Heidegger, Technology, Higher Education, and Me

by Peter Augustine Lawler

So I’m finally getting around to telling you about the Winter issue of  The New Atlantis. Mark Blitz has a penetrating and wonderfully clear article about how to understand the most influential and (who knows?) maybe the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, Martin Heidegger. It reminded me that when I say that the real threat to higher education is not political correctness (which is mostly ridiculous and easily mocked by libertarians) but techno-vocationalism, or the tyranny of middle-class thinking (the thinking of free beings who work, beings with interests and nothing more), to some extent I’m really sampling Heidegger on the omnipresence of technological thinking in our world.  Here is Mark’s tight and right summary of Heidegger’s view:

All things increasingly present themselves to us as technological: we see them and treat them as what Heidegger calls a “standing reserve,” supplies in a storeroom, as it were, pieces of inventory to be ordered and conscripted, assembled and disassembled, set up and set aside. Everything approaches us merely as a source of energy or as something we must organize. We treat even human capabilities as though they were only means for technological procedures, as when a worker becomes nothing but an instrument for production. Leaders and planners, along with the rest of us, are mere human resources to be arranged, rearranged, and disposed of. Each and every thing that presents itself technologically thereby loses its distinctive independence and form. We push aside, obscure, or simply cannot see, other possibilities.

Mark also forcefully reminds us that Heidegger, as a totalizing thinker, exaggerates (sometimes, I think, shamelessly). He and Marx, despite their great differences, both want to explain everything according to the horizon or Historical perspective — technology or “capitalism” — that governs our time. There’s no place for personal, relational freedom and all that.  Our libertarian theorists are really no different, viewing the whole truth about who we are to be self-interested productivity in the service of the weightless preferences found on the ever-expanding menu of choice.

So when I say that the danger is that all American education becomes technological, I don’t mean it actually has or even actually will. I mean that our experts are thoughtlessly distorted by viewing technological thinking — or quantitative assessments of the skills and competencies required for flourishing in the 21st-century competitive marketplace — as the whole of real thinking about who we are and what we’re supposed to do. And so they’re reducing our kids to “instruments for production.” One problem with that reductionism is that it even turns out to be bad for productivity. At my pay grade, all I can do for you is deliver an array of provocations designed to get you to think outside the Heidegger/Marx/libertarian box.

Gilbert Meilaender, the distinguished theologian, also has an article in the Winter issue that claims that liberal education can’t be the antidote to technological thinking — or the perspective of ungrateful mastery — for most college students these days. What passes for liberal education as general education is too undisciplined and unserious, and most students properly regard college as preparation for a vocation and nothing more. Meandering through “liberal education” turns out to be, in most cases, a waste of time and money. What most students — most people — need as an effective anti-technological antidote is the experience of worship. I think Gil is wrong about a lot (although right about the indispensability of worship), but I’ll have to explain later.