Homo Faber

In the last issue of the Parent News I started a conversation about technology. I’d like to continue that conversation by placing technology on the Google Map of education, so that when we zoom in and out through our discussions, we can have a sense of where we are. There’s no way to do this without waxing philosophical. None of what I’m about to say is original, but it’s important.

One BIG QUESTION drives a classical education: What is a human being? At Trinity, we are deeply invested in the answering of this question, which is profound, like a great mountain with many trails to the summit. All those paths traverse steep and dangerous terrain, and all yield glorious views.

Here is one way up the mountain: The Way of the Verbs. Four distinctive actions or predicates can be ascribed to a human person: to be, to know, to do, and to make. There is an order to these. To be is first, the one on which all others are based. The dignity of a human being resides primarily in being. Ask our Latin teacher, Mr. Jackson, about his dear departed Eliza, and he will tell you that though she never knew or did or made much of anything, she was Eliza, a human person created in God’s image, who made a huge impact on the world. Charlotte Mason grasped how essential this notion was for education when she declared that “children are born persons.” We always start with that, and if we ever forget it, we lose our way.

The second verb is to know. The very name of our species, homo sapiens (“wise man”) points to the singularity of our rationality. All the sciences of language, expression, and mathematics come from this act, and a school ought to be fascinated by the intransitive act of understanding. The middle schooler who, after much struggle, finally exclaims with a smile, “I get it” has performed this unique human act.

The third verb is to do. This is the special act we call morality. All of our actions—our being, our knowing, our making—have moral consequences. Every school does moral education whether they like it or not. Whenever people live and study in community, they are moving either toward Goodness or away from it. We do not have the option of staying morally still.

The fourth verb is to make, distinct from the others. Unlike knowing, making is transitive (we always make something, but we, simply, know). Making is different from doing because its effects are distinct from the one who makes. As Gilson says, “Our acts stay with us, but our works survive us.” Human beings are “making beings” (homo faber).

Trinity’s motto, “Truth, Goodness, and Beauty,” hearkens to the last three of these unique human predicates. We know Truth, we do Goodness, and we make Beauty.

The Beautiful is not the only thing we make. We also make the Useful. Sometimes we make both at the same time. Architects and graphic designers make a living this way.

I have taxed your attention this far so that we can plot technology on the map of human existence. There it is—do you see it? The application of scientific knowledge (human knowing) for practical purposes (human making) has been tagged with the Greek word for “art” or “craft,” τεχνη, so that from the seventeenth century we have referred to such machinery and equipment as technology. But technology goes back much further than the dawn of Western science. Archimedes employed technology to protect Syracuse from naval invasion. The Bible speaks early (Genesis 3) of Tubal-Cain, the father of all who forged instruments of bronze and iron. And anthropologists have long located the existence of humanity where we find objects made, useful and sometimes also beautiful.

From all this I would draw several conclusions, which are important for our work at Trinity School:

A human person is one, a unity; therefore, she is involved completely in every one of her acts. So, for example, we cannot make something without being involved in knowing something or doing something. Technology is not simply production, but the shaping of our selves and our culture. So, I am deeply interested in the question of how new technologies change the way we view the world or the things we value or the habits of our hearts.
The intersections of these various acts are frequent, unpredictable, and often surprising. Writing (a form of technology, whether with clay tablets, papyri, pen and paper, or word processing) generates and clarifies thought. One often does not know what one thinks until he has forced himself to write. So here, making serves and forms knowing.
One of the glories of human beings is that we can think about and reflect on our making. Knowing governs and guards making. Monkeys make things too, but so far as I know there is no monkey named Marshall McLuhan, who has made a career out of analyzing technology’s impact on our culture.
There are new technologies, but technology is not new. When we resist technological change, we are mostly arguing for an older technology and against a newer one.
Technologies which are beautiful (elegant, for instance) as well as useful will connect us more powerfully and clearly to our fundamental being, our humanness, than technologies which are merely useful. Design is not superfluous. Beauty counts for much.
The effects of sin and the fall are deep and wide, and there is no act of humanity that is not twisted and ruined by sin. In our being, knowing, doing, and making, we sin and fall short of the glory of God. Technology will not save us, and what we make can become the instrument of much evil in the world. One thinks of the horrible machines Tolkien envisioned, the instruments of the Dark Lord, in The Lord of the Rings.
In Christ there is a new possibility: “We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). If the Lord builds the house, our labors are not in vain. “May the favor of the Lord our God rest upon us; establish the work of our hands” (Psalm 90:17).
In a classical school, we ought to be talking about technology. It should not be the center, but it is a subject worthy of our attention and fruitful for much good in the work of education.

There may be a sense among us that technology is not important, that it is about gadgets and leads us away from larger purposes. My hope would be to rescue technology from this definition by connecting it to distinctive and essential actions of being human. To make something with our knowledge is significant and worthy of our best intentions. Trinity’s Robotics Team is as important in to our mission as our Logic class.


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