merits of the latter lie in the way in which they foreground (in theory) the role of education in fostering the expression and cultivation of individuality in a democratic society. Dewey does not reject that ambition at all. However, as we shall see, he regards a central plank of the progressive programme as fundamentally inimical to achieving anything but a poor and vulgar variant of that goal.
Dewey’s principle objection to the progressive philosophy, and the basis of his further doubts about it, is that it is essentially “reactive”. It is constructed, that is to say, in simple negating opposition to tradition, rather than through the development of a positive basic idea of its own. “Departure from the old solves no problems”, says Dewey, and while he welcomes the new stress on student “personal experience”, he is especially critical of the progressive aversion to a teacher’s “control” and “authority” in the classroom, and its correlative emphasis on wanting to make school work enjoyable for children: “an experience may be immediately enjoyable and yet promote the formation of a slack and careless attitude”. This is a very attenuated and hollowed out kind of “individual”.
A good education should be “humane”, Dewey had no doubt about that. However, it should not be bent on indulging the children’s “internal” conditions. The over-indulged child, Dewy insists, will become an adult quite unlike his parents: competent only to “do what he feels like doing” and to avoid all situations “which require effort and perseverance in overcoming obstacles.” Dewey is particularly critical of short-sighted parents and teachers who were then “acting upon the idea of subordinating objective conditions to internal ones, subordinating everything in the school, that is, to the immediate inclinations and feeling of the young”. Dewey would have recognised Wittgenstein’s concern when, in 1948, he (Wittgenstein) observed that this progressive tendency was becoming increasingly prevalent: “at present a school is reckoned good ‘if the children have a good time’…There is supposed not to be any suffering – really it’s out of date” (CV, 71). I will come back to this unsettling and untimely opposition to present fashion later in this essay.
Heidegger had accepted that there was no question of abandoning technology, and he correctly foresaw that our lives would be increasingly caught up with newly new delocalising devises and social technologies. Nevertheless, despite his disastrous political investments, he remained open to the thought of creating a new “home ground” with technology, one that “might be fit to recapture the old and now rapidly disappearing autochthony in a changed form”.
Suspending Heidegger’s investments, perhaps we can make more progress on this question than he was able to do, and do so by construing the transition effected by the industrial revolution in a somewhat different way than he did: not as a transition from rootedness to a rootlessness that needs to be overcome but as a transition within a general space of nativisation. Indeed, today we already see the emergence of new forms of nativisation – the being-(at-home)-there with(in) technology that belongs to what have been called “digital natives”. Increasingly such natives no longer represent their roots as touching the soil of a definite milieu. As Heidegger anticipated, the newly new social and media technologies have powers of tele-mediatic delocalisation and virtualisation far beyond the old (generally national) forms. However, this does not mean that we have to regard the “works” of digital natives as being able to do without some kind of nativisation or racination altogether. This way of being-at-home with(in) technology might be thought, and seems to have been thought by Heidegger, fundamentally homeless, rootless and worldless. But, more than ever, we can think of this as a liberation from dangerous fantasies of pure “autochthony”, and not from nativisation as such, not from every racinating function.
The internet is also showing potential for the formation of free groupings, self-curated and roughly carved out spaces of what Wittgenstein had already called “scattered friends”. In this increasingly virtualised and indefinite way of being-there and being-with others perhaps, once more, a few “exalted spirits who can fly off on their own” (BGE, 165) can emerge – but no longer in the form of, say, new “national figures” but what Nietzsche conceived as a new “nomadic type of man” to come: individuals freed from dependence on a “definite milieu” and who would possess as a result the character of what are already called “cosmopolitan plants”, plants that can grow almost anywhere: individuals with “a maximum of the art and power of adaptation” (BGE, 154).
But there is a further attribute of this new type of creative “native” – a type Nietzsche baptised as the “good Europeans” – that returns us rapidly to the theme of education for young people. Nietzsche characterises the new “type of man” in terms of individuals for whom the call to self-responsibility is no longer “received almost as an offence” (105); those who can best resist the temptation to immediately “shift off” responsibility on to someone else (33), and who, moreover, are capable of “extending” their responsibility furthest (124). Such people, these new European cosmopolitan plants, would thus “turn out [to be of a type] stronger and richer than has perhaps ever happened before” (ibid). It is profoundly significant, I believe, that Nietzsche rests the success of this new development – the appearance of individuals with this “tremendous multiplicity practice, art and mask” (154) – on one principal factor: “the unprejudiced nature of his schooling” (ibid). I will conclude with a brief consideration of this idea.
How to grow the plant “human being” in the technological age? Perhaps we now have the outlines of the problem. As we have seen, the old school system was fitted to the world of a self-sufficient farm economy that has been worn away by globalising forces of tele-techno-mediatization and delocalisation. But the “progressive” backlash against that school system risks the worst. By switching like a solenoid in negating opposition to the old system, the progressives have introduced a new fashion for “immediately enjoyable” schooling that threatens only slackness and irresponsibility. And in the anonymity of masks that tele-media-technologies makes available to digital natives today isn’t this exactly what we see too often (and yet not always and everywhere) in today’s Twitter, Facebook, and other social and media technologies? It can all seem little more than a waste-land of self-indulgent and vulgar masked de-responsibilised souls.
