Technology and Catholic Liberal Education

The following is an essay on the inward and outward effects of technology on man and culture by Dr. Jeremy Holmes, Dean of Wyoming Catholic College.

Technology and Catholic Liberal Education

Christianity will offer models of life in new ways and will once again present itself in the wasteland of technological existence as a place of true humanity.”

– Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, Salt of the Earth

For the last several decades, the trend in education has been towards more technology in education. Tax money funds “smart” classrooms, students use only the Internet to research their papers, and libraries boast that they will soon have no books. In spite of this trend, WCC has chosen to limit technology: no computers are allowed in the classroom, papers come fundamentally from books and the minds engaged with them, and students do not even carry cell phones. This decision follows as a logical consequence from other points where WCC differs from most institutions of higher learning today: it is Catholic, and it is dedicated to liberal education. The College is not against technology, but in favor of human excellence. To see this, one must consider the nature of technology.

Technology and Culture

Because man is made in the image of God, he is naturally creative. He grasps the world in terms of cause and effect, and so learns how to arrange causes in new ways to achieve new effects. The word “technology” comes from the Greek techne, which simply means an art or method for doing something. Technology is natural to man, so much so that many technologies are understandably not recognized as technologies: writing is a technology, as are hammers, roads, and silverware. To prove that man was present at a given time and place, archeologists look for the presence of tools, because every human culture uses tools—creates technology.

The creation of a new technology goes in two directions, outward and inward. First, man makes a new extension of himself or, to put it another way, extends himself outward to live in the world through a new medium. A hammer extends the craftsman’s arm, writing extends the speaker’s presence to a broader audience, and the spear extends the hunter’s blow to a wonderful distance. The tool user really lives in and through his tools, becomes one with them, in a way that goes beyond a machine with an added part.

Then the new technology works inward: as man extended himself out into the tool, so the tool insinuates itself inward into the man and reshapes him. For example, members of a purely oral culture do not think linearly in the way taken for granted by those who read and write. The printing press furthers these effects and, by making reading and writing available to all, changes how the entire culture conceives of responsible citizenship.

In this way, technology and culture intermingle inextricably: human culture is impossible without technology, and every technology has its effect on culture. To understand WCC’s technology policy, we must keep in mind both sides of this principle.

The Whispered Message

The outward extension of man is the obvious and intended effect of a new technology. Because the inward extension of the technology into man is both unintended and difficult to predict, it tends to go unnoticed: if its intended use is what a technology shouts to the world, the unintended impact is what it whispers in every ear.

To continue the previous example, the inventor of the printing press was a devout Catholic, and the first book from his tool was a Bible, a service to the Church. But, unknown to Gutenberg, because the printing press would also make it possible for every Christian to own a Bible, it would also make it possible for the individual Christian to re-conceive the Bible as a private possession rather than as a common good of the Church. The outward extension was obviously a boon to Catholicism, while the inward extension—the unintended psychological effect of the new technology—made possible Protestantism as it exists today.

After the printing press, few great leaps were made in communications technology for several centuries, and society and Church learned to situate the new force within a larger culture. But in recent times, new technologies have appeared faster than culture can react to and assimilate them. Society and Church are still coming to grips with the television, while in the meantime the computer, the Internet, the cellular telephone, the iPod, and the Blackberry have piled on in rapid succession.

While it would be impossible to examine exhaustively the unintended psychological effects of every recent invention, a glance at several more important technologies will make the point clear. In what follows, we offer four vignettes highlighting certain technologies relevant to WCC’s policies.

Television

The television offered a magical power of seeing far-away events. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then who could calculate the word-value of a video with sound? The word itself has always carried an aura of authority: when a culture is first introduced to writing, the written word is seen as magical, and even in an age-old print culture such as our own a printed sign seems “official.” No one is standing in the parking lot to say “Customer parking only”: it simply “is said,” and it brooks no argument. Television carried the same dynamic to a new level. It seemed to capture an entire person and event, remove them from immediate day-to-day reality, and represent them as more real than everyday events. Walker Percy noticed that a person who appeared on television had been “validated,” that is, seemed to enjoy a unique ontological status as the Platonic form of what the shadow people—the viewers—imitated in their own pale way.

