In an age when science and technology are seen as the key to a happy future, an eloquent cri de coeur has arisen challenging “the technological mentality.”
Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic magazine, was speaking last month at convocation ceremonies for students of the humanities at Brandeis University. “The machines to which we have become enslaved,” he said, “all of them quite astonishing, represent the greatest assault on human attention ever devised: They are engines of mental and spiritual dispersal, which make us wider only by making us less deep.” Our society, he said, is “inebriated by technology” and governed by “the values of utility, speed, efficiency and convenience.”
This is an important observation at a time when schools are beset with constant, generally unchallenged, demands to emphasize science, technology, engineering and mathematics — four areas of study fetishized to the degree that they have their own cute acronym, STEM.
The technological mentality, according to Wieseltier, is instrumental. It concerns itself not with whether something is good or evil, true or false, but with how things work. It yields information, not knowledge.
Knowledge comes through the struggle of learning and study, through confrontation with the great traditions of thought that go back centuries. It does not come through tweets.
Infatuation with technology coincides with the rise of scientism, which is the belief that for every problem there is a ready scientific solution. Scientism is dogmatic, Wieseltier says. Science, by contrast, incorporates doubt into its method, and its answers are always qualified. Scientism charts the human character according to our genetic makeup. The humanities explore the human character in “Hamlet” or “Moby-Dick” or the dialogues of Plato.
Addressing the humanities students of Brandeis, Wieseltier says they have had “the effrontery to choose interpretation over calculation, and to recognize that calculation cannot provide an accurate picture, or a profound picture, or a whole picture, of self-interpreting beings such as ourselves.” In his view those who study literature or languages, music, art, philosophy, religion or history represent “the resistance.”
“There is no greater bulwark against the twittering acceleration of American consciousness than the encounter with a work of art, and the experience of a text or image,” he says. He says students who dedicate themselves to the study of what it is to be human are now “the counterculture.” He adds, “Perhaps culture is now the counterculture.”
We are constantly reminded that science and technology are useful, that to find good jobs students need to focus on useful fields of study, that progress requires us to stay at the cutting edge. That is the utilitarian argument that Wieseltier rejects. He rejects it because he understands that educated human beings need to know more than what is useful. If students are not forced to confront the timeless dilemmas of the human experience, for which answers have never been readily forthcoming, then they will emerge from school as automatons or pawns or bullies.
Actual education is harder than ready answers. If schools are dumbing down their offerings in order to avoid difficulty, then they are bleaching the color out of our culture. A generation ago, students read “Moby-Dick,” and even if most students never finished it, they were shown realms of knowledge that they might aspire to. Maybe some still read “Moby-Dick.”
Another consequence of the tilt toward technology is the commodification of education. Educational results are now measured and calculated in a way that public monies can be channeled to reward schools that have gotten in line. But education is not a commodity, and weakening the humanities and the arts because the economic yield remains vague only makes our culture cruder, poorer.
Wieseltier urged the Brandeis students to “use the new technologies for the old purposes. Do not be rattled by numbers, which will never be the springs of wisdom.” In pursuing the humanities, he said, they “uphold the honor of a civilization that was founded upon the quest for the true and the good and the beautiful.”
As new graduates face the world anew, these are old truths that ought to fortify them on their way.
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