Along with his teaching responsibilities, Dr. David Gill works with faculty in fulfilling the college's commitment to ethics-across-the-curriculum. Gill's primary teaching and research is Christian ethics. He is best known as a scholar for his work on the thought of the French sociologist and ethicist Jacques Ellul. Gill is the author of three books including The Opening of the Christian Mind (Intervarsity Press, 1989). He and his wife, Lucia, have two children.
"In the modern world, the most dangerous form of determinism is the technological phenomenon. It is not a question of getting rid of it, but, by an act of freedom, of transcending it. . . The first step in the quest, the first act of freedom, is to become aware of the necessity."
With the death (in May 1994) of the University of Bordeaux sociologist Jacques Ellul, the world lost its most radical, unremitting critic of the impact of technology on modernity. Of course, his writings remain available to those willing to engage in a tenacious search. Neil Postman's Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, Ian Barbour's Ethics in An Age of Technology, Carl Mitcham's Thinking Through Technology, Stephen Monsma's Responsible Technology, and other works, continue the discussion, pushing it in one direction or another in valuable ways.
Many, of course, view any criticism of technology as misguided and they welcome the development and invasion of technology with glee. Technology is a great, positive gift! For others, technology is neutral; it is merely a set of tools, empowering us for our various tasks, a means to our ends. Moral evaluation, in this view, is appropriately directed at an assessment of the ends, and of the users of various technologies, not at the technical means, per se, which are but neutral instruments.
At the outset, then, let us agree that the moral character of technology's users and of technology's consequences are important matters. But the character of the means affects both its users and the character of its ends. The means may also become ends-in-themselves, being developed and deployed "just because" it is possible to do so and not in conscious service of some good end.
In a Christian worldview, at least, there is an indissoluble relation of means to ends. Our means cannot be independent but must exhibit and partake of the end. There must be no contradiction of means and ends, no talk of (good) ends "justifying' (dubious or evil) means. Our ends must be God's ends, the coming kingdom of God. And while we live "in the night," we must act "as in the day" (Rom. 13:11-14). In a Christian worldview, knowledge carries with it responsibility; we must not dissociate technological research, knowledge, and development from a responsible examination of the consequences.
As we examine technology, we need to review it on two levels. First, there is the level of technological "tools." Computers, hydroelectric plants, televisions, and automobiles are examples of such tools. But, second, technology is a "method." Technology is the development of "techniques" or "means" for effectively achieving practical results. Specifically, the technological method is characterized by rationality, artificiality, and efficiency. Rather than following nature, tradition, spirituality, or intuition, technology rigorously subjects its elements to rational analysis, and quantifies, measures, and develops artificial means which are demonstrably as efficient as possible. Technology is the development of the "one best means in every field." In this sense, technology is present not just in our tools (computers, etc.), but also in our political organization (bureaucracy), and in techniques for psychotherapy, church growth, sexual relations, and so on.
In the most basic sense, the development of our technology (both tools and methods) has wonderfully assisted higher education. Transportation technologies make it possible for us to travel places to teach and learn. Engineering and construction technologies provide us with comfortable, well-lighted environments for study. Organizational techniques make possible the integration of masses of people into institutions of higher learning. Who would want to return to an era when higher education was accessible only to the few and the privileged?
Education has always been concerned about information. Reducing history and literature from oral to written form was a great advance: ideas and information could be studied even in the absence of a teacher. The development of the printing press meant that such reading would be widely accessible, no longer requiring a pilgrimage to the location of handwritten copies.
In our generation, information technologies have moved us miles beyond this stage, and transformed higher education. Writing papers or books without a personal computer is almost unthinkable today. Inexpensive photocopiers and fax machines greatly enhance our capacities for distributing our writings. CD-ROM, electronic mail, and computer networks give us access to almost unlimited information. We can communicate by telephone, fax, or e-mail almost anywhere in the world.
