Humane Learning in the Age of the Computer


Russell Kirk's sobering reflections on the computer age are more pertinent today than at their writing in 1987.

Permit me to offer you some desultory reflections concerning the effect of the electronic computer upon the reason and the imagination. We are told by many voices that the computer will work a revolution in learning. So it may; but that accomplishment would not be salutary.

The primary end of the higher learning, in all lands and all times, has been what John Henry Newman called the training of the intellect to form a philosophical habit of mind. University and college were founded to develop right reason and imagination, for the sake of the person and the sake of the republic. The higher education, by its nature, is concerned with abstractions — rather difficult abstractions, both in the sciences and in humane studies. Most people, in any age, are not fond of abstractions. Therefore, in this democratic time, higher education stands in danger everywhere from levelling pressures.

In Britain, a few years ago, the member of the opposition who had been designated minister of education in a prospective Labour government denounced Oxford and Cambridge universities as “cancers.” Presumably he would have converted those ancient institutions, had it been in his power, into something like the Swedish “people's universities” — that is, institutions at which everybody could succeed, because all standards would be swept away for entrance or for graduation. Every man and woman an intellectual king or queen, with an Oxbridge degree! The trouble with this aspiration is that those kings and queens would be impoverished intellectually-and presumably Britain in general would be impoverished in more ways than one.

Recently we have heard similar voices in the graduate schools of Harvard. Why discriminate against indolence and stupidity? Why not let everybody graduate, regardless of performance in studies? Wouldn't that be the democratic way? If young people don't care for abstractions, and manifest a positive aversion to developing a philosophical habit of mind, why not give them what they think they would like: that is, the superficial counter-culture?

Such educational degradation of the democratic dogma already has prevailed throughout the Western world; it has gone farthest in France and Italy. At the University of Paris, several years ago, mobs of students rioted fiercely because the Socialist government had proposed a very modest restoration of intellectual standards at the end of the second year of university studies.

In the United States, ever since the Second World War and especially during the past two decades, the lowering of standards for admission and graduation, the notorious disgrace of “grade inflation”, and the loss of order and integration in curricula, are too widely known and regretted for me to need to labor these afflictions here. Some cold comfort may be found in the fact that we have not sinned more greatly than have other nations of the West—somewhat less, indeed.

Here and there, some signs of renewal in higher education may be discerned; certainly there occurs a great deal of bother about it. But it remains to be seen whether it is possible to restore or improve the true higher learning, what with the powerful political and economic pressures against improvement. Being somewhat gloomy by conviction, yet sanguine by temperament, I mutter to myself, “Say not the struggle naught availeth!”

Why are this lowering of standards and this loss of intellectual coherence ruinous to higher education? Because the higher learning is intended to develop, primarily, a philosophical habit of mind. The genuine higher education is not meant, really, to “create jobs” or to train technicians. Incidentally, the higher education does tend to have such results, too; but merely as by-products. We stand in danger of forgetting the fundamental aim in the pursuit of the incidentals.

Why were universities established, and what remain their more valuable functions? To discipline the mind; to give men and women long views, and to instill in them the virtue of prudence; to present a coherent body of knowledge for its own sake; to help the rising generation to make its way toward wisdom and virtue. The university is an instrument to teach that truth is better than falsehood, and wisdom better than ignorance. Of course the university has done other things as well, some of them mildly baneful—such as serving as a form of social snobbery. But I am speaking still of the higher learning's fundamental mission.

Now a higher schooling merely technological and skill-oriented — what once would have been called a mechanical education, as opposed to a liberal education — can neither impart wisdom to the person nor supply intellectual and moral leadership to the republic. I do not object to learning a trade — far from it. But a trade is best learned, ordinarily, through apprenticeship, internship, on the-job training, or technical schools. Except for the learned professions, learning a trade is ill suited to a university campus. The university has other responsibilities. For if the philosophical habit of mind is developed nowhere, “the center cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

