Technology Education

In The End of Education (1996), media ecologist and social critic Neil Postman proposes that our public schools offer technology education—an inquiry “into the ways in which human have extended their capacities to ‘bind’ time and control space.”

It is somewhat embarrassing that this needs to be proposed as an innovation in schools, since Americans never tire of telling themselves that they have created a technological society. They even seem to be delighted about this and many of them believe that the pathway to a fulfilling life is through continuous technological change. One would expect then that technology education would be a familiar subject in American schools. But it is not. Technology may have entered the schools but not technology education. Those who doubt my contention might ask themselves the following questions: Does the average high school or college graduate know where the alphabet comes from, something of its development, and anything about its psychic and social effects? Does he or she know anything about illuminated manuscripts, about the origin of the printing press and its role in reshaping Western culture, about the origins of newspapers and magazines? Do our students know where clocks, telescopes, microscopes, X rays, and computers come from? Do they have any idea about how such technologies have changed the economic, social, and political life of Western culture? Could they say who Morse, Daguerre, Bell, Edison, Marconi, De Forest, Zworykin, Pulitzer, Hearst, Eisenstein, and Von Neumann were? After all, we might say these men invented the technological society. Is it too much to expect that those who live in such a society will know about them and what they thought they were creating? (p. 189).

Postman recommends the following writers on the subject of technology: Marshall McLuhan, Martin Heidegger, Lewis Mumford, Jacques Ellul, Paul Goodman, Walter Ong, Walter Benjamin, Elizabeth Eisenstein, Alvin Toffler, Theodore Roszak, Norbert Wiener, Sherry Turkle, Joseph Weizenbaum, Seymour Papert, Herbert Schiller, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, and Ray Bradbury, among others. He continues:

It would that everywhere one turns these days, there are books, articles, films, and television shows on the subject of how technology has remade the world, and continues to remake it. It is among the leading topics of everyday conversation, especially among academics. There is, for example, hardly a school superintendent anywhere, or a college dean, who cannot give us a ready-made sermon on how we live in an “information age.” Then why do we not have a subject in which students address such questions as these: How does information differ in symbolic form? How are ideographs different from letters? How are images different from words? Paintings from photographs? Speech from writing? Television from books? Radio from television? Information comes in many forms, and at different velocities and in different quantities. Do the differences matter? Do the differences have varying psychic and social effects? The questions are almost endless. The subject is serious (p. 190).

Postman claims “educators confuse the teaching of how to use technology with technology education.” He elaborates on what is entailed by technology education:

As I see it, the subject is mainly about how television and movie cameras, Xerox machines, and computers reorder our psychic habits, our social relations, our political ideas, and our moral sensibilities. It is about how the meanings of information and education change as new technologies intrude upon a culture, how the meanings of truth, law, and intelligence differ among oral cultures, writing cultures, printing cultures, electronic cultures. Technology education is not a technical subject. It is a branch of the humanities. Technical knowledge can be useful, but one does not need to know the physics of television to study the social and political effects of television. One may not own an automobile, or even know how to drive one, but this is no obstacle to observing what the automobile has done to American culture.

It should be also said that technology education does not imply a negative attitude toward technology. It does imply a critical attitude. To be “against technology” makes no more sense than to be “against food.” We can’t live without either. But to observe that it is dangerous to eat too much food, or to eat food that has no nutritional value, is not to be “antifood.” It is to suggest what may be the best uses of food. Technology education aims at students’ learning about what technology helps us to do and what it hinders us from doing; it is about how technology uses us, for good or ill, and about how it has used people in the past, for good or ill. It is about how technology creates new worlds, for good or ill (pp. 191-192).

If technology education were a core subject in school, Postman asks: “What is it we would want students to know?” He would want them to explore answers to all of the above questions and to know the ten principles below:

  1. All technological change is a Faustian bargain. For every advantage a new technology offers, there is always a corresponding disadvantage.
  2. The advantages and disadvantages of new technologies are never distributed evenly among the population. This means that every new technology benefits some and harms others.
  3. Embedded in every technology there is a powerful idea, sometimes two or three powerful ideas. Like language itself, a technology predisposes us to favor and value certain perspectives and accomplishments and to subordinate others. Every technology has a philosophy, which is given expression in how the technology makes people use their minds, in what it makes us to do with our bodies, in how it codifies the world, in which of our senses it amplifies, in which of our emotional and intellectual tendencies it disregards.
  4. A new technology usually makes war against an old technology. It competes with it for time, attention, money, prestige, and a “worldview.”
  5. Technological change is not additive; it is ecological. A new technology does not merely add something; it changes everything.
  6. Because of the symbolic forms in which information is encoded, different technologies have different intellectual and emotional biases.
  7. Because of the accessibility and speed of their information, different technologies have different political biases.
  8. Because of their physical form, different technologies have different sensory biases.
  9. Because of the condition in which we attend to them, different technologies have different social biases.
  10. Because of their technical and economic structure, different technologies have different content biases.

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