Does Nietzsche’s reference to “unprejudiced schooling” point towards the possibility of something more refined? What would such an education be like? When Nietzsche turns to this issue in his early essay “On the Future of our Educational Institutions” (1872) he places special emphasis there on “instruction by which the teacher must accustom his pupils to severe self-discipline in the language”, and contrasts this with teaching which proceeds “as if one had no obligation to the present or the future of this language” (cited in EO, 21). He also stresses, like Dewey, that teaching intended to be enjoyable, agreeable and attuned to the “inclinations and feelings of the young” is not the thing: “Bildung [formative enculturation] begins with obedience [Gehorsamkeit], subordination [Unterordnung], discipline [Zucht] and subjection [Dienstbarkeit] (cited in EO, 28).
We are not used to hearing this sort of idea anymore, except perhaps from militaristic thugs and Nazis. However, reading this controversial Nietzschean text Derrida stresses that “it would be naive and crude” to read a Hitlerian or Nazi resonance in it simply on the grounds of its appeal to the need for discipline and a “grosse Führer” in teaching (EO, 28). On the other hand, Derrida does not want to make us comfortable here either, admitting that even if Nazism “far from being the regeneration called for by these lectures of 1872, were only a symptom of the accelerated decomposition of European culture and society as diagnosed, it still remains to be explained how reactive degeneration could exploit the same language, the same words, the same utterances, the same rallying cries as the active forces to which it stands opposed” (EO, 29).
To make some sense of this enigmatic and uncanny homonymic situation, we should note first a profound difference in Nietzsche’s conception of “unprejudiced schooling” to any national socialist – or indeed socialist – one. Specifically, Nietzsche does not conceive it as a formative enculturation that dispels ideological distortions that stand in the way of seeing the truth. Indeed, he explicitly rejects the idea that it is a matter of “knowing correctly” at all. His emphasis is rather on a particular form of intergenerational handing down, particularly with regard to language itself, “in which the pupil must learn to act correctly” (cited in EO, 22). This would en-able “gifted youth” (Nietzsche) with the being-able required to “mount from the depth” of his nativised condition “up into the ether, into the open realm of the spirit” (Heidegger).
This call for a Bildung that begins with obedience, subordination, discipline and subjection may be intended to cultivate self-responsibility and discipline in a person’s use of language. However, as I have indicated, as an educational policy proposal it runs up against the understandable anxiety that it uses the very same language as a call that would want, above all, to cultivate a passive and dependent type – what Nietzsche will later call “weak-willed and highly employable workers who need a master”, or “a type prepared for slavery in the subtlest sense” (BGE, 154). It is perhaps in view of this unsettling ambiguity of his own call that “Nietzsche expressly said that he would not want to see the text [of the lectures on “The Future…”] published, even after his death. What is more, he interrupted the course of this discourse along the way” (EO, 24). Nietzsche did not repudiate his thoughts on education, but came to see them as an “exhortation”, above all, to himself: “they call me to a duty and a task that are distinctly incumbent upon me” (cited in EO, 25).
How to educate oneself on the subject of education? Are there new possibilities of inheriting the task of “handing down the already spoken language” (Heidegger) that was so strenuously preserved in former times but which today – precisely because of the way the task of handing down is being handed down today – leaves the field wide open to its being used so “poorly and vulgarly” (cited in EO, 21)? What we mean by “handing down” is at stake. Let’s not take for granted that we know what “Bildung” demands of us. Nor should we assume that the call for obedience, subordination, discipline and subjection can only be thought symptomatically, that is to say, “poorly and vulgarly”, out of the mouth of a Nazi.
The “home-ground” of the digital native is radically transformed, virtualised and delocalised, in this age, and leaves our children increasingly vulnerable to temptations of irresponsible anonymity. This does not mean that it makes them fated to “rootlessness”. On the contrary, in the language that has been handed down to us, it also announces the possibility of a new nativisation with(in) technology that affords a new kind of flourishing. Digital nativisation, precisely because of the “multiplicity of masks” it makes available, threatens profoundly to de-constrain us: it is the perfect milieu for a kind of human being who indulges only in “doing what they feel like doing” and who simply avoids all situations “which require effort and perseverance in overcoming obstacles.” At the same time, however, it also offers the chance for gifted young people to develop the “maximum of the art and power of adaptation”, and to escape the ubiquitous forces of levelling mediocrity. Can education in the technological age cultivate this new plant --- or will it simply be the prep-school for ground-dwellers hiding behind more or less anonymous and increasingly vulgar masks?
It seems abundantly clear that the task of rethinking education in the age of tele-techno-mediatization and world-wide delocalisation has hardly begun. But we know already that the thinking that has come down to us from those who champion self-responsibility and self-discipline stands, above all, as Nietzsche put it, for the “opposite” of what “the apostles of ‘modern ideas’” (154) seem most to have cleaved to. For those apostles, as Nietzsche stresses in words that were later echoed by Wittgenstein, “suffering itself they take for something that has to be abolished” (54). Nietzsche too affirms that we are plants, and that the task of cultivation of young plants has, in one crucial respect, not changed at all despite the loss of the old rootedness: “We, who are the opposite of [these apostles of ‘modern ideas’], and have opened our eyes and our conscience to the question where and how the plant ‘man’ has hitherto grown up most vigorously, we think that this has always happened under the opposite conditions” (ibid). Uncomfortable, untimely meditations. Shall we, simply, duck them?