Beyond Digital Education: Ethical Formation in Digital Age

800px-Winslow_Homer_-_The_Country_School
Winslow Homer: The Country School // Public domain

On a bustling city street, with dozens of people watching, police gun down a teenage gang member as he kneels in surrender. The city is Nairobi, but there is an eerie familiarity about the scene. The video goes viral, this being the twenty-first century. A friend of the teen, interviewed by a radio journalist researching the shooting, blurts out, ‘There’s this thing called humanity – you can’t just shoot someone like that. That’s not humanity. That’s insane, I’m telling you.’”

Jennifer A. Herdt, Forming Humanity: Redeeming the German Bildung Tradition (2019), p. 237

After having spent more than two hundred pages on Kantian philosophy, Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, and a number of obscure German Pietists, Jennifer A. Herdt hurls the reader of her newest book back into a seemingly very different present.

She begins her conclusion by depicting the scene of a brutal police shooting in Nairobi and continues with the ramblings of Richard Spencer, an icon of the so-called alt-right, who laments the “civilizational suicide” of white America, and who believes that “racial identity can provide whites with the robust sense of belonging once supplied by Christianity.”

Both examples, Herdt argues, can be linked back to the German tradition of Bildung that she had explored at great detail in the preceding chapters. Echoing Friedrich Meinecke’s famous Cosmopolitanism and the Nation State, Herdt claims that Bildung in the German sense straddles an uneasy divide between appeals to humanity as whole and the Volksgeist rooted in a particular people or even “race”.

At the beginning of her book, Herdt had already alerted the English-speaking reader to the fact that “Bildung is one of those German loanwords, like Zeitgeist and Schadenfreude, for which no economical translation is available.”

By the end of her journey, the picture has become even more complicated. Bildung emerges as a concept of ethical formation, which had deep roots in Christian humanism, but which also “licensed philosophies of history that legitimated injustice, private projects of self-cultivation and the political withdrawal of a cultural elite content to polish itself, and it was easily co-opted by groups seeking to legitimate cultural and racial privilege.”

Precisely because Bildung cannot simply translated with “education”, Herdt’s insightful book provides an ideal segue into the ongoing debate on the nature of digital education, a term that German education specialists only use with hesitation. By approaching the question of digital education through the lens of Bildung, in other words, it becomes possible to envisage learning and teaching concepts for the digital age that go beyond the usage of technology.

In this case, the University of Edinburgh’s definition of digital education as “the innovative use of digital tools and technologies during teaching and learning” is the beginning, rather than the end, of the dialogue on the nature of education in the digital age.

Bildung always had and still has an individual and a collective component. It refers to the process of self-perfection through education, emulation, and the honing of one’s imagination, but it also situates the individual in human history and provides him or her with a sense of ethical obligation towards society and humanity as a whole.

Bildung, therefore, always had both inclusive and exclusive components.

At its best, Bildung was and is grounded in the view that every human being – by virtue of being human – has the right to attain the best education in order to develop his or her potential to the fullest. It is in this sense that the fourth sustainable development goal of the United Nations (SDG4) seeks to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” At its worst, however, Bildung can also be exclusive.

For instance, it can cement existing power inequalities if pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds do not receive adequate support or if the curriculum is skewed by an authoritarian government.

And, of course, as the ongoing debates on the role of slavery in British and American universities show, the history of education and Bildung itself is complex and, not infrequently, deeply disturbing.

Herdt chose to conclude her study on the German tradition of Bildung by looking at the cry for humanity in a violent video from the streets of Nairobi and the online propaganda spewed out by white supremacists. Her main goal was to illustrate precisely this ambiguous nature of Bildung that could either be employed as a device for a more humane world or enlisted into the narrative of far-right extremists.

Perhaps not entirely unintended, it also shows how the concept of Bildung might chance during the digital age. Both her examples would be unthinkable without the digital transformation that allowed the recording and transmission of video material from virtually any place in the world, as well as the global rise of social networks. Extremist propaganda, cute cat videos and the entirety of human knowledge are only one click apart.

Navigating this new world is not merely a question of using technology but of developing a new mind-set that can adequately process a sheer inexhaustible well of information and disinformation. Education was always more than the teaching of skills or the transmission of knowledge. Instead, it meant empowering the individual to “make sense” of the world, and to take control of one’s destiny.

In his ground-breaking book on the “digital condition”, the media scientist Felix Stalder emphasizes that “new technologies” have by no means “suddenly overturned an actually stable situation”.

Rather, the success of digital technologies lies in the fact that they meet the needs of a society that is already undergoing radical transformation processes, which are reinforced and linked by technological change. The central challenges include, for example, dealing with an unprecedented “flood of information”.

The invention of printing had already led to a rapid increase in the amount of information available, which in turn brought with it new conventions for processing it. In the present, however, even this flood seems more like a trickle.

The old orders in which cultural material has hitherto been filtered, organized and made accessible,” Stadler writes with regard to mass media, museums and other cultural actors, “cannot channel this flow, either on a small or a large scale.

The result is the “great disorder” that ultimately requires a different form of education in which dealing with this flood – for example via algorithms – takes on a central role.

A small example illustrating the novel challenges of education in the digital age is provided by a publication from the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom on countering fake news. In it, Philipp Müller and Nora Denner review how fake news affects the way in which citizens form their opinions and then describe various ways of addressing the problem.

Filtering fake news, however, is only a small component of what Andreas Schleicher from the OECD terms “21st-century learning”.

Education today is much more about ways of thinking which involve creative and critical approaches to problem-solving and decision-making”, Schleicher writes, “it is also about ways of working, including communication and collaboration, as well as the tools they require, such as the capacity to recognize and exploit the potential of new technologies, or indeed, to avert their risks.

Ultimately, Schleicher concludes, “education is about the capacity to live in a multi-faceted world as an active and engaged citizen.” Digital education cannot be reduced to the digitization of 19th century concepts of pedagogy, even though the automatic correction of vocabulary tests might be cherished by some teachers. Instead, it is much closer to the idea of “ethical formation” explored in Herdt’s book on Bildung.

“It is in mutual recognition of one another in all of our socially embedded particularity, and in the share life, the friendship, that this recognition makes possible, that we become fully human”, concludes Herdt.

Precisely because the digital revolution might have only just begun, forming humanity might be the crucial task for education in the era of artificial intelligence.

After, all, as Philip K. Dick already wrote in 1972, “rather than learning about ourselves by studying our constructs, perhaps we should make the attempt to comprehend what our constructs are up to by looking into what we ourselves are up to.”


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Thomas Clausen
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