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Education as a Defense Against Culture

We can locate the origins of this tradition in some fragments of Cicero, who remarked that the purpose of education is to free the student from the tyranny of the present…

It is in the spirit of this tradition – that is, education as a defense against culture – that I wish to speak.

-Neil Postman, Conscientious Objections, p. 22

This isn’t much different from what C.S. Lewis said. I’ve written about that HERE. In short,

Lewis argues that a familiarity with the literature of the past provides readers with a standpoint which gives them critical distance from their own era. Thus, it allows them to see ‘the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective.’ The reading of old books enables us to avoid becoming passive captives of the Spirit of the Age by keeping ‘the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds’ (Alister McGrath, C.S. Lewis – A Life, p. 187).

Another point I’ve made in the past has to do with McLuhan’s ‘rear-view mirror’ analogy. It is pertinent. Some look at things like old books, or old methods of education, and say such things are like looking and living in the rear view mirror. We’ve left those things behind, why look back? But this is not what looking in a rear-view mirror actually shows us.

Looking into a rear-view mirror doesn’t show us the past – it shows us the present and the future. It shows us what is behind us now and what is coming at us in the future. It gives us perspective on where we are, what is nipping at our heels, and what is preparing to overtake us and pass us by.

This is the defense against culture that education should provide; and it starts with reading old books. Someone says, ‘they’re not relevant; you’re living in the past.’ Not quite. We’re actually going to old perspectives so that we can get a new one, or at least a foreign one. We’re being oh so totally pluralistic and democratic – letting dead people speak to us (they are, after all, the most maligned group these days).

Our culture will not defend us from itself. Future cultures cannot defend us from the present one. The past is the only place, so to speak, of finding such a defense – a defense against the tyranny of the present.

Five More Questions to Ask of Technologies

I’ll warn you ahead of time that this post is pretty much for me. I’m such a selfish blogger.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about four questions we should ask of our technologies. Andy Crouch provides five more:

(1) What does this cultural artifact assume about the way the world is?
(2) What does this cultural artifact assume about the way the world should be?
(3) What does this cultural artifact make possible [that wasn’t before]?
(4) What does this cultural artifact make impossible (or at least very difficult)?
(5) What new forms of culture are created in response to this artifact?

-Culture Making, pp. 29-30ff

You could remember these with MAR:

  • Make possible/impossible
  • Assume is/should be
  • Result

Now let’s be reminded of the four basic questions of Marshall McLuhan (as summarized by Mark Federman):

We used RODE to remember those questions:

Revive, Opposite, Displace, Extend:

  • What does the technology revive?
  • What is is the opposite that it may revert to? (I’m particularly fond of this one)
  • What does it displace?
  • What does it extend?

I like asking questions; and these are all good ones to ask.

Ignoring What You Notice, Noticing What You Ignore

The challenge is a tricky one: We must create an anti-environment so that we can ignore what we notice and notice what we ignore.

-Mark Federman, The Cultural Paradox of the Global Village

So, yesterday I mentioned the idea of purposeful ignore-ance: cultivating a life that intentionally ignores some things so that it can focus its attention on others. This is where the idea leads. We do not want to ignore things to the point that we become completely oblivious to them. Rather, we want to notice what we ignore while being able to ignore what we notice.

Federman makes the point that this demands the creation of an ‘anti-environment.’ If you are submerged in an environment, you will either not ignore what you notice or not notice what you are ignoring. That entails complete assimilation on the one hand or blind acceptance on the other. The one means that you buy in completely to the environment. The other means that the environment smuggles in its trappings right under your nose.

Four Questions to Ask of Technologies

Building on the work of Marshall McLuhan, Mark Federman gives us four questions we should ask of any new technology:

The first probe is asked like this: What does the thing – the artefact, the medium – extend, enhance, intensify, accelerate or enable?…

A second probe: When pushed or extended beyond the limits of its potential, the new thing will tend to reverse what had been its original characteristics. Into what does the new medium reverse?…

The third Law of Media Probe: If some aspect of a situation or a thing is enhanced or enlarge, simultaneously, something else is displaced. What is pushed aside or obsolesced…?

And the final Law of Media probe: What does the new medium retrieve from the past that had been formerly obsolesced? This reflects the aphorism that, ‘there’s nothing new under the sun,’ and essentially asks, ‘How did we react as a society the last time we saw a medium with analogous effects?’

-Mark Federman, The Cultural Paradox of the Global Village

So, if you want to ask good questions and really think about a new technology or trend, you ask, What does it extend? What is the opposite it might reverse to? What does it displace? What does it revive from the past?

You can probably remember that with the acronym RODE: Revive, Opposite, Displace, Extend

Of course, McLuhan would probably tell me I know nothing of his work… (If you’ve never seen Annie Hall, please watch the video at this LINK to humor me).

