Saturday, June 13, 2015

Engines were made for men, not men for engines

The end is nigh, as they say.

No, not that end, but the grading.  A few more papers and then I will be done with the term and with the year.

An unlucky number--thirteen--of years at this place.  In my career, this is by far the most number of years I have worked for the same employer, who will perhaps remain my employer until I retire or die.  Almost six years was the other long stint.  The shortest was three weeks.

The three-week job, along with the three-months and the six-months at other two places, clarified for me that I am not here in order to work with machines almost to the point of working for the machines.  I wanted to think for myself--at any cost.

Which is why the quote that I came across today, which is the title of this post, appealed to me, though the "statesman" who uttered it shall ever remain in my books as a white supremacist!

That racist apparently said at the University of Miami in 1946:
Expert knowledge, however indispensable, is no substitute for a generous and comprehending outlook upon the human story with all its sadness and with all its unquenchable hope.
It is that human story that I am after in my own way.  While I might be formally employed to teach in the department of geography, my hope is that I am guiding students towards articulating for themselves what it means to be human, what it means to belong to the humankind, and how we fit into the grander narrative.

At least one student figured it out--a few years ago, in a third course that he was taking with me, he remarked loudly in the classroom, "you teach the same stuff in all your classes."  Guilty as charged!  My courses are not really about geography or economics or cities--those are merely the stories that I use so that students can think about those fundamental questions for themselves.

Why is that thinking for/by themselves about their own place in the grand narrative so important?
we're living at a time when public moral deliberation is rapidly moving away from considerations of ultimate ends, ideals of human flourishing, in favor of a morality of rights that is largely indifferent to what individuals do with their freedom. As long as you refrain from harming others, you are free to pursue happiness however you like, no questions asked.
Politically speaking, this might be the best available strategy for people who disagree about the highest good to live together pluralistically in relative peace. But this doesn't mean that it's possible for individual human beings to forego the question of how to live, to bypass the question of human flourishing — what it consists in, and how to achieve it. In fact, with the retreat of institutions that once proposed compelling comprehensive visions of the good life, the burden of choosing among various ways of life falls more than ever on the shoulders of individuals.
I worry that college education increasingly fails at this. Instead, education is almost always treated as if humans were made for engines of various kinds.  A "mercenary expedition" is how I characterized higher education in a work-related email yesterday!

Oh well; it is a good thing that even that end is not far away.


Anne in Salem said...

Machines - computers, robots, dishwashers - are tools to improve lives. End of subject. The human aspect of life - social, emotional, mental, spiritual - is what matters. Humans thrived long before machines existed. Human interaction - conversation, sharing, hugs, tears, laughter, learning - might be enhanced by machines, as this blog is available only because of machines, but human interaction is what matters.

Ramesh said...

A "hopping" post flirting with one issue after another. From baiting machines [:)] to firing an arrow at Churchill to the need to think for ourselves - you probably wrote this post as you were driving :)

Let me pick just one issue and argue against the depiction of Churchill. As with all of us, Churchill had agreeable and disagreeable traits. But to depict his defining characteristic as racist is, I believe, unfair. In the context of his time, he was perhaps no different from the general society around him. From an Indian point of view, he was indeed a much hated man - it is questionable if India would have got independence when it did, if he had not lost the post war elections. And yet, he was not a completely dishonourable man.

Sriram Khé said...

Yes, Anne, "human interaction" is what matters ... but, that is the priority to only a few of us who think about what it means to be human. I am not referring to interactions like parties, of course--way more meaningful and profound than that.

Ramesh, I blogged all that while I was comfortably seated at home, on steady ground ;)
Let me repeat again: Churchill was a white supremacist. He was racist. He believed that the brown-skinned were inferior. He believed in the superiority of the English. I know you adore the BBC, so will provide you with this summary of that "statesman":
The Bengal famine issue merely illustrates how he was out of step with the enlightened of his own times--it is not that I am comparing his values against modern day values. Even his own cabinet colleagues tried to talk him into sending food to Bengal, but Churchill couldn't care because adding to the food storage for the white-skinned in England was more important to him than feeding the brown-skinned who were dying in the millions.