A medium with this power could not remain a tool for information transmission. It seemed to present a greater reality, worth more than the hum-drum, day-to-day realities it claimed to transmit, and so it invited viewers to view for viewing’s sake. Given how television appeals to senses, and given the extreme passivity of television viewing, to view the television for its own sake is simply to be entertained. At this point, the television begins to affect how a culture perceives the goal of life.

Plato criticized mankind in general, in every age, for fixating on the sensible world around, the everyday trees and horses, while failing to grasp the eternal forms which are inaccessible to the senses yet underlie all that is sensible. His famous analogy of the cave had men chained below the earth and convinced that shadows are what is really real. Television all too often leads men to the basement below the cave, so to speak, in which they are convinced that the really real is not the eternal form, nor even the everyday sensible, but the flickering shadow of an imitation of the sensible. It cuts men off from the real and causes them to think it better so.

None of this is to deny that there are good movies worth seeing and educational programs worth watching. Some artists have used the television’s unique power of imitating eternity to offer a true poetic glimpse into the archetypes of reality. The point here is that when a large percentage of television viewers show addictive behaviors, watching six hours of television per day and obsessing about the personalities and private lives of television stars, they are not showing us their personal faults but the inner direction of the medium itself, its natural inward extension into man. To use the television well requires moral strength.

Computers and the Internet

Computers have such diverse applications and correspondingly diverse effects on man that it is impractical to discuss them all, even if they could be catalogued. Here we will focus on two of their more important inward effects.

In The Phaedrus, Plato tells a story about the gods Theuth and Thamus. Theuth enumerated his many inventions, and Thamus commented on them. When they came to the invention of writing, Theuth was particularly proud: this art, he claimed, will make men wiser and give them better memories. Thamus countered that the opposite is true: by leading men to entrust their knowledge to an externally written word, it will diminish what they have as interior word in the memory; but because it will allow men to amass tremendous piles of knowledge in the exteriorly written word, it will persuade them that they are wise when in fact they know nothing.

Thamus was no doubt too harsh: writing also brought with it logical habits of thought and the possibility of a slowly accumulated wisdom such as began precisely with Plato’s school. But his distinction between the interior word and the exterior word is valid and became more relevant as technology developed. From papyrus roles to medieval manuscripts to printed books, the trend has been ever towards more precise organization and categorization of knowledge, rendering memory less and less important.  As books became ever more readily available to ever larger segments of the population, more and more people had to deal with the vices Thamus predicted. Why take the trouble to store things in memory when they are right at hand on a bookshelf?

With the invention of the computer, a wealth such as Theuth could not imagine and a temptation beyond Thamus’s dreams were born together. Today one can store all the books of all the greatest thinkers of the world on a small, portable device, and information anywhere in these books can be extracted in seconds by key-word search. Academic journals have moved their contents to the Internet alongside encyclopedias, professional and technical blogs, and tremendous resources such as Project Gutenberg and Google Books. When one recalls that a major university library of the middle ages had perhaps four or five hundred books, the information at the fingertips of today’s student is staggering.

But Thamus has his revenge. Today more than ever, we are tempted to give up remembering anything at all. Why should I memorize facts and figures when they are all on the Internet, and the Internet is in my pocket? Rarely do Christians memorize Bible passages anymore, and why should I when I can word-search the entire Bible in the original languages or any modern language of my choice right on my laptop? Reliance on the external word becomes almost total.

