This article originally appeared on the Circe Institute website.
Efficiency might be the highest virtue of our age, but what does this do to the way we educate?
In his 1987 essay “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer,” Wendell Berry offers a rationale for his reluctance to make the transition from pen and paper to mouse and keyboard. Berry was only interested in technological change if it was as affordable, as compact, or as useful as his current technology. If new technology offers no clear advantages over traditional methods, why upgrade? He concludes his essay with a list of justifications for upgrading technology, and his final criterion is germane to education, especially in a civilization saturated with technologies of various stripes. Any newly adopted technology, he writes, “should not replace or disrupt anything good that already exists, and this includes family and community relationships.”
Berry may be referring to the kinds of complaints common in the modern debate: Technology distracts us from meaningful interaction; it makes unsavory content available to young and old alike; it changes the way our children process information and shortens our attention span. These complaints are legitimate. At times, however, the bristling angst about technological tools can conceal another, more subtle problem.
Technology is a physical tool, but its effects are not merely physical. In his analysis, Berry — like many others — treats technology as a tool, a physical object by which something is accomplished. While it is natural to think of technology this way, the mentality that technology cultivates in its users is more significant. To treat technology as merely a tool can cause us to overlook a “mentality of efficiency” that lurks in the mind and intentions of the user, a mentality that can dehumanize both teacher and student in a rush to arrive at a prescribed goal.
In our 21st-century civilization, technology causes affection for techniques. The French philosopher Jacques Ellul discussed technology and efficiency in The Technological Society (1964). He argues that 20th-century civilization was fundamentally different from all previous societies in a significant way. “Technical civilization,” Ellul wrote, is a civilization “constructed by technique . . . for technique . . . and is exclusively technique (in that it excludes whatever is not technique or reduces it to technical form)” (p. 128). For Ellul, technique is “the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency […] in every field of human activity” (p. xxv).
Our civilization is different from older civilizations in that ours holds a pervasive desire for efficiency in absolutely every domain of action and thought, right down to our relationships and morals. Efficiency is not only held as a virtue in and of itself, but it may also be regarded as the highest virtue.
I grant, as I believe Ellul would, that to qualify efficiency as good or bad in and of itself oversimplifies the issue. Efficiency can be a component of good stewardship if it eliminates needless waste: When a grain elevator in a factory runs efficiently, the hungry are fed. But schools are not factories — at least, they shouldn’t be. Modern industrial education — a model that extols standardized testing because it expediently provides evidence for a student’s skills and aptitudes — is a prime example of efficiency treated as the paramount virtue.
A parent who observes a child day-in, day-out, and walks him through each step in his education, gauging his readiness for new skills, doesn’t need a test to reveal the child’s strengths and weaknesses. The parent gleans this information gradually through a first-hand relational experience with the child. Critics might say that this relational method of evaluation is hopelessly inefficient. They are right. But this critique will trouble only those who believe that efficiency is a choice-worthy virtue in an educational relationship.
Efficiency-as-virtue can harm student-teacher relationships both in classrooms and in homeschools. All teachers are susceptible to the tyranny of the urgent. While this urgency comes from a teacher’s deep-seated desire to help his or her students grow, urgency can have the opposite effect and cause a child to wither. The greatest symptom of an efficiency mindset is the teacher’s frustration that her student is not “where he ought to be” at a certain point in the day or in the school year. Anxiety mounts in the teacher who presses the student to move along with the rest of the herd, regardless of whether he is ready or not.
Technology destroys education when it causes teachers and students to care more about getting results efficiently than about one another. If we allow efficiency to drive our relationships in education, we will not only leave behind our students but our humanity as well. The student who fails to embrace and understand a lesson in the prescribed timeline becomes a failure in his own mind. This can be devastating. And, if the teacher takes ownership of the student’s failure to conform to the timeline, then he may become distraught or angry. The student will learn from these kinds of exchanges that the measurable outcomes of education are what matter most. When we prioritize efficiency in our educational relationships, our student ceases to be a human being uniquely fashioned by God and, rather, becomes the slowest gear in the classroom machinery — not a soul, but an impediment.
Survey your own educational process and ask yourself: Do my epiphanies and intellectual breakthroughs conform to a prescribed timeline? Or, do these kinds of revelations tend to happen serendipitously?
What if we replaced the pseudo-virtue of efficiency with patience? Would the climate in a lesson change if we recognized that it is not by the teacher’s timeline but by God’s timeline that all students gain knowledge and wisdom?
Education is relational, and the final cause of relationships is service and love for one's neighbor, not efficiency. If these premises are true, then we, as classical educators in a society conditioned by technology to love efficiency, would be wise to review our attitudes about the value of efficiency in our educational relationships.
About the author:
Dr. Eliot Grasso is Provost of Gutenberg College where he teaches aesthetic philosophy and leads discussions on the Great Books. Eliot has taught in higher education for over a decade, and is an award-winning performer, recording artist, composer, and scholar of Irish traditional music. Eliot and his wife Kate homeschool their three children in Springfield, Oregon.