I was educated in public schools by dedicated teachers in the pre-digital age. My teachers read books to me and had me read books. I learned math, partly by rote, but also through friendly student competitions. Science I learned by doing, like chemistry with Bunsen burners and test tubes. I had classes in art and music, and even though I had little talent in drawing or playing an instrument, I still learned to appreciate both subjects. My high school was big and diverse, so I took electives in courses I really enjoyed, like science fiction, photography, even a course in aquariology, in which I built my own aquarium. And I must say I’m glad there wasn’t the distraction of Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and similar social media sites to torment me; video games, meanwhile, were in my day still crude, so I spent more time outside, playing tennis, riding my bike, hanging with friends, being in the world and nature (fishing was a favorite pursuit).
When I was a teen, we learned a lot about history and civics and the humanities. We spent time in the library, researching and writing. I took a debate course and learned how to construct an argument and speak before an audience. When I graduated from high school, I felt like I had a solid grounding: that I knew enough to make educated choices; that I could participate as a citizen by voting intelligently when I was eighteen.
Something has happened to education in America. You can see it in the big trends that are being hyped, including STEM, vocational training, computers and online courses, and privatization (charter schools). What suffers from these trends is the humanities, the arts, unionized teachers, critical and creative thinking skills, and, most especially, civics and ethics.
STEM is all about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. My BS is in mechanical engineering and I love science and math, so I’m sympathetic to STEM classes. The problem is how STEM is justified – it’s usually couched in terms of keeping America competitive vis-à-vis other nations. STEM is seen as a driver for economic success and growth, a servant of industry, innovation, and profit. It’s not usually sold as developing critical thinking skills, even though STEM classes do help to develop such skills.
From STEM we turn to vocational training. Many students seek a career, of course, and not all students wish to go to a four-year college, or to college period. But once again vocational training is mainly justified as a feeder to business and industry. It’s often reduced to education as training for labor, where the primary goal is to learn to earn. It may produce decent plumbers and welders and electricians and the like, but also ones who are indoctrinated to accept the system as it is.
In The Baffler, Tarence Ray has an article, “Hollowed Out: Against the sham revitalization of Appalachia.” Ray critiques ARC (the Appalachian Regional Commission) in the following passage that resonated with my own experiences teaching at a vocational college:
“The ARC [in the late 1960s and early ‘70s] also placed a lot of emphasis on career and vocational education. This appealed to President Nixon, who was desperate to counteract the student activism of antiwar and environmental groups. ‘Vocational education is more politically neutral,’ one White House aide put it. But it was also advantageous for the multinational corporations who controlled Appalachia’s coal resources and most of its institutions of power–the goal was to create a workforce that was skilled but also obedient. An education in the humanities emphasizes critical thinking, which might lead to political consciousness, a risk that the ARC could not afford to take.” [emphasis added]
My dad liked the historical saying, the more things change, the more they stay the same. A vocational education sounds good, especially to those in power. Doubtless young people need marketable skills. The shame of it all is that the final “product” of vocational colleges–skilled graduates who are “workforce-ready”–is by design a limited one—an obedient one. America needs active and informed citizens as well, and they need to have the skills and mindset to question their bosses, their so-called betters, because if they lack such a mindset, nothing will change for the better in our society.
Along with STEM and vocational training is an emphasis on computers and online courses. Nowadays most school administrators would rather fund computers and networked classrooms than raise pay for teachers. In fact, online courses are advertised as a way to replace teachers, or at least to reduce the number of full-time teachers needed on staff. But I question whether one can learn sociology or art or philosophy or ethics by taking an online course. And I remain skeptical of big “investments” in computers, SMART boards, and the like. They may have their place, but they’re no substitute for education that’s truly student-centered, and one that’s focused on civics and ethics, right and wrong.
The final trend we’re seeing is privatization, as with charter schools. The (false) narrative here is that teachers in unions are overpaid, unaccountable, and otherwise inflexible or incompetent. Somehow the magical free market will solve this. If only one could get rid of unions while privatizing everything, all will be well in America’s schools. Private corporations, driven by profit and “efficiency,” will somehow produce a better product, a word I choose deliberately, for they see education as a product. And while some charter schools have been innovative and effective, many others have failed, mainly because education isn’t education when it’s reduced to a “deliverable” – a commodity driven by and reduced to money.
