The campus was privileged, last weekend, to host a conference called Digital Diploma Mills. The conference was developed and carried through by David Noble, Hixon-Riggs Visiting Professor of Science, Technology, and Society. David's paper on Digital Diploma Mills represents the background for this conference.
It was an intellectually exciting conference on a timely issue. Many interesting people came to Claremont to speak about a collection of topics that ranged from basic problems of labor history to the newest challenges of digital "distance learning." All in all, it was one of the most appropriate conferences that I have witnessed at Harvey Mudd College -- appropriate because it inquired directly into the impact of science and technology on human and social values without pulling any punches.
I have just one complaint but it seems to me that it is a basic one that we need to deal with before this discussion continues. While some panelists tried to address this point, I thought they clearly failed. As evidence, look at the article by Jeffrey Young in The Chronicle of Higher Education for May 8, 1998. "Why is higher education so infatuated with technology?" Young asks. Over and over, the potential villain is "technology." The conference participants regularly made the same broad references.
My complaint is about this word. I agree with the Spanish philosophy Jose Ortega y Gasset that, stripping technology away from man would be equivalent to taking man away from man. ("Man the Technician") That is, the impulse of technology seems to be with man from the origins; the presence of tools is how archaeologists suggest the presence of man instead of his precursors. As I see it, technology is a pervasive human trait. That is, humans are distinguished by their interest in changing the way the world is. Humans are such passionate technicians, in fact, that they rarely even notice their instinctive life.
In this respect, higher education, as such, is an expression of technology. It is a way of re-designing the world in order to better achieve certain human purposes. Like most advanced technologies, higher education is complex. That is, it involves bringing people together in a variety of ways and arranging for them to interact through diverse media. It is a complex, carefully designed world and not a natural one. Taken literally, the question above does not make sense. Higher education is not infatuated with technology; it is already a complex form of human technology.
One of these "designs" is the four-year residential college. It is different from an on-the-job training school and from a research university. The actual structure (arrangement) of a technology has some correspondence to the goals we seek to achieve. The question before us, then, is not whether technology is to be used in college but whether a certain subordinate technology can be usefully employed in an overall college design, that is, within the overarching technology of college life. We already use countless subordinate technologies in achieving that design; and we have been doing that as long as residential colleges have existed.
As a piece of subordinate technology, the computer has been around and has demonstrated its usefulness for a long time. In more recent time, however, computers have gotten "wired" so that they are interconnected in huge networks. Participation in the Internet, in fact, opens a personal computer to worldwide communications. To what degree is this technology useful within the overall design of a four-year residential college; and what impact would it have on college life. These are the questions that seem appropriate to ask. The central question, in fact, is whether the computer network should figure into pedagogy or whether there is something in this application that will detract from the educational experience and cause us to fail in meeting our educational goals. These are basic questions about "design" and they should enter into every application of subordinate technologies within any over-arching structure of behavior.
What we need to remember is that technology is no villain. That's like accusing men of original sin. The issue, as Ortega argues, is determining our own "vital interests." These are what should determine the pieces that go together in our designs. The great problem of our time, as Ortega also realized, is that we are rapidly losing touch with our vital interests. If we merely welcome change because machines have been invented and we consistently ignore what we are all about, we invite disaster. We could design a new university in which no one really belongs -- no student body and no faculty.
Tad Beckman, Harvey Mudd College
Claremont, CA 91711
April 28, 1998