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The Problem of Technicism in Conventional Education

Technicism is not simply an over-fascination with technology as a means of stimulating learning out of students, though that problem plagues conventional education as well. Instead, technicism refers to a broader ideological approach to education that has become captivated by quantitative measurements and the economic evaluation of success. In technicism education has been reduced to something that can be measured in numbers alone. Teachers are made into technicians, who simply pull the levers and push the buttons assigned to them by the ruling technocrats. Technicism focuses on quantities and techniques, rather than quality and values.

It is not only the Classical School renewal movement that views technicism as a problem. For instance, in a leading educational journal David Carr and Don Skinner note the wide influence of technicist models on theory about learning and the professional role of the teacher, and then bemoan how “their baleful influence—on, for example, latter day talk of learning objectives, attainment targets, performance indicators and curriculum delivery—is everywhere apparent in the contemporary ‘audit culture’ of educational theory and policy….”[1] Now let’s not get this wrong. An ‘audit culture’ is a very fine thing, if what we are concerned with is factories, markets, money and products. But it is at least a questionable theoretical assumption that schools should be modelled on this plan. Inevitably, such a pattern turns the focus away from many of the things that really matter in education, like the cultivation of wisdom and virtue. A government bureau of education can hardly be concerned with such things, when handy charts and graphs stand before them emphasizing the bottom line and the achievement gap.

If there is a defense given for a technicist model of education, it rests on the assumption that education is an applied science, like the medical practice. In this line of thinking teachers themselves need not be concerned with the theory behind the practices they employ (Who cares for all that heady stuff, anyway?), only with efficiently employing them in order to get results, measured of course in high test scores. After all, the average doctor only needs to be able to diagnose and treat patients, rather than understand all the detailed scientific theory that may undergird such practices. It is hard to argue against an analogy with so revered a profession as medicine, but here the analogy must fail. Who will be a better teacher: one who has been given five ways to manage behavior in the classroom and eight types of lesson plans, or one who has refined and honed teaching practices over years of seeking the truth in the theories of educational philosophers? How can an unreflective teacher impart and embody wisdom?

The theology of wisdom in Proverbs 1-9 provides an antidote to the technicist over-fascination with techniques and quantitative assessment. The Hebrew concept of ḥokmâ or wisdom likely grew out of the idea of skillful expertise in some craft, i.e. technical skill. Yet in Proverbs we see it broadened and deepened into the masterful understanding for life that the English word ‘wisdom’ evokes for us today. The roles of parent and sage are fused within this holistic and value-laden passing on of the tradition. In Proverbs the prototypical son is being educated for life, the royal son is being educated to rule, and the noble’s son to carry out his official duties in the royal court. This training in technical proficiency is carried out by the father/sage in a heavily value-laden context. The student is to love wisdom and to seek it above riches; he is to reject folly in both his princely duties and his personal life.

Classical education in the tradition of Proverbs does not reject technē, all the techniques and quantitative measures. It simply puts them in the proper role of subservience under qualitative values and ideals for life. This will inevitably transform them, since all the techniques classical educators use must be fitted to wisdom’s ends. Nevertheless, techniques, arts, judgments themselves remain intact under the guidance of wisdom. After all, Wisdom herself rules over all technē as a master craftsman, who was with God at the beginning as he wisely ordered all of creation (Proverbs 8:22-31). Yet this holistic vision of education requires much of the teacher. In classical education the teacher must be a magister of the arts, a sage, a philosopher; must be a participant in the Wisdom that comes from above. Only then can the teacher cultivate wisdom in the young and simple. Only then will the teacher wisely order techniques, practices and assessments to the right ends. Let those of us who teach be always sure to consider wisdom more valuable than gold and silver. Only then will we avoid the trap of technicism in trading quality for quantity.

[1] David Carr and Don Skinner, “The Cultural Roots of Professional Wisdom: Towards a Broader View of Teacher Expertise,” Educational Philosophy and Theory, 41, no. 2 (2009): 144.

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