At a time when the United States desperately needs critical and creative thinkers educated in the arts and humanities as well as STEM and vocational subjects, our schools and especially our legislators are rejecting their duty to serve democratic ideals, choosing instead to embrace business, industry, economic competitiveness, and obedience, all in service of the bottom line measured in dollars and cents. Now more than ever, America needs young people who are engaged civically and ethically, who value more than money and materialism. Yet many of our schools are pursuing a much different agenda.
Twenty-five years ago, I wrote the following paper for a class in the history of technology. Back then, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and acid rain as well as global warming were issues highlighting the drawbacks of technology. CFCs were damaging the ozone layer, acid rain was poisoning our lakes and streams and damaging trees, with the buildup of greenhouse gases looming as a future threat. The future is now, of course, since we’ve done virtually nothing to address global warming. If anything, the debate in 1989 was far more sober, since back then there were no “climate change deniers.”
Written at the tail end of the Cold War, my paper from 1989 is colored by the threat of nuclear annihilation, another threat (like acid rain and CFCs) that has abated in the last two decades. Reason for hope, perhaps?
Yet in those 25 years, technology has only proliferated even as compassion for those less fortunate has declined. I wrote this paper before there was an Internet and World Wide Web, before cell phones and smart phones became ubiquitous, before we had so much conclusive evidence of the dangers of man-accelerated global warming. I was attempting to argue that scientists and engineers had an obligation to consider the larger impact of their work, to include the moral implications of their research.
I’ve made one major change to this paper as written 25 years ago. Back then, I concluded with the idea that an ethics based on Christianity needed to inform the work of scientists and engineers. Today, this argument seems far too parochial and limiting, so I have removed it.
Technology and the Role of Scientists and Engineers in Modern Society (1989)
What is the proper role of scientists and engineers in modern society? This question is especially relevant today, as can readily be confirmed by opening the September 1989 special issue of Scientific American entitled “Managing Planet Earth.” Technology, it seems, has spawned many monsters: chlorofluorocarbons that tear holes in our protective ozone shield, factory smoke that turns our rain acidic, carbon dioxide that threatens to convert our planet into one big greenhouse. The contributors to Scientific American assert that humanity must regain control over technology before its monsters inflict irreparable damage to the earth.
Defenders of technology, not surprisingly, advance the opposite thesis. Samuel Florman, an engineer and the author of Blaming Technology, counters that “technology is still very much under society’s control, that it is in fact an expression of our very human desires, fancies, and fears.” In Florman’s opinion, engineers should dedicate themselves to doing works for the good of society, but they should not try to define what is good for society. Their mission, Florman holds, is to achieve rather than to set society’s goals.
Florman does not exonerate engineers from all responsibility, however. He asserts that engineers must be guided by their individual consciences, but he also suggests that society should not expect any “special compassion” from its engineers. In fact he implies that society must resign itself to emotionally-detached engineers: “If we accept the single-minded dedication of ballet dancers and other artists,” Florman analogizes, “we should be able to accept, however regretfully, the same characteristic in a number of scientists and engineers.”
But a serious flaw lies at the heart of Florman’s plea for the sanctity of the engineering profession. He disregards the vastly different societal roles of artists versus scientists and engineers, as well as the serious dangers of a powerful technical elite. The philosopher Hannah Arendt noted these dangers in the context of atomic experimentation:
The simple fact that physicists split the atom without any hesitations … although they realized full well the enormous destructive potentialities … demonstrates that the scientist qua scientist does not even care about the survival of the human race on earth or, for that matter, about the survival of the planet itself.
Arendt makes an important point here. Scientists and engineers sometimes pursue their interests even when they threaten the survival of humanity (or themselves for that matter). Evidence from the Manhattan Project lends credibility to this argument. Most scientists who worked on the project were too caught up in the technical challenges of building the atomic bomb to entertain moral qualms about the bomb’s purpose. Robert R. Wilson, the leader of the cyclotron group during the Project, observed that he never considered quitting:
We were the heroes of our epic, and there was no turning back. We were working on a problem to which we were completely committed; there was little time to re-examine our moral position from day to day.
The atomic bomb was the grail for these knights of science; they focused on their pursuit and little else. Perhaps they believed they could wash their hands clean of the stains of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for they neither made the decision to drop the bombs nor did they pilot the planes. Yet they could not deny that it was their expertise that brought humanity to the brink of its own destruction during the Cold War.
So what does our nuclear heritage teach us? It teaches us that humanity needs a more humane technology and more humane engineers. In sum, we need a new purpose for technology, one that is inspired by social and humanitarian concerns.