Let me descend to particulars. The biggest fad in education today is the movement styled the Information Revolution. An extensive jargon is developing to serve this revolution's uses. The revolution is supposed to result in an Informational Society; we are even instructed that this Informational Society will supplant the Knowledge Society. Practically speaking, all this jargon means that in the highly-developed industrial countries, a much more extensive employment of computing machines and robots is occurring. One of the grave failings of American schooling, at every level, is the eagerness to embrace the newest gadget (mechanical or intellectual) at the expense of the tested tools of learning. Some here will remember how, during the 1950s and 1960s, we were told that audio-visual aids would supplant the teacher for most purposes. At gigantic public expense, film-projectors, sound systems, and other impedimenta were thrust upon virtually every school. Most of this hardware soon was locked away in closets, where it reposed until obsolete. Some firms made a great deal of money from selling it. Effective teaching still is done by effective live teachers, not by television sets, tapes, recordings, or projectors. “Programmed learning” was another step toward the vaunted Information Revolution. By and large, programmed learning did not work well. A human being talking with other human beings, and that antiquated tool called a book, have had more satisfactory results so far as genuine development of young intellects is concerned. Television certainly worked a revolution. But does anyone still maintain that the boob-tube has improved the minds of the young? Certainly television opened the way for an even fuller Information Revolution. The apologists for television used to tell us that their darling had molded the minds of “the best-informed generation in the history of America.” Also it had molded the minds of the most ignorant generation in the history of America, if we are to judge by the much-applauded report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education. As a witty friend of mine says, “This is the bird-brained generation.” He does not mean that young people have brains the size of birds'; instead, that like birds, boys and girls flit from flower to flower, watching the flickering screen, never settling long enough to learn anything important.

For information is not knowledge; and knowledge is not wisdom. This is movingly expressed by Eliot in some lines of his choruses for The Rock:

Where is the Life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries Bring us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.

Aye, where is the knowledge we have lost in information — not to mention the wisdom? What humane learning used to impart was not miscellaneous information, a random accumulation of facts, but instead an integrated and ordered body of knowledge that would develop the philosophical habit of mind-from which cast of mind one might find the way to wisdom of many sorts.

Doubtless the development of computers will confer various material benefits upon us. But so far as genuine education goes, the computer and its Informational Society may amount to a blight. They seem calculated to enfeeble the individual reason and to make most of us dependent upon an elite of computer programmers (at the higher level of the Informational Society, I mean). They may develop into vigorous enemies of the philosophical habit of mind.

Let me offer a very simple example of what I mean. At one time I was an electronic typist in the Ford Motor Company, working in conjunction with comptometer operators. Now and again the comptometer-men would fancy that something might be wrong with their computations; and they would appeal to me, for I had memorized the multiplication table at an early age. “What's seven times nine?” they would inquire. “ Sixty- three,” I would reply promptly. “Let's check that out,” they would murmur doubtfully. They never came to apprehend how I could be trusted more than their machines.

Everything depends on how the computers are programmed, and on who programs them, and with what intent. The man or woman who receives his information from on high, as gospel, tends to become servile — a mechanical.

Books and lectures about the Information Revolution have become numerous and profitable. One lady goes about to major cities lecturing on “information as a commodity.” (At the devil's booth, wisdom is one commodity not in stock.) This lady stands ready to restructure the whole educational system, through the information supplied by an organization for which she works. She is even ready to tackle World Peace.

“We continue to make decisions based almost on a nineteenth century sense of isolationism,” she told an interviewer. “How many Americans understand what's going on in Central and South America or even have any concepts of what those cultures are about? Or how many Americans understand the Soviet Union or China or Africa? As citizens we're going to have to dramatically speed up the amount of information we have about the rest of the world.”

Now doubtless it always has been desirable for more Americans to know more about affairs abroad; it is particularly desirable today. But information scarcely is lacking already. Are there no newspapers, popular magazines, serious periodicals, television sets, radios, teachers? The mass of miscellaneous information thrust upon us already is overwhelming and dismaying. What we need is not more information; what we require, as a public, is the ability to discriminate and integrate that mass of information, and to reflect upon it. For thirteen years I was a syndicated newspaper columnist. I found it quite impossible, though I was paid for the work, to gather and integrate all the information about everything that happened everywhere. I did not even learn to “understand Africa,” although I travelled there and read many serious books and articles about that continent.

Mere “speeding up” of the deluge of information cannot help us: for already information rushes upon us daily with a terrible velocity that the average man and woman, or even skilled journalists, cannot endure. How many newspapers are we to read, how many books on current affairs are we to absorb, how many lectures are we to hear? But possibly what the evangels of the Informational Society have in mind is this: so to select and pre-digest information that the public will receive such facts and opinions as the elite of the Informational Society think it well they should receive. Already we are subjected to a mild dose of this treatment by the pundits of television. It would be an exaggeration, and impolite, to call such arrangement and distribution of information “brainwashing.” Yet this facile delivery of allegedly accurate information may be ominous for the American democracy. Big Brother will inform us.

Undoubtedly commercial benefits result from increased use of computers, especially to the purveyors of hardware and software. We are told, too, that computers assist in diminishing certain types of learning-disability. And as Craig Brod observes in his book Technostress: the Human Cost of the Computer Revolution, “In the schools, districts vie to be the first to make computer courses compulsory or to find funding for kindergarten computers.” Enthusiasts for the Informational Society may be found everywhere. Members of the staff of the National Institute of Education inserted praise of “computer science” in the report of the Commission on Excellence in Education; they even made that alleged science one of their Five New Basics, commended to every school, along with English, mathematics, science, and social studies.