The computer itself has suggested that this movement from interior word to exterior word is not significant by putting itself forward as a metaphor for the human mind. The brain has a processor, active memory, and data storage; conversely, the computer “thinks,” “remembers,” and “decides.” Computers were designed to imitate the brain, so the comparison has some value, especially when we say that the computer is like the brain. But if the brain is a computer, and memory a form of data storage, then what difference does it make whether information is stored on the hard drive between the ears or on the hard drive in the briefcase?

In reality, as experience shows, the interior word and the exterior word are radically different. Knowledge in a book or on a computer is like an axe hanging on my wall, powerful and ready to be wielded at any time. It is transparently a good thing. But knowledge in the memory is like my hand: it has become a living part of me. It is no longer just the object I think about, but has also become that by which I think about other things. As we devise more and more capacious data storage systems, we find ourselves in a world of more and more axes but fewer and fewer hands. Bible data has never been more accessible, but Paul’s injunction to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” goes largely unheeded.

Here we come to one of the computer’s most important yet entirely unintended inward effects: because it is wonderfully good at managing information, because it suggests itself as a metaphor for the mind, and because it tempts one to rely on it rather than on the mind—because of all of these factors, the computer insinuates that all learning is the acquisition of information, data encryptable in a certain number of bits. Knowledge is information, understanding is information, wisdom is information. The computer does not say that wisdom is unreal, but quietly replaces the old meaning of the word with a new content. Those who cannot conceive of writing a paper without the Internet have a new view of the goal of education; and when all knowledge has been reduced to information, it is difficult to say what the Information Age could have to learn from previous eras.

Opposed to this is the view that wisdom has more to do with depth than breadth, with formation than information. If understanding is precisely “standing under” things, grasping deep roots invisible to the senses, then education requires patient, meditative dwelling on a few things for a long time. As the medieval monks expressed it, one must ruminate, chew the cud again and again, before the nourishment latent in information is released. And as understanding increases, its verbal expression in fact decreases: the wisest men say the most in the fewest words, so that wisdom goes up while encryptable bits of data actually go down. All of this is resisted by the Internet, where hyperlinks to hyperlinks to endless resources discourage users from dwelling anywhere too long, where everyone “browses” and hardly anyone ruminates.

Personal Media Players

The signs of a personal media player addict are well known. Ear buds implanted, the iPod person avoids eye contact, when addressed does not reply—indeed, does not hear—and may even jiggle or hum in private celebration. He is, we say, “off in his own world.”

This casual phrase reveals a profound insight into human life. Plants differ from rocks and dirt inasmuch as they interact with their environment, receiving from it and stretching into it, as roots grow further and further into the ground to receive water and leaves turn towards the sun. The “world” of a rock is only as big as the rock itself, but the “world” of a plant extends into the space around it. Animals differ from plants inasmuch as they inhabit an immeasurably larger world: they sense afar off, emote in reaction to sensing, act on emotion, and move through the world they sense in search or flight. Humans differ from animals inasmuch as their “world” is both broader and deeper: even without telescopes, man can reach out in thought to the boundaries of the universe; even without microscopes, he can ponder the hidden roots of things, even the deep causes that microscopes cannot probe. The world of man is as broad and as deep as being itself.

Corresponding to these levels of life are levels of community. Rocks have no community whatsoever, because the world of a rock is limited to its material extension and its material extension excludes all other rocks and dirt. Plants can share soil and air, and to this extent can form what we call “symbiotic relations.” The worlds of animals overlap tremendously: for example, all that one dog senses, another dog can sense as well. They can know and desire and pursue the same thing, and this shared knowledge and shared good makes possible the pack and the herd. The worlds of men interpenetrate even more, because they not only know and desire the same exteriorly visible goods but also cast their thoughts into the interior depths: man can know man and be known inwardly, in the thoughts and movements of his heart.

The personal media addict is therefore truly “off in his own world”: like the rock, his world extends outward no further than the surface of his skin and so does not overlap with that of others. His senses are directed towards the buds in his ears or the miniature screen before his eyes, and his thoughts are absorbed as well.

