Do machines have to teach us what it means to be human?

By Claus-Peter Röh, March 2021

The year 2020, marked by the Covid-19 pandemic, led to major challenges and changes in the educational landscape. The primary task facing each school community after the lockdown was to implement the changing policies in such a way that teaching could resume. In order to achieve this goal, many changes were necessary, e.g. in timetables, groupings and forms of teaching, up to and including significantly increased home schooling and e-learning.

Photo: © Charlotte Fischer

The discussions of pre-school and school teachers centred, on the one hand, mainly on these external, organisational tasks; but, on the other hand, inner, existentially experienced questions also emerged:

  • One colleague saw the importance of human interaction in the college of teachers in particular in a new light.
  • One colleague described that after a long period of online teaching, he had woken up in a new way to the power of direct encounters with students in the classroom.
  • There was also a new perspective on the importance of togetherness in education of parents and teachers when distance learning was implemented.

On the basis of the reconsideration of fundamental educational values indicated here, I would like to reflect on the question as to whether and how the challenge to redefine ourselves as human beings in our humanity grows precisely where current crises and areas of tension are experienced as polarising and endangering development, .

In 2018, Gerald Hüther began by looking at alarming social conditions: noting that, despite all the years of talk of an ecological turnaround, there were no bees buzzing in his linden tree today. He listed in no uncertain terms the woes of the present, from the decline in insects to the mechanisation of what makes us human, including in education: “If it was manual labour that was clocked and standardised at the beginning of industrialisation, now mental work is also becoming an assembly-line job” (Hüther 2019).

In relation to being a child and school, he continues: “Time – previously as endless as space – is now portioned, fragmented into units of 45 minutes. Each subject is followed by a new one, without being able to think things through to the end. ... And suddenly the shaper of their own existence becomes someone who is managed”. Summing up, he notes that despite many efforts to improve, there have been few real breakthroughs and develops another line of questioning: “And in the process I came across this inner compass, ... our dignity.” He finds the moment of origin of the feeling of dignity or lack of dignity exactly where we as human beings, through our own actions, come into harmony or else into contradiction with ourselves and thus with the world. According to Hüther, the sense of dignity of one’s own humanity is already brought with them into the world by every child.

Where human dignity is at stake, the language of the present can express shifts in meaning and the transgression of boundaries like a kind of contemporary witness. For example, the word “individual” increasingly appears where the mechanisation and digitalisation of teaching is concerned. Under the heading “Revolution in the Classroom”, a computer program was presented in the “Geld&Mehr” (Money&More) section of the FAZ newspaper of 10 January 2016 that can discover patterns in a multitude of “individual actions”.

Neuroscientist Vivienne King describes research that, after billions of dollars of investment, is intended to determine the future of tomorrow’s school: “We have built a system of pupil observation that can make accurate predictions about the progress of individual pupils from what it knows about them.” The data for this system would be obtained from everyday lesson activity by constantly recording the latter and analysing it digitally. What is remarkable about this article is that the word “individualisation” is explicitly related to the data material of a pupil and the algorithms derived from it.

Individual and technical – does that fit together? The inner emotional world of the young individual pupil or the teacher is obviously not perceived and considered. Yet it is precisely in the difference and diversity of the sensations that the young person produces for themselves that their emotional link to dedication, to attentiveness, to the joy of discovery and thus to the whole learning process lies. The impulse-giving source of these abilities is the spiritual individuality which, as a human I, finds its home in the soul and in the body in the course of its biographical development. Parents and educators who connect with the development of a growing personality over years get to know its uniqueness. Those moments in which the inner being of the young person resonates completely with their conduct, expression or activity can be experienced as particularly dignified. It is precisely in the non-programmable, unpredictable interplay between spiritual inwardness, future possibility and life expression that this dignity of the growing young person finds its expression.

Anyone who has experienced children or young people in their development in this way can be so affected by the above image of the human being, reduced to external data sets, that the impulse for an inner counter-movement is formed: in view of the adversity of the times, how can the experienced reality of the soul and spiritual individuality in its personal life impulses, abilities and developmental goals be perceived with even greater vigilance and put into words in conversation with other teachers? In the familiar space of the parental home, it may be in the very own way of pursuing interests, asking questions, or interacting with siblings. In class, it may be in the way of speaking in front of others, taking up new tasks, or the moment of outgrowing oneself in an artistic activity.