Now there is no more reason to object to learning how to use a computer in school, or at home, than there is to object to learning how to use a typewriter in school, or at home. But who speaks of Typewriter Science for grade schools? Are we to elevate computer operation and apprehension to a level equivalent to all the genuine sciences, which the Commission's report lumps together as Basic 3?

The development of electronic computers results from the genuine sciences of physics and mathematics. If we are to be masters of the computer, rather than its subjects, we need to understand physics and mathematics. Otherwise we are passive vessels, at best skilled operatives. And if facility in operating computers tends to be emphasized at the expense of serious study of physics and mathematics, the springs of the scientific imagination may dry up. This zeal for making “computer science” compulsory for practically everybody is rather as if, when Morse invented the telegraph, every school had been urged to devote a large proportion of its time and funds to teaching young people to be telegraphers. Is not the computer business, like industry generally, capable of instructing its own technicians?

Nevertheless, various institutions allegedly of higher learning already have proclaimed their fealty to Holy Computer. Some have made the completion of a course in computer science a requirement for graduation. “Relevance” is all — even when it is irrelevant to a philosophical habit of mind.

Dr. Joseph Weizenbaum, in 1984, was interviewed by a French magazine. Professor Weizenbaum has been a pioneer in the invention of the computer, devising the Eliza computer program, by which a computer “converses” with human beings. Weizenbaum is not pleased by the widespread enthusiasm for computerized schooling.

“The fad for home and school computers,” he says, “that is creating such a furor in the United States, as well as in Great Britain and France,” does mischief. “A new human malady has been invented, just as the makers of patent medicines in the past invented illnesses such as `tired blood.' Now it's computer illiteracy. The future, we are told, will belong to those familiar with the computer. What a joke this would be if only it didn't victimize so many innocent bystanders. It reminds me of the old encyclopedia fad: `If you buy one,' proclaimed the salesman, `your child will do better in school and succeed in life.' And parents complied. But the encyclopedia was rarely consulted and was soon retired to the shelves.”

The computer itself inhibits children's creativity, Weizenbaum goes on to say; nor do computers reinforce a child's problem-solving ability. The more one really knows about education by computer, apparently, the less one thinks of its possibilities.

Craig Brod, a psychotherapist, points out that computer advocates have for their goal the teaching of formal, mathematical logic, early in life. But as Saint Ambrose remarked, it has not pleased God that men should be saved by logic. Brod mentions that formal logic is only one of nine cognitive styles that children develop; and to emphasize one style unduly may diminish the other styles. “Once they stray outside the computer's world,” Brod writes of children thrust into this mindset, “they find their technical mastery irrelevant and their ability to communicate with others weakened. No one has proved that learning to write a good computer program helps a person behave with greater wisdom or reason in the real world. In fact, what is rational in a computer program — such, as efficiency and brevity — can appear irrational when it guides one's relationships with others.”

Such are the limits and perils of computer-schooling at the lower levels. What of humane learning at the level of the university?

Already, at some colleges, more than a third of the undergraduates are majors, or intending majors, in computer science-although the drop-out rate among this body of young persons is remarkably high. They are attracted by the glowing promise of lucrative employment in the booming computer industries, and perhaps by their addiction to video games. And they fancy, many of them, that computer-mastery is power.

This computer-fascination grows at the expense of humane learning; and if carried far enough, it works its own destruction. For the ingenious men of science who have given us the computer are not themselves the product of computerized schooling. Their powers of reason and imagination were developed out of old disciplines unrelated to electronic mechanical devices. They were not restricted, in school and college and university, to a single mode of cognition. But if the theories of the enthusiastic behaviorists and cognitive psychologists triumph, the computer-mentality will become virtually universal among the rising generation. Then we will have no more creative scientists, and no more humane scholars and men of letters. Then indeed a revolution will have occurred that is, we will have come full cycle, and the revolution will have devoured its children, as revolutions have a way of doing.

Brod makes this point succinctly: “Underlying the race to computerize the educational process is a deeper trend. An information-processing model of learning is gaining acceptance as the new educational norm. This model holds that the brain is essentially a data-processing computer. Knowledge and learning can be reduced to `effective procedures,' much like a computer program. Children's brains should thus accept any data that are `formatted correctly.' Schools have been on the defensive lately due to dropping student test scores and suspect teaching standards, and the information-processing model offers those institutions a way back to respectability.”

