Will Technology save us?
Praise should rightly be attributed to those whose advice has led Australia well through the pointy end of the Covid 19 pandemic. But now that we are beginning to glimpse life post the pandemic, are plans being laid in embryonic form worthy of the same praise, or are we already falling back to tired, binary, ideologically driven strategies?
Dan Tehan’s vision for fiscally supported priority to Stem based tertiary education (science technology, engineering, mathematics) should not be met with acquiescence from university Vice Chancellors and boards, simply on the basis of a funding deal. Much is yet to be worked through, but the thrust of the plan is clear. Post Covid 19, universities should major on Stem courses with a view to job creation.
I do not wish to argue against priority being given to employment. The fulfilment of individuals, and the prosperity of the nation, crucially depends on all having the opportunity for gainful employment.
I am not competent to talk about the details or speculate whether the higher cost of non-Stem subjects will deter enrolments or be a fiscal bonanza for universities. I want to address the principle that lies behind the proposal.
I want to argue that employment is the outcome of something far more important, namely the formation of rounded, thinking, socially responsible, and well-adjusted individuals. I do not think for one moment Dan Tehan is on the looney right of his party, but it appears there are many on his side of politics who do not want rounded, thinking, socially responsible individuals. Perhaps fear of such people is the reason why members on the government bench continue to undermine the ABC.
We are living through a most troubling period of history. Technology can and will help us. So, go to it you Stem gifted people. But if we are to rely on technology to solve all human challenges and failures, even climate change, our prospects are not very bright. To solve most of our challenges, we are going to need humans to behave rationally, cooperatively, with the capacity to think through the issues we face; adopting strategies which may not meet our needs in the short term, but will lay the foundations for a sustainable future in the long term. At present that is not what we generally do. We look for immediate black and white remedies to complex problems. We seek advantage to ourselves seemingly unaware that we depend upon advantage being equally shared globally. We hop on twitter or Facebook and make banal (and worse) comments about issues that we lack the capacity to think through.
Most world leaders who frighten us, including Trump and Xi, trade on fear and confrontation. Only those individuals, groups and nations with wit, calm and capacity to be rational, will be able to steer through these turbulent waters. How is this to be achieved?
We human beings were not born yesterday; we have millennia of existence behind us. Our problems are contemporary versions of problems that have always beset us. “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” It is willful ignorance not to want to understand how great minds have wrestled with the human condition in the past, from Plato and Aristotle, to Augustine and Aquinas, to Locke and Hobbes. What roles do competition and cooperation play in the human enterprise? In the past, what have been the consequences of one prevailing at the cost of the other? What does history show us about the balance between individual rights and social contract? What is human wealth? What is worth striving for? What has happened in the past when the equity gap between the few who are rich and the majority who are poor continues to expand? Have the wealthy always attained their wealth at the expense of the poor? Etc.
Hugh McKay is arguably Australia’s most eminent sociologist and demographer, his data and reflections on Australian life should be compulsory reading. Peter Hatcher is one of Australia’s most eminent journalists and writers. What he and other like him say and think is vital to us all.
The arts do not simply entertain us, they have the capacity to draw us into life transforming narrative.
Understanding the part that religion plays in hearts and minds, and the contribution it should make in the evolving place humanity occupies on the planet would be wise, even for those in whom faith plays absolutely no part.
Investing in stem subjects at the expense of non-stem subjects generates little confidence that human future will be any less storm riven than the immediate past. Technology must not be the tail that wags the dog. We need first to grapple with the kind of society we would like to be and seek from technology solutions which will enhance this direction. Just because something becomes technologically possible it does not mean it is desirable.
Will technology make humanity happier, more content, more fulfilled? No, not in and of itself. If Covid 19 has taught us anything, relating is everything. What makes us happy are those elements of life which help relationships flourish, that give us a sense of belonging, that free us from the rush and bustle of an exclusively work orientated life.
I have found the following a useful scale to value education.
Data collection lies at the base of the education pyramid. Data multiplies exponentially and its acquisition does not make one educated. (Data can usually be picked up digitally when required). Some data contributes to useful information.
Information is not in itself sufficient for tasks other than menial ones. Information needs to be converted into knowledge, which is usually attained through experience and mentoring. Knowledge is essential to a practitioner in any field if their competence is to be trusted. Knowledge is also the soil from which wisdom grows.
Wisdom enables a well lived and meaningful life. The love of wisdom is the motivation of the philosopher. For a person of faith, it is the first born of creation, and for a Christian, incarnately present in Jesus.
Wisdom is insight, the world flocks to the door of those who possess it. It is a noble aspiration to be technologically competent. But technology without wisdom will not save us. Stem subjects at tertiary level need to be set within the context of this more noble aspiration, in partnership with non-stem subjects which are given equal value.