Although such devices can be used for audiobook classics or news programs that direct the user’s thoughts out towards truth or at least towards his fellow men, the nature of the medium is to create a private world. In keeping with this, its uses tend to be private, either games or music. The music typically is not of a sort to shape the soul’s response to truth—Bach, Mozart, Handel—but such as to promote emotional responses to private goods: anger, lust, depression, or a groundless good cheer. Continued dwelling in this exclusively private world tends in turn towards habitual concern with the sheerly private, and therefore with sensory stimulation and gratification of whims rather than with the wide-open spaces of truth and goodness where community becomes possible.

For this and other reasons, many personal media player users “plug in” nearly constantly. Some teachers report having to give students permission to leave the classroom and “get their fix” of pop music or whathaveyou because detachment from stimulation for even a couple of hours has become difficult. Even for those who are not so addicted, personal media players round out a total environment of constant noise: few and far between are the havens of silence in today’s society. It is difficult to achieve interior quiet, to find some space for thought; for the truly “plugged in,” even the capacity for interior quiet dies.

This perpetual interior noise makes it impossible to focus attention in the steady way necessary to live fully in one place or be truly present to one person. The personal media player addict not only loses community while the device is on but even loses the interior conditions necessary for healthy, human communion—and for prayer.

Cell Phones

The desire for communion with others is inscribed on the heart of man. His destiny, according to revelation, is communion with God and the saints in heaven, and his heart is restless until it knows and is known, loves and is loved. Today this longing for communion expresses itself in various technologies meant to connect people, including the cellular telephone, e-mail, networking websites, Blackberries, Twitter, and so on. People are connected at every moment not only with their close associates but also with virtual communities of likeminded individuals the world over. For those in isolated or hostile places, this can be a blessing.

More and more, the cellular telephone encompasses all of these technologies. Today’s cell phones not only receive calls but manage e-mail, browse the Internet, send text messages, play games and music, and on and on. They are the ultimate connectivity devices.

As experience shows, however, connectivity and communion are not the same. Being connected means receiving near-perpetual stimuli from the outside, adding to the total-noise environment and stimulation craving described above. Being connected also means perpetual half-absence from one’s physical place to be present to one or many other people in other places: one often sees a group of friends walking together, each talking on his cell phone with friends in other places. In other words, connectivity can dilute one’s full presence in one place and therefore one’s ability to be fully present to others. Arising from desire for communion, it can become a perversion of communion that kills the real thing.

From Technology to Technopoly

The outward extension of modern man through his technology is apparent to all: we live longer than any previous generation, we have more food than any previous era, we have more information about the world than any previous civilization, and the peoples of the world know more about each other and interact with each other more than in any previous age. So far in our discussion we have focused on the inward extension of technology into man, which is less obvious. Although we have looked at only a few technologies and at those in only a limited way, a look back over what has been said reveals a common direction in all of them: in various ways, they separate man from what is real, and redefine what “real” and “true” mean; by so doing, they redefine the good, and hence the goal of human life; by cutting man off from the true and the good, they also extinguish human community.

Or at least, so go the technologies if given free reign. If a culture is strong, and the values of truth, goodness, and communion are clear and dominant, then that culture will dictate how a technology is to be used and how it must not be used. This is what Neil Postman called a “tool-using culture.” On the other hand, if a culture lacks the resources to resist the psychological effects of new technologies, those technologies will take the driver’s seat, so to speak, and will dictate to the culture the values by which it should judge technology use. When technology drives culture rather than the other way around, we have what Postman called a “technopoly,” or what Josef Cardinal Ratzinger has called “technological civilization.”