Soon after the founding of the first Waldorf school, Rudolf Steiner described the rapid growth in technical machinery that would increasingly envelop the earth and human life. From the perspective of anthroposophy, the decisive question lies in the attitude with which the human being deals with the machine. Will the nature of the machine determine and overpower the human being right down into their movements, thoughts and, ultimately, their social life? Or can the human being, out of inner freedom, develop such a human-spiritual power of self-determination that this forms a balance to outer mechanisation? “If the human being mechanises the world around them through outer science, then, all the more, they must allow to arise from within themselves an inner science, which in turn is wisdom. This will have the power to direct what would otherwise overwhelm them” (Steiner 1993).

As a consequence of this, a necessary transformation of the nature of machines is described for the future: “Later we will find: not that which comes from the machines is the main thing, but the human being is the main thing. Therefore there must only be machines that are customised for the human being” (Steiner 1991). In the above example, the goal of the transhumanist worldview of transcending emerging limits of human developmental possibilities in the future through systems of technical intelligence is consistently implemented and advertised. Thus, at the end, Vivienne King explains to the teachers what “considerable benefit” they can derive from the digital observation system: “We can tell the teachers at any time exactly what support which pupil needs and what this pupil responds to best. Be it just encouragement or be it a special text or a short video.”

The human being as a technical and economic investment opportunity

For Klaus Zierer, the reduction of the human being in education to a technical and economic investment opportunity that places its own programme above human freedom is already evident three years later in teacher training programmes in higher education. He describes the use of “virtual reality (VR), a computer-generated reality” for students training to be teachers: “So students stand equipped with virtual reality goggles in a university seminar room ... They see pupils as animated cartoon characters who display certain behaviours. ... Tom and Jerry, two fictional characters, are programmed to react to the students’ actions. If the students deal with the disruptors correctly as intended by the programming, then Tom and Jerry participate in the lessons again” (Süddeutsche Zeitung, 28.1.2019).  

Zierer sees in this way of training “how to manage a class” a sign of deep mistrust of students, that from the beginning they might relate to pupils in the classroom in a human way. Extensive empirical studies – as collected in John Hattie’s book Visible Learning – prove for him that the teacher-pupil relationship is the strongest influence in the classroom: for example, the willingness of teachers to allow human closeness without giving up distance, to show appreciation in their actions, and to develop a culture of trust and confidence. Against this background, Zierer concludes with regard to the attempt to force virtual reality worlds into teacher training: “From an empirical point of view, technical gimmicks on and with people are already pointless today. From an ethical point of view, they are irresponsible.”

The challenges arising from the adversities, crises and reductions of contemporary events can clearly ignite inner thoughts and impulses which, in the light of spiritual responsibility, carry within them human forces of orientation and efficacy. For Rudolf Steiner in 1919, this power of attentiveness and self-determination, born out of ourselves through engagement with the world, was one of the foundations of teaching at the Free Waldorf School: “Through interest in the world we must first gain the enthusiasm we need for the school and for our work tasks” (Steiner 2011).  

In conclusion, let us turn to current research that is working specifically on the quality of human feelings: “Lauron is afraid. He does not dare to take the next step. Again and again he makes a start, lifts a foot, but then his courage deserts him. ... All the while his fans are whirring, ... Lauron is a robot” (Wolfangel, DIE ZEIT, 2019, p. 27). The ZEIT article “Die Angst der Maschine” (The Fear of the Machine) describes the goal of teaching the robot feelings. The researcher himself describes this process as “awakening self-awareness”: the robot becomes aware of its inner state and at the same time calculates risks. Lauron is thus supposed to learn to develop “fear”, “courage” or “willingness to take risks”. It soon becomes clear that the words for human feelings are used “on a rational basis”. The goal is to break them down into functions, which are then used in the optimisation of self-controlling devices.  

So it says: “Humans can assess risks – artificial intelligence should now learn that”, or “You are happy when a situation improves. This feeling is programmable.”

Linguistically and humanly, such a cold rationalisation of feelings is distressing. For the future of our children it is only to be hoped that it will not be able to infiltrate a living education. With its proliferation in today’s world, we are facing a new challenge: is it conceivable that it requires the mechanised harnessing of nuanced feelings and their beautiful names to reawaken us in the future on another level to the reality of what is human about our feelings? In education in particular, it could then be the children in whose pure, inner emotions we as teachers experience the human essence. Looked at in this way, the encounter with reduced images of the human being can lead to the renewed question of what actually makes a human being a human being.

About the author: Claus-Peter Röh is the co-leader of the Pedagogical Section at the Goetheanum.

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