We live in a technocratic age, where we want data about everything and must measure things in every conceivable way. While we are awash in information, we are not necessarily better informed or a better society. The vast networks of social media are also used against us by terrorists, demagogues, and marketers. Fortunately, we have voices of reason that remind us such matters, that there are things bigger than what can be supplied by algorithms, such as values and ethics. One of those voices is Marilynne Robinson, novelist and essayist, who writes broadly about contemporary issues from a Christian perspective.
Her current book is The Givenness of Things: Essays (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2015), a collection of seventeen essays all focusing in one way or another on the notion that we are far more than the technologies we use (or misuse). Right from the start, she presents the challenge: “Now we are less interested in equipping and refining thought, more interested in creating and mastering technologies that will yield measurable enhancements of material well-being – for those who create and master them, at least” (p. 3). Even in our universities we emphasize acquiring skills and vocationalism rather than learning. Universities were once places where you read, thought, and debated. Robinson states, “Open a book and a voice speaks. A world, more or less, alien or welcoming, emerges to enrich a reader’s store of hypotheses, about how life is to be understood” (p. 15). Now faculties are sometimes loath to assign books because students often will not read them. “Now we are more inclined to speak of information than of learning, and to think of the means by which information is transmitted rather than of how learning might transform, and be transformed by the atmospheres of a given mind” (p. 28). What, we might ask, are we losing in all this?
Why has this happened in higher education? Robinson contends, “The university now seems obsessed with marketing themselves and ensuring the marketability of their product, which will make the institution itself more marketable – a loop of mutual reinforcement of the kind that sets in when thinking becomes pathologically narrow. Somehow, in a society that is extraordinarily rich by world standards, largely on the basis of wealth created by earlier generations, and one that is capable, if it or any other society ever has been, of giving its people the means to consider and appreciate their moment on this earth, we are panicked into mastering ourselves and others into potential units of economic production – assuming, as we never should, that we know what future circumstances will demand of us” (p. 123). A few days in a university or a few hours in a faculty meeting would be enough to convince someone that her assessment is at least partly right.
Providing an education and being an educated person goes far beyond what we can touch and feel or measure and buy. Robinson lets us know this in a very personal way: “My church is across the street from a university, where good souls teach with all sincerity – the factually true, insofar as this can really be known; the history of nations, insofar as they can be faithfully reported; the qualities of an art, insofar as they can be put into words. But to speak in one’s own person and voice to others who listen from the thick of their endlessly various situations, about what truly are or should be matters of life and death, this is a singular thing. For this we come to church” (p. 146). The world is a bigger and more complicated place requiring a larger agenda than what comes from data and the technology capturing and storing it.