Modern western society not only lacked the resources to resist, but was even predisposed to accept the inward influences of modern technologies. As far back as the late middle ages, philosophers debated whether things in the world had real natures or not, and whether the good was real or only someone’s arbitrary decision. By the sixteenth century, the consequences of this debate began to emerge. Francis Bacon (born 1561) declared that pursuing natures and goods had been a distraction and a shackle to serious thinkers, and that henceforth real science must look only at how a thing is structured mechanically and what provides the push for the mechanism. This, he declared, was the path to improving the human condition. His vision was born out: science took the direction he foresaw, and the human condition was improved tremendously. Even the details of his plan came to fruition—he planned a “College for Inventors” rather like our Massachusetts Institute for Technology, recommended government sponsorship for inventors, and foresaw scholarly journals and international associations of scientists.

The success of the new technologies reinforced Bacon’s view. Having rejected nature and natural goods, he concluded that knowledge is only desirable for the power it gives. As knowledge indeed gave great power, men were inclined to agree that knowledge is only desirable for its usefulness. Since the knowledge useful for technology is knowledge of mechanical structures and forces, it seemed sensible to ignore any other kind of knowledge—that is, to reject knowledge of nature and natural goods. Once in place, the system perpetuated itself.

As we have seen, the outward movement of a new technology usually has to do with a tangible improvement in the human condition. But the inward extension of technology into man affects his grasp of the truth of things, of what is good in the world, and the communion he lives in and for—in other words, the unintended, inward effects of technology redefine nature and natural goals, precisely those areas ignored by the new, technologically driven culture. Today, as for the first time in history a majority of the population lives in cities, and as it becomes possible for those in cities to move from one totally manmade environment to another, the power of these inward effects is magnified beyond all bounds.

In fact, technopoly tends of itself in the same direction as the particular technologies mentioned above. If nature and natural goods are unreal, then the only value left is usefulness—production and profit. As Cardinal Ratzinger said, “If man were absolutely incapable of knowing the truth itself but only the fitness for use things have in view of particular aims, use and consumption would become the measure of all action and thought.” The good is therefore decided by whoever has the power to enforce his will, and every individual wants to decide it for himself. The common good vanishes, and human communion with it. Left are “use and consumption,” work and entertainment. Work is the true value, but entertainment both passes the time when we are not working and persuades us that perhaps we are not slaves after all—perhaps, in our subjection of all to the useful, we have excepted at least ourselves?

The WCC Technology Policy

In light of all that has been said, technology is clearly an issue every serious educator must face. Precisely what stance to take may not be clear in every circumstance, but that one must have a deliberate stance is unmistakable. The worst policy is no policy.

Being a catholic liberal arts college, Wyoming Catholic College is already committed to a certain general position. Because we are Catholic, we must be dedicated to the notion that man really has a nature and a supernaturally graced end which he does not create arbitrarily for himself, that truth about man’s nature precedes the good he will pursue. Because we are a liberal arts college, we are also dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake rather than simply for its usefulness. On both counts, Wyoming Catholic College must, as part of its mission, equip its students to resist technologically driven culture.

There is no question of abandoning technology. As we said in the beginning, human culture is not possible without technology, and every technology has an effect on human culture. The question is not whether to accept or reject technology, but how to ensure that culture uses technology rather than letting technology drive culture. The difficulty is that, once established, technopoly absolutizes the message of each technology by saying that we should ignore the domain of nature and natural goods: this means that individual technologies can quietly redefine nature and natural goods while we ignore that whole region of life, absorbed as we are in the shouted promise of increased production and consumption. At the same time, the unseen inward effects of individual technologies all reinforce the message of technopoly that the true is what we produce and the good is satisfaction of whims. How then to overcome these mutually supporting forces?

The fascination of technopoly lies in technology’s overwhelming and obvious success in the realm of material prosperity. We who would resist technopoly must therefore call attention to other goods such as truth, virtue, and communion, which fall outside the values of production and consumption. Meanwhile, we must overcome the incessant tug of particular technologies, which insinuate that such goods are unimportant. So ideally, a technopoly resistance movement would at the same time (1) call the absolute value of technology into question and (2) occasionally “fast” from current technologies so as to re-sensitize people to “hear” the hidden “whispers” so as to consciously and freely judge whether they are good.

