Recently I have had reason to re-read Neil Postman’s Technopoly a brilliant critique of the way technology has and will continue to dominate our lives in ways that diminish our humanity. In my opinion it should be required reading for all D&T teachers, those training to be D&T teachers and those studying D&T at KS5. There are some wonderful gems.
Did you know, for example, that when the stethoscope was first invented many doctors were against its use? Their reservations were that the instrument would become between the doctor and patient, quite literally, and prevent doctors listening to what the patients had to say about the way they felt. For Postman, two ideas are key here, medicine becomes about disease not the patient and what the patient knows is untrustworthy; what the machine knows is reliable. What do many patients complain about with regard to our NHS? The doctor has so little time to talk to me. Postman devotes a whole chapter to medical technology and the way it can dehumanise medical practice. And of course de-humanisation across the piece is one of the major criticisms of technology.
It is in the final chapter that Postman turns his attention to the role of schools in helping young people resist the onslaught of technology on their humanity. He couches his argument in terms of action that should be taken by “loving resistance fighters”. He is particularly scathing about school curricula arguing …
The curriculum is not, in fact, a course of study at all but a meaningless hodgepodge of subjects. It does not even put forward a clear vision of what constitutes an educated person unless it is a person who possesses “skills” – a person with no commitment and no point of view but with plenty of marketable skills.
I must confess to a sense of despondency allied to this view when I see D&T justified in terms of ‘where it can lead’ without much in the way of a consideration of its intrinsic worth as described by Jacob Bronowski in his marvellous book The Ascent of Man from which the following is derived.
Envisaging what might exist in the future and using tools and materials to create and critique that future is a unique human ability, which has led to the development of successive civilizations across history. It embodies some of the best of what it means to be human. Through teaching young people design & technology schools introduce pupils to this field of human endeavour and empower them to become people who see the world as a place of opportunity where they and others can, through their own thoughts and actions, improve their situation.
Postman is a great admirer of Bronowski and envisages a curriculum that would educate young people as being based on a study of ‘The Ascent of Humanity’. In Postman’s view to become educated means to become aware of the origins and growth of knowledge and knowledge systems, to be familiar with the intellectual and creative processes by which the best that has been thought and said and done has been produced. Postman is stern in that such an education is
… not child-centered, not training-centered, not skill-centered, not even problem-centered. It is idea-centered and coherence-centered.
It would be wrong to think that Postman does not want to see technology in the school curriculum. He identifies a study of the history of technology as an indispensable component to understanding where we have come from. This provides as much as science and art provides part of the story of humanity’s confrontation with nature and indeed with our own limitations.
… we need students who will understand the relationships between our technics and our social and psychic worlds, so that they may begin informed conversations about where technology is taking us and how.
Postman realizes that this is a BIG ask, to engage students with the study of what was in order for them to understand what is and what might be. Such teaching will require the very best from what teachers can do but what a worthwhile task. On this blog both Torben and I have argued for ‘technological perspective’ to be an essential ingredient of D&T learning and it seems we have an ally in Neil Postman, sadly no longer with us. His writings serve to remind us just how important a subject D&T is. I would dearly love to be able to talk with him about how he views ‘technological capability’ the sister to perspective that together provide the totality of D&T in the curriculum. I wonder what he would say?
As always, comments welcome.