The Judgment of Thamus: Education Technology and the Outsourcing of Knowledge

I was at a meeting of private educators in our state a couple of years ago, and afterwards an acquaintance, who was the superintendent of a local private school system, came up to me. He was very excited. He had gotten a grant to provide students in his schools with iPads. I didn’t have the heart to tell him, but I was not nearly as excited about the prospect as he was. In fact, I didn’t think it was a good idea at all.

As educators, I think all of us are aware of the technological idolatry that characterizes much of our profession. There is an assumption that the more technology we use, the better off we are. But we should be cautious about the excessive use of technology in schools, and specifically as classical educators, we should be especially so.

The Judgment of Thamus

In Plato’s dialogue, Phaedrus, Socrates tells a parable: A famous old god called Theuth is being questioned by another god, Thamus, king of Egypt, about the many arts he has invented. About the art of writing, Theuth declares: “Here is an accomplishment, my lord the king, which will improve both the wisdom and the memory of Egyptians. I have discovered a sure receipt for memory and wisdom.” Thamus replies:

Those who acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of their own internal resources … What you have discovered is a receipt for recollection, not for memory. And as for wisdom, your pupils will have the reputation for it without the reality: They will receive a quantity of information without proper instruction.

He says that writing is a kind of communications technology. Though it may be said to help the person using it gain knowledge, it can actually do the opposite.

Note that Thamus does not say that writing is, of itself, bad. Plato elsewhere talks of what writing is good for, and says that, when rightly used, it can even serve the purpose of knowledge acquisition—when used as an aid for memory, and not as a replacement.

Writing has a place, and its main place, argues Plato, is to facilitate the engraving of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful on our own souls. Plato’s problem with writing is that, when not used properly, it doesn’t do this. And if it doesn’t do this, then it is useless, even harmful. And the problems Plato thinks are brought about by writing are exacerbated by more sophisticated communications technologies we see today. What writing does, computers do in an exponentially more egregious way.

When used carelessly, educational technology doesn’t give us encouragement to develop our minds—it doesn’t provide us with encouragement to remember, with encouragement to know, or with encouragement to think. Instead, it provides us with encouragement not to have to memorize, not to have to know, not to have to think. It is not there to facilitate what we already do—it promises to do it for us.

When used improperly educational technology doesn’t serve to help you. It serves only to replace you.

Outsourcing Knowledge

There is an old episode of “Gilligan’s Island” (yes, I know, it’s a steep dropoff from Plato to Gilligan, but stay with me) in which Gilligan saves the life of a native girl who has been taken to the island. She feels beholden to him and vows to serve him. One of Gilligan’s daily routines is to exercise on an exercise bicycle the Professor has made for him. Gilligan shows up one morning and she is pedaling the exercise bicycle. Gilligan says, “What are you doing?” She responds, “I am exercising for you.”

Though the native girl is trying to help, she is not, in fact, helping him. In order for Gilligan to get his exercise, he must do it himself. It cannot be done for him. The Professor helped him by building the bicycle, but the native girl does something quite different: She does not help him, she replaces him.

What writing does (and what computer technology encourages us even more to do) is not to inculcate knowledge, but to outsource it.

Knowledge, by definition, involves memory. But to memorize something is to know it without external helps.

Now, again, educational technology can help. I remember a fairly primitive piece of technology, which was popular when my kids were young. It was called “GeoSafari” and was designed to teach students geographical facts. It did this beautifully and efficiently. My daughter spent hours at this machine, and gained a great deal of geographical knowledge from it.

Educational technology when rightly used is like the Professor, who assists Gilligan by helping him do what he needs to do. Educational technology when wrongly used is like the native girl, who does the work for him, and therefore prevents him from receiving its benefit.

Dulling Wisdom

Thamus not only thinks that learning technology—in his case, writing—will hamper the acquisition of knowledge, but that it will hamper the development of wisdom: “And as for wisdom, your pupils … will receive a quantity of information without proper instruction.”

What does he mean here by “proper instruction”? What kind of instruction do we need in order to deal with information? The answer is that we need a framework in which to interpret it, a structure within which we can see its meaning. This is what Plato means by “wisdom.” Outside of an intellectual framework, information has no meaning. This is the problem that much modern technology tends to magnify. Our problem is not an information dearth, but an information glut—a glut of unorganized and out-of-context information.

As Neil Postman has pointed out, starting in the seventeenth century schools were formed for specifically this reason: to bring order to the chaos of information that had been produced by the print revolution. And in large part, they were able to accomplish this. Why? Because, despite the volume of information during this period, there was still a structure in which everyone together could understand it.

But our institutions of education today acknowledge no coherent picture of the world. They admit no inherent order in either the structure of knowledge itself or in the way it should be presented to students. When we unquestioningly admit educational technology into our schools, we make things worse.

There are two solutions to this problem: the modern one and the classical Christian one. The modern solution to the problem of random, disconnected information is to provide students with more of it. The classical Christian solution is to teach our children how to order it.

“That man is wise,” says St. Thomas Aquinas, writing in the fourteenth century, “who orders things rightly.” In other words, the wise man is the man who knows where to put things. He knows what is important and he knows what is less so—and what should be done with his knowledge and what shouldn’t be done with it. And the only way he can know this is to have a system of meaning that dictates the proper place of everything.

That is what wisdom is: It is knowing how to order our knowledge of the world so we can know how to think about it. And this is what classical Christian education provides. Through the human, natural, and theological sciences, we gain the knowledge we need. And through the liberal arts, the training of our faculties of thought, we develop the wisdom we need to know what to do with this knowledge.

Technology can help in doing this, but often it doesn’t, and we need wisdom to tell us the difference.

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