Critiquing from the Inside

Our culture’s most impressive achievements usually have to do with technology: the space shuttle, advances in digital communications, instant availability of information via the internet. Albert Borgmann speculates that one ‘reason for embracing technology might be the understandable desire to embrace what’s distinctive about our culture. It’s difficult to accept the notion that the things that are most characteristic of our lives should not be most central.’ In Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novels, such as The First Circle, it is striking how many Soviet citizens were unable to critique the downsides of Stalinism – and not only because of the threat of punishment. Even people imprisoned on false and trumped-up political charges were likely to defend their own country’s political system. When Christian churches dominated medieval culture and their cathedrals commanded city skylines, it was hard to challenge abuses of faith. If technology is at the center of our lives, how frightening it must be to suggest that perhaps there is something wrong at the core of what our civilization regards as most worthwhile.

-Arthur Boers, Living Into Focus, pp. 182-183

Marshall McLuhan, in The Medium is the Massage, wrote,

The poet, the artist, the sleuth – whoever sharpens our perception tends to be antisocial; rarely ‘well-adjusted,’ he cannot go along with currents and trends. A strange bond often exists among antisocial types in their power to see environments as they really are. This need to interface, to confront environments with a certain antisocial power, is manifest in the famous story, ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes.’ ‘Well-adjusted’ courtiers, having vested interests, saw the Emperor as beautifully appointed. The ‘antisocial’ brat, unaccustomed to the old environment, clearly saw that the Emperor ‘ain’t got nothin’ on.’

Old Testament prophets were Israelites who had been summoned to the courts of Heaven (on earth, as the veil was drawn back before them) before the presence of innumerable angels in festal gathering, before the very presence of God. Isaiah saw the LORD, high and lifted up, with his train filling the heavenly temple. He saw the cherubim. He realized he, and his people, were unclean. He needed an outside-in perspective. He needed to see his own culture through the eyes that were not of his culture.

G.K. Chesterton writes this about prophets:

…If we see what is the real trend of humanity, we shall feel it most probable that he was stoned for saying that the grass was green and that the birds sang in spring; for the mission of all the prophets from the beginning has not been so much the pointing out of heavens or hells as primarily the pointing out of the earth.

Religion has had to provide that longest and strangest telescope – the telescope through which we could see the star upon which we dwelt…

This is the great fall, the fall by which the fish forgets the sea, the ox forgets the meadow, the clerk forgets the city, every man forgets his environment and, in the fullest and most literal sense, forgets himself…It is a strange thing that men…have actually spent some hours in speculating upon the precise location of the Garden of Eden. Most probably we are in Eden still. It is only our eyes that have changed (from the Introduction to The Defendant).

If anyone is going to speak with a prophetic voice in our time and place we are going to have to get a perspective on our culture that doesn’t come from our culture. We are going to have to, as insiders, look at ourselves from the outside. How are we going to do this? My own focus is on two things: First, counter-cultural church. If the church tightly resembles our culture, we will never be able to critique it, or ourselves. Second, old books, especially the Scriptures.

In Alister McGrath’s biography of C.S. Lewis, he writes,

For Lewis, the reading of literature – above all, the reading of older literature – is an important challenge to some premature judgments based on ‘chronological snobbery.’ Owen Barfield had taught Lewis to be suspicious of those who declaimed the inevitable superiority of the present over the past.

…Lewis argues that a familiarity with the literature of the past provides readers with a standpoint which gives them critical distance from their own era. Thus, it allows them to see ‘the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective.’ The reading of old books enable us to avoid becoming passive captives of the Spirit of the Age by keeping ‘the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds’ (p. 187).

It’s not secret why Lewis and Chesterton were able to point ‘that longest and strangest telescope’ on the world in which they lived. It was because they very often had their feet in another world altogether. Most of that was due to old books. If the sky isn’t rolled back as a scroll for us, if we do not see the heavenly vision of the prophet in the flesh, the closest we will ever get is in old books. The Bible provides 66 of them. And the church, though imperfect, has provided many, many more.

The Poetry and Beauty of the New Technological Environment (The Medium is the Massage)

Many of our institutions suppress all the natural direct experience of youth, who respond with untaught delight to the poetry and the beauty of the new technological environment, the environment of popular culture. It could be their door to all past achievement if study as an active (and not necessarily benign) force.

-Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage

We tend to see things in terms of their utility. We emphasize technology in the classroom because of its usefulness and potential harm. Part of McLuhan’s point here is that we shouldn’t simply think of technology as something good or bad, useful or detrimental. Instead we should see the poetic sway it holds over young people. What is the beauty of it that attracts the digital native? If we can see those points, we will be able to open doors to other things that are beautiful – and especially to Christ, who alone gives us rest.

Is it technology’s power that allures? Is it technology’s offer of community? Is it technology’s offer of answers to countless questions? Is it technology’s offer of shalom? We know the true Source of such beauties, and the only real Source of provision.