Hansel and Gretel


Recently, two young teachers recently offered me wildly contrasting views on humanist education.

You know, humanism, where [1] the individual student’s cognitive, social, and emotional development is the teacher’s and school’s central focus and [2] the curriculum accentuates “an inclusive sensibility for our species, planet, and lives.”

One of the teachers sees humanist education more to the right, regrettably out-of-date and akin to the thinking of a “dinosaur.” The other sees such humanist values as much to the left, as “radical.” All three of us, however, want to see humanism as deeply centrist, with humans smack dab in the middle of the purpose of learning.

Our present Age of Empiricism, sometimes understood as the Age of Numbers, has shaped their understanding of what learning and schools are about. Naturally, they are products of the age. Public education is to be about chasing numbers: do it or be fired.

Looking ahead to the next age, the human teacher likely won’t be needed — certainly not as many of them. That Cyborg Age will shape that next generation’s education.


Gradually over the next twenty years in education, a basic equation will forge the Cyborg Age:

Advances in Technology (↑)
Tax Revenue for Education (↓)
Politically Expedient Attitudes about Teachers (↓)
The Cyborg Age

Advances in Technology (↑).

Today, technology is advancing to its most educationally dangerous place: very soon, we’re told, technology will be able to thoughtfully comprehend and evaluate student writing — to read and understand the very individualized meaning of a piece of writing, like this blog post, not simply to identify the writing’s grammar and spelling mistakes, as does word processing software.

On the surface of it, this technology seems great! The implications, though, are frightening. To young learners and to teachers.

Given its seeming attractiveness, the availability of this technology will quickly spread to replace the teachers’ critical thinking throughout one necessary sphere of most teachers’ jobs, evaluating written student work. Not just in standardized testing scenarios, but with all kinds of student writing. Heretofore, unless multiple choice testing, etc., technology has not boasted the ability to replace humans in cognitive education’s most critical area: evaluation of student proficiency. But, no longer.

Naturally, this advancement of artificial intelligence will force the next obvious question: what other critical spheres of teaching can technology-that-thinks-for-itself replace?

And here’s why this artificial intelligence shouldn’t be considered within educational assessment — beyond multiple choice tests, etc.

Lets take writing as an example.

The big reason students are asked to do so much writing in schools is that Writing is Thinking. The poet W. H. Auden said it well: “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” Even if artificial intelligence really can comprehend what a student writes, mull over it, and render a contextualized evaluation, like A- or C+, with comments about the piece’s merits and challenges, for students here’s why this advance in technology will become so problematic: Writing (aka, Thinking) needs an authentic audience. Why write if the audience is not human? If I believed that artificial intelligence would be the only reader of this post, would I write it? Kids writing purposefully for artificial intelligence to read, comprehend, and grade? C’mon now. After the novelty wears off, young people who so often crave the immediacy of human interaction and validation, who need strong, caring human teachers to ping back to them, will resent the purposeless of it. And, who could blame them?

And, while as an English teacher I might relish the idea of not ever having to grade another piece of writing, the integrity of education relies on the teacher’s ability to evaluate student growth (aka, thinking) and subsequently individualize instruction at the next stages of cognitive skill development.

Starting in 2014-2015, the nation’s two high-stakes tests, PARCC and Smarter Balance, are banking on this artificial intelligence to grade significant written portions of their exams. PARCC and Smarter Balance have been created to measure student progress with most of the nation’s new curriculum, the Common Core State Standards. When implemented fully, Common Core will be a huge step forward in America’s public education, unifying the nation’s expectations for what it means for a young person to be well educated, K-12. Artificial intelligence evaluating the successful implementation of CCSS, however, is a slippery, slippery, slippery step away from humanism. If perceived as successful in the minds of key stakeholders, tax payers and politicians, this artificial intelligence will further undermine the necessity of human teachers engaging human learners.

Technology that truly assists learning is precious. Technology that replaces humans doing essential humanist activities is fool’s gold.

Extrapolated further, will artificial intelligence also attend to the social and emotional development of our young people? Don’t laugh. While films like Her place an ambiguous future date on technology’s social-emotional capability, simpler versions of the technology exist today.

Tax Revenue for Education (↓).

As long as public education has existed, one important guiding notion in the business world, economies of scale, has necessarily influenced the quality of a humanist education. Class size is education’s version of economies of scale.

Tax revenue per district directly influences a district’s class size, whether it becomes larger or smaller, which directly influences the quality of the adult human teacher’s ability to teach and influence the human young people in a classroom. Seems natural enough to understand.

With a declining tax revenue or a desire to tighten a district’s budget, school leaders naturally look to increasing class sizes. If the important cognitive, social, and emotional spheres of human teachers are thought to be replaceable by artificial intelligence, the class size issue can become a wildly re-imagined notion. Naturally.

So wildly imaginable that the economies of scale mindset can envision that one cyborg per N number of students is way more cost effective than 100 teachers for every 1000 students. In a heated and air-conditioned complex of buildings? Students can surely attend classes at home in front of a computer engaging the cyborg. Teacher salaries and benefits? Gradually removed from the equation. Oh, and pensions? Don’t get the economy-of-scale folks started about teachers’ pensions.

Politically Expedient Attitudes about Teachers (↓).

But, speaking of the costs of buildings, salaries, benefits, and pensions into the future, what if artificial intelligence, here imagined as cyborgs, is thought to be able to “replace” the critical cognitive, social, and emotional spheres of human teachers?

What electable politician could possibly say, “No, I don’t want to go in this direction. Human teachers are not dinosaurs”?


Within the next twenty years,
will cyborgs teach America’s publicly educated children?

Depending on how you define “cyborg,”
Maybe not every school’s every classroom, but
And, with the student “attending” public education at home,

One thought on “Humanism

  1. “One cannot understand the history of education in the United States in the twentieth century unless one realizes that Edward L. Thorndike won and John Dewey lost.”
    –Ellen Lagemann

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