Jules Verne captured the risk of failing to do so. “If men go on inventing machinery, they’ll end by being swallowed up by their own inventions,” Verne prophesized. There are still some people, however, who continue to believe that technological advances themselves will eliminate technology’s harms. Charles F. Kettering, a remarkably inventive General Motor’s executive and a quintessential company man, captured this idea. In Paul de Kruif’s words, Kettering felt that
You cannot put the brakes on any discovery … you’ve got to go on with it even if we’re all blown to hell with it. What you should do is step up the study of human nature, you may even find a chemical, a vitamin, a hormone, a simple pill to take the devil out of human nature….
Here one cannot help but be reminded of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where another automotive engineer, Henry Ford, was god, morality was but a faint memory, and drugs were the panacea for human ills.
Elting Morison, in Men, Machines, and Modern Times (1984), suggests that since technology forces humanity into its categories, humanity has no choice but to create a new culture to accommodate it. He proposes that a series of small experiments be performed world-wide, with “man as the great criterion” (or, perhaps more accurately, the great guinea pig). Apparently, a successful experiment will be one in which humans thrive, while an unsuccessful one will be one where humans “break down.” Rather oddly, Morison believes the military provides us with the paradigm of how to proceed. In his words:
They [the military] have the nuclear weapon that has fulfilled the exaggerated extreme toward which the system always tends … But for practical purposes they have created around this extreme a whole arsenal of carefully graded instruments of limited destruction – old-fashioned armaments of lesser power and new weapons of modulated nuclear energy.
It’s shocking how Morison waxes nostalgic over those “old-fashioned” weapons, and his addition of “modulation” to atomic bombs makes them seem downright cozy. As George Orwell observed in his famous 1946 essay entitled Politics and the English Language, “such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.” Thus cluster bombs that send shrieking hunks of shrapnel through the air, napalm that sears lungs and burns human skin, and atomic artillery shells that annihilate armies (but not cities, we hope) become, for Morison, “modest examples of how to begin to proceed.”
A more pessimistic prospectus for the future of technology is held by Arnold Pacey in The Maze of Ingenuity (1980). For Pacey, history reveals that technology cannot “easily accommodate the broad aims and the mixture of human and technical factors which a socially-orientated direction of progress in technology … require[s]. Thus the efforts made to encourage a more directly social form of technical progress … have been relatively ineffective.”
Pacey attributes this failure to the dominance of the mechanical world view. Beginning with Galileo, Pacey maintains, scientists and engineers restricted their own view of the world, blinding themselves to the larger purposes of technology.
Pacey does more than lament, though. He offers several potential solutions, all of which seem flawed. He assumes that new, less destructive, technologies are needed to meet human needs, or to ease poverty, yet the world currently has enough resources to end poverty, and present technology could doubtless be used more constructively. Pacey also unconsciously undermines his argument by citing education and medical care as “examples of how continuous improvement is possible without any large accompanying drain on material resources.” Unfortunately for Pacey, both education and medical care are currently (and rightly) under siege in this country. Despite large sums of money spent and countless reform proposals, education remains mediocre, while medical care remains compassionless and costly.
No wonder Pacey despairs. He half-heartedly mentions other potential balms, e.g. critical science, which pursues “careful, rigorous researches into the relationship between technical innovation, nature and society,” and general systems theory, yet it is unclear from reading Pacey how critical science differs from general systems theory. In the end, Pacey supplies the reader with little in the way of hope, for he despondently observes that systems theory is corruptible.
In the end, we’re left with today’s dehumanizing technological imperative, as noted by Carlo Cipolla, a noted historian of technology, in this passage:
Each new machine … creates new needs, besides satisfying existing ones, and breeds newer machines. The new contrivances modify and shape our lives and our thoughts; they affect the arts and philosophy, and they intrude even into our spare time.
To prevent this dominance of the machine, science and technology need to serve social and humanitarian needs more directly. In “Thinking about Human Extinction,” George Kateb holds that individuals must attach themselves first and foremost to existence. This attachment “cannot be cultivated by way of a theology that bestows [from the outside] meaning or worth on existence,” and it must be able to withstand “all temptations to go along with policies that may lead to human and natural extinction.”
Existence is justified by a sense of beauty; specifically, Martin Heidegger’s wonderment at the very indefiniteness of existence. For Kateb, “because there could have been earthly nothingness … one must finally attach oneself to earthly existence, whatever it is, and act to preserve it … [To this end] persons must be schooled in beauty to acquire the disposition to sustain wonder that there is earthly existence rather than none.” In sum, we must learn to revel in the very fact of humanity’s existence against the longest of cosmic odds.