The creators of the computers, however, did not themselves suffer from pedagogical methods of this sort; they were not “formatted correctly.” Their insights came from different sources, highly mysterious sources, connected with what John Henry Newman called the illative sense. Their minds were not computerized, praise be.

“The cognitive psychologists, in promoting this brain-as-computer model, stress the advantages of speed, reliability, uniformity, and efficiency,” Brod continues. “Teachers and students can interact in specific predictable ways. Poor teaching can be controlled more easily because the teachers must no longer meet the demands of the humanist model, serving as a combination role model, entertainer, surrogate parent, psychologist, friend, and master of educational technique. Instead, the job of teaching can be, in effect, de-professionalized; one doesn't have to have years of experience or limitless insight in order to teach when one is following a comprehensive, step-by-step lesson plan.”

Aye, computerization might eliminate much teaching; also it might eliminate much thinking and imagining. Its aim is to produce “logical” intellects efficient for operating computers and obeying computers. Such an intellect is a servile intellect.

The triumph of the computer-theory of education also might bring about what Robert Graves prophetically denominates the Logicalist Society. In his romance of the future entitled Seven Days in New Crete, Graves pictures a future domination, after the post-Christian era, “called Logicalism-pantisocratic economics divorced from any religious or nationalistic theory.”

“Logicalism, hinged on international science, ushered in a gloomy and anti-poetic age. It lasted only a generation or two and ended with a grand defeatism, a sense of perfect futility, that slowly crept over the directors and managers of the regime. The common man had triumphed over his betters at last, but what was to follow? To what could he look forward with either hope or fear? By the abolition of sovereign states and the disarming of even the police forces, war had become impossible. No one who cherished any religious beliefs whatever, or was interested in sport, poetry, or the arts, was allowed to hold a position of public responsibility; 'ice-cold logic' was the most valued civic quality, and those who could not pretend to it were held of no account. Science continued laboriously to expand its over-large corpus of information, and the subjects of research grew more and more beautifully remote and abstract; yet the scientific obsession, so strong at the beginning of the third millenium A.D., was on the wane.”

Before long, most of the Logicalist directors and managers go mad, suffering from delusions. “No cure could be found by the psychiatrists, who were themselves peculiarly subject to this new form of insanity: all who caught it had to be 'lethalized.'” The Logicalist regime collapses; and so, in time, does the civilization — devoid of imagination and hope — that had produced Logicalism. For man does not live by ice-cold logic of the computerized variety.

A society dominated by the computer-mentality could be directed only by an elite of computer geniuses far wiser than Aristotle, Aquinas, or Bacon. But where are such wondrous programmers to come from? The minds of the men who offer us the computer theory of the human intellect — men like B. F. Skinner — are not imperial intellects; rather, they are afflicted by what Burke called “cold hearts and muddy understandings.” (It will be understood that I distinguish radically here between the zealots for computerized education and the imaginative scientists, Weizenbaum eminent among them, who have given us the perilous computer. As Weizenbaum says of attempts to apply the computer to automatic psychotherapy, “There's a whole world of real problems, of human problems, which is essentially being ignored.”) Indeed, a computerized people would be a race from among whom imperial intellects had been extirpated, as under Graves' Logicalism.

So let us drop some grains of salt into the Informational Society stew. It is humanitas, as the Romans called it, that rouses reason and imagination-including the scientific imagination. In particular, great humane literature, joined to the religious impulse, has brought about what Pico della Mirandola called “the dignity of man”, so that it is possible for human beings to be only a little lower than the angels. Infatuation with computerized minds and a computerized society can dehumanize.

Waves of technological innovation commonly carry in a mass of flotsam and jetsam. A disagreeable heap of such rubbish was flung upon the beaches of Academe by the ideological tempests of the 1960s and 1970s; we are only beginning to recover from the damage done to the philosophical habit of mind by that storm. The gentlefolk and scholars of the Academy would be highly imprudent if they should assist in fresh devastation by setting gadgetry above humane learning.

What we ought to resist is a schooling that turns out young people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing: people replete with information and unable to digest it. If we restore the dignity of humane learning, we may transcend the Informational Society; we may even achieve a Tolerable Society.


Kirk, Russell. “Humane Learning in the Age of the Computer” In The Wise Men Know What Things are Written on the Sky (Washington: Regnery Gateway, 1987), 90-100.

Reprinted by permission of Annette Y. Kirk, president of the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, P.O. Box 4, Mecosta, MI 49332.


The late Russell Kirk was a seminal thinker and writer and a widely acknowledged leader of the Conservative movement for many years.

Copyright © 1987 Annette Y. Kirk

The Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal

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