For most people, however, this is very difficult. They live in entirely manmade environments, so their “fasting” is limited to begin with. To give up text-messaging one day per week would do some good in any circumstance, and the very act of giving up a gadget is a cry of defiance against technopoly, but its effect is limited when one’s every contact with the world is contact with technology. In a total technology environment, the total claims of technopoly retain some credibility despite it all.

Moreover, a new technology brought in as a luxury is soon used as the basis of a new system in society, then the new technology is necessary for the system, and what was luxury and advantage suddenly becomes necessity and duty. For example, cell phones were originally an added advantage, but are now required by many jobs; the same is true of automobiles, e-mail, and all manner of inventions. Many who would like to live with less find that they cannot do so responsibly.

On both counts, Wyoming Catholic College has a unique opportunity to help. Our students have time free—and in fact mandated—to escape the entirely manmade environment and encounter the natural world. Because the total technology environment brings with it a host of problems uniquely its own, and because contact with God’s creation offers a host of unique benefits, this document can only touch on these issues. For a more complete discussion of the problem and its solution, see our “Outdoor Leadership Program Vision Statement.”

The difficulty of societal expectations is overcome by the fact that the College offers a small but complete community. We offer students employment within the College to cover tuition, so they are free to live and work in a community specially designed so that they will not need various intrusive technologies to function from day to day. They have the opportunity to “fast” for a few years and re-sensitize, and the very act of limiting technology calls into question the absolute value of production and consumption. They are equipped to resist technopoly.

Reserving the right to make new rules about any future technology, as of this writing WCC prohibits cell phone usage on campus or in the local area, dedicated DVD players, gaming stations, personal digital assistants, televisions on campus or in the residence halls, and private Internet access. On the other hand, students are expected to bring a computer to school for writing papers, and they are encouraged to bring a private printer; public Internet is available both in the College library and in the student lounge. Students are allowed to use personal music players in the privacy of their rooms, so long as the noise does not disturb anyone. No computers are allowed in the classroom itself.

Our policy seeks a balance, because our goal is not that students should graduate never to use modern technologies again. That would be to deny the fundamental role of technology in human culture. Rather, the College desires that graduates form the vanguard of a new “tool-using culture,” in which their vision of the world determines technology’s place rather than technology dictating to them their vision of the world.

For this very reason, the faculty at Wyoming Catholic College do not abstain from all the technologies students are forbidden to use. Those who are surprised to see teachers carrying cell phones have not understood the College’s technology policy. While students go through a necessary period of formation, the faculty should model responsible and appropriate use of newer tools, molded by the vision of the Church. This means that faculty will have more of certain technologies than students do, although their role as models may at times mean that they use even less of a particular technology than is permitted the students. As the times and trends are in constant flux, faculty will need to maintain an ongoing conversation among themselves about what “responsible use” means.

Our graduates will likely choose to restrict their use of technology in various ways. However, they will also be equipped to take advantage of the Internet while subjecting it to the goals of contemplation, to use a personal media player while retaining interior quiet, and to carry a cell phone while preserving personal contact. In short, they will know how to master technology rather than serving it—and they will communicate this hope to others. In Ratzinger’s words, “Christianity will offer models of life in new ways and will once again present itself in the wasteland of technological existence as a place of true humanity.”

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About Andrew Seeley

Executive Director, Institute for Catholic Liberal Education Tutor, Thomas Aquinas College
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2 Responses to Technology and Catholic Liberal Education

  1. SSteller says:

    Could anyone please tell me what painting is on the banner of this page? I would love to have the details (sorry for posting off-topic, I just have to know!)

    • Our banner is Rafael’s Disputation on the Eucharist, one of the four outstanding frescoes that adorn the Stanza della Signatura in the Vatican Palace in Rome. Learn more about it here.

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