In a world that grows ever more fragile with each passing day, an appreciation for the fragility of our existence, as well as an abiding compassion for humanity, is exactly what we need from our scientists and engineers.
Sources in order of citation
Samuel C. Florman, Blaming Technology: The Irrational Search for Scapegoats (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981).
Hannah Arendt, “A Symposium on Space: Has Man’s Conquest of Space Increased or Diminished his Stature?”, The Great Ideas Today 1963 (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1963).
Robert R. Wilson, “The Scientists who Made the Atom Bomb,” Science, Conflict and Society (San Francisco: W.H. Freeman, 1969).
Jules Verne, Five Weeks in a Balloon (1862), quoted in James R. Newman, “The History and Present State of Science Fiction,” Science, Conflict and Society (San Francisco: W.H. Freeman, 1969).
Paul de Kruif, Life Among the Doctors (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1949), p. 445, quoted in William Leslie, Boss Kettering (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983).
Elting E. Morison, Men, Machines, and Modern Times (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1966, 1984).
Arnold Pacey, The Maze of Ingenuity: Ideas and Idealism in the Development of Technology (New York: Holmes/Meier, 1974, 1980).
Carlo M. Cipolla, Clocks and Culture 1300-1700 (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1978).
George Kateb, “Thinking about Human Extinction: (I) Nietzsche and Heidegger,” Raritan (Fall 1986), pp. 1-28.
Americans generally, and politicians in particular, proudly proclaim that we live in “the greatest” country. But how should we measure the greatness of a country? I’d suggest that quality of life should be a vitally important measure.
And what is more fundamental to quality of life than ready access to health care? When you’re sick or suffering, you should be able to see a medical specialist. And those costs should be — wait for it — free to you. Because health care is a fundamental human right that transcends money. Put succinctly, the common health is the commonwealth. And we should use the common wealth to pay for the common health.
Here’s the truth: We all face the reality of confiscatory taxation. If you’re like me, you pay all sorts of taxes. Federal, state, and local income taxes. Property taxes. School taxes. Social security. State lotteries are a regressive tax aimed at the poor and the gullible. We pay these taxes, and of course some for health care as well (Medicare/Medicaid), amounting to roughly 30 percent of our income (or higher, depending on your tax bracket, unless you’re super-rich and your money comes from dividends and capital gains, then you pay 15 percent or lower: see Romney, Mitt).
Yet despite this tax burden, medical care for most of us remains costly and is usually connected somehow to employment (assuming you have a good job that provides health care benefits). Even if you have health care through your job, there’s usually a substantial deductible or percentage that you have to pay out-of-pocket.
America, land of the free! But not free health care. Pay up, you moocher! And if you should lose your job or if you’re one of the millions of so-called underinsured … bankruptcy.
Health care is a moral issue, but our leaders see it through a business/free market lens. And this lens leads to enormous moral blind spots. One example: Our colleges and universities are supposed to be enlightened centers of learning. They educate our youth and help to create our future. Higher Ed suggests a higher purpose, one that has a moral center — somewhere.
But can you guess the response of colleges and universities to Obamacare? They’re doing their level best to limit adjunct professors’ hours to fewer than thirty per week. Why? So they won’t be obligated by law to provide health care benefits to these adjuncts.
Adjuncts are already underpaid; some are lucky to make $3000 for each course they teach. Now colleges and universities are basically telling them, “Tough luck, Adjunct John Galt. If you want medical benefits, pay for health insurance yourself. And we’re limiting your hours to ensure that you have to.”
So, if Adjunct John Galt teaches 10 courses a year (probably at two or three institutions of “higher” learning) and makes $30,000, he then faces the sobering reality of dedicating one-third of this sum to purchasing private health insurance. If that isn’t a sign of American greatness, I don’t know what is.
I groan as much as the next guy when I pay my taxes. But I’d groan a lot less if I knew my money was funding free health care for all (including me and mine). Commonwealth for the common health. With no death panels in sight.
As “Dirty Harry” said in a different context, “I know what you’re thinking.” Free health care for all is simply too expensive. We say this even as we spend a trillion dollars a year on national defense and homeland security, to include the funding of 16 intelligence agencies to watch over us.
A healthy republic that prides itself on “greatness” should place the health of its citizens first. That we don’t is a cause for weeping — and it should be a cause for national soul-searching.