Computers allow us to simulate experiments to a degree unthinkable in traditional laboratories. Video technologies permit viewers to listen to and watch lecturers or study objects thousands of miles away, often in detail unavailable in any other format. Lectures and presentations are augmented and often enriched with audio-visual presentations. Communications technologies make possible interactive learning, both with information and with teachers and fellow-students in other locations.
The development of educational technology is unlikely to slow down. In a recent article in the Sunday New York Times educational supplement, Rosalie Stemer reviewed the growth of "The Virtual Classroom." She describes a class in electrical engineering at Southern Methodist that includes not only 44 bodies present but six others watching live from New Jersey on television monitors, occasionally interrupting the class on speaker-phones. The six are working toward degrees from the National Technological University in Colorado, which offers similar courses from 45 other universities!
The State University of New York and the California State University, two of the largest multi-campus systems in the United States, are experimenting with electronic "classrooms" utilizing video, computer networks, and machine-graded examinations. Even on some smaller college campuses, students may "take a class" in a computer lab or on their dorm room computer. What drives these developments is (1) the potential economies of one teacher with a class of hundreds or thousands, (2) the potential to educate many students who would not otherwise be able to get to campus, (3) the possibility of more people studying with high- demand, "star" faculty, and (4) the opportunity to actively involve students by giving them computers capable of experiments and greater interaction (rather than passively sitting through a lecture).
Students in a physics studio at Rensselaer Polytechnic "sit at computer work stations that provide text, full-motion video, audio, color photos, graphs and spreadsheets. Probes hooked up to computers let students carry out experiments. Multimedia software asks questions, displays and analyzes student responses, plots results and outcomes, and then asks new questions." According to Stemer, some faculty and administrators worry about the effects of high-tech higher education on the student- teacher relationship. But a greater concern seems to be whether faculty members will be adequately compensated (e.g., for their video performances), and whether job security and turf control are protected.
It is hard not to be appreciative of much of this technological development. I, for one, am very grateful for the personal computer as it has assisted me and my students in writing and editing (I don't think we are just "word processing"). I am very happy that I have two video interviews of Jacques Ellul (albeit in French, which limits their usefulness with most of my students), since he never came to the U.S., and is now departed. I am working on developing a video series in Christian ethics.
Christians, after all, are called to be "in the world" as "ambassadors" for Jesus Christ. We can hardly do that very well unless we learn the language, the customs, and the terrain of the country to which we have been sent. This country speaks the "language" of technology and the computer. It "speaks" e-mail and fax and "travels" by audio and video. We will fail as ambassadors if we do not learn the language--no less than if we were to be sent to France and refused to learn French.
But even in France, even while speaking French, our accent would remain because of our deep socialization by our home country. Our heart, our values, our character, our ends, would derive from the home country we represent. While we are "in" the world, we are "not of" the world (John 17: 14-18). We live in "this age" but we are not to be conformed to it, but rather transformed by the renewal of our mind, and conformed to the "age to come" (Rom. 12:1-2; 13:11-14). The Christian "is the citizen of another Kingdom, and it is thence that he derives his way of thinking, judging, and feeling. His heart and his thought are elsewhere. He is the subject of another State, he is the ambassador of this State upon earth; that is to say, he ought to present the demands of his Master, he establishes a relation between the two, but he cannot take the side of the world. He stands up for the interests of his Master, as an ambassador champions the interests of his country."
In particular, then, I want to raise six issues which are points of tension between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of technology, for educators. These are not necessarily the only, or the six most important, points to be raised. But each of them is important and perhaps the whole will provoke us to pursue our project as Christ's ambassadors in higher education. In the way we teach our students, design our courses and curricula, speak up in faculty meetings, and model of a different style of life and work, these might become some of our concerns.
In the above, I have not spelled out in any detail an alternative Christian vision. The six issues, and my provocative language of resistance, are each worthy of debate. The extent to which these (and other) points of tension are experienced or observed by faculty and administrators will differ from place to place and field to field. My purpose is to give a perspective which provokes Christians in higher education to cultivate their specific identity as ambassadors of Christ's kingdom, and then carefully examine their relationship to the rising dominance of technological tools and methods in higher education. We have only one God, and it can't be Technology.