Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Robots, 3D Printers, and Why We Need Classical Education

“The restructuring of human work and association was shaped by the technique of fragmentation that is the essence of machine technology. The essence of automation technology is the opposite. It is integral and decentralist in depth, just as the machine was fragmentary, centralists, and superficial in its patterning of human relationships.” 
“Our education has long ago acquired the fragmentary and piecemeal character of mechanism. It is now under increasing pressure to acquire the depth and interrelation that are indispensable in the all-at-once world of electric organization. Paradoxically, automation makes liberal education mandatory.” 
Marshall McLuhan

What is 3D printing?

For example: custom-fit titanium horseshoes printed by 3D process

The increasing use of automation in factory production:

Self-assembling cube robots:

In the age of robots and computers assembling and disassembling themselves, additive manufacturing (3D printing) making small-scale, customized and even intensely complex production possible, and automation increasingly taking over the essential production of goods, the contemporary person finds himself in a position similar to that of the ancient Greek citizen. In that world, production was done by others (slaves and menial laborers) freeing up the citizen for creative and civic action. Only a few received this ‘liberal’ education since the great majority were needed for basic production and only the few could afford the luxury of education; the majority were trained for production.

We find ourselves in just such a world, except that now the majority are increasingly no longer needed for the production of basic needs, or even luxuries. The general standard of living rises with less and less actual production work required of fewer and fewer people. This does not mean that people are not needed, but that their time will increasingly be spent in other pursuits, that work will change to resemble more and more that of the artist. (We will all, as McLuhan says,  become artists. While this may be hyperbole, the artist is a type of the kind of worker who will be the norm rather than the exception.) Creative and integrated work will increasingly fill our work days. And for this kind of work, training in specific ‘job skills’, which become obsolete with the next generation of machine or software, is completely inadequate.

The calls for more technical training, more math training—while in themselves not wrong—entirely miss the greater point. Mere training in technical proficiency without a broader understanding of the world, people, and self, risks relegating the student to merely serve the function or task he has been trained to do. It is only a liberal arts education that can free people for other things. They may, of course, choose to use their education in technical fields, but they will only have the choice if they have a liberal arts education. All other mere training will condemn them to servitude alongside the mechanisms they will service—indeed, in many ways they will only be trained to be servants of the machines.

The kind of education we need now is focused on broad and flexible learning, probing deeply into questions of meaning and connection, rich in developing across-the-board tools of learning including memory, logical thinking, and effective communication. This education then, rather than being for the few, must be for the many. It is like the ancient world in that education is for the free citizen with time and creative energy and the ability to contribute to his community, except that now this could, and must, include the majority. The grim alternative is a training that prepares people for a life of service to the productive mechanisms, punctuated only by periods—increasingly long as automated processes grow more productive—of amusement (entertainment, politics, and even religion) designed by others, to be consumed by the unaware.

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