“Look at him stripped on the hill
running the streets poorly clad
robots have taken his job
his hands are outstretched for the nails
Forgive Lord, forgive.
It was night when we did what we did….
But then comes the morning.
Yesterday’s sorrows behind.
Wake it’s the day of your longing.
Life returns, mercy comes, it’s morning.”
Teachers are more used than most to the trite Catholic hymns of the 1970s; Miffleton’s ‘But then comes the morning” is up there with Fred Kaan’s call to “sing and live Magnificat in crowded street and council flat” or the the ubiquitous “Colours of day” that so many families choose for cremations, forgetting that the chorus goes “So, light up the fire and let the flame burn”.
What makes us cringe about these songs is their built-in obsolescence. They spoke to people for a few years but are now probably doomed to be forgotten. They lack the characteristics of a classic.
Modern life is full of obsolescence, and in a culture where we throw things away rather than getting them fixed, the idea that nothing has any intrinsic or lasting value has become a commonplace.
What about education in all this? Aren’t there some things that schools will always teach and ways in which they will always teach them? The odd thing is that when one thinks about it, many aspects of school which stick in one’s mind do so particularly because they are almost from another world. They too, it turned out, had built-in obsolescence … Log tables and slide rules were a fun part of Maths; Latin grammar was supported by chanted rote-learning; meals were preceded by Latin grace; Religious education was based on the Bible; it was possible to get a thousand boys to sing a hymn in harmony at the same time and in the same place; we read Bleak House and Anna Karenina, a bit of Chaucer and a dozen Shakespeare plays and we didn’t think it too hard or a waste of time; from age 15 or 16, I can remember sharing a bottle of wine with teachers and classmates; cross-country runs, in shorts, in the hail and snow were what happened when rugby or hockey was cancelled because the field was frozen and they ended with our being bundled though steaming communal showers like a production-line of chickens in an abattoir; then there were the Duke of Edinburgh hikes where we were just abandoned in a forest for days. Risk assessments were unheard of, and we took risks all the time: with machinery, with knives, with chemicals, with relationships. We loved it really; it was all just an adventure from which the vast majority emerged unscathed and ready to face the real thing: life. School made us kinder, more thoughtful and more resilient, and very much in touch with the Christian culture which formed our western society.
There was a week in Year 8 when we got to learn some programming on a couple of BBC computers (enormous things, with orange text on a black screen) but we all agreed that computers were boring and only for geeks. And I never went near one again until the third year of my degree, eight years later. I never met any robots or artificial intelligences along the way; they were not of this world in those days. They belonged to Dr Who and Blake’s Seven.
I think I must have received a rather Luddite education back in the 1980s. When we had a debate in French on “le tunnel sous la manche” it was hard to find anyone to speak up in favour of it. New-fangled and dangerous nonsense …
When the Year 2000 arrived it was all a bit of a disappointment for the geeks. We had been promised that by that date real life would at last have caught up with sci-fi fantasy. But it seemed that the main points of life were in fact not going to change at all. And schools were much the same as they had always been.
But that date, almost twenty years ago, proved to be a watershed. Everyone was told that all sorts of hidden aspects of modern life had already, almost surreptitiously, been entrusted to robots and computers, and that perhaps now we would come to regret it, because AI could not think beyond 1999 … That wait for midnight on 31st December 1999 was a tense moment. But in the end, nothing changed. The robots must have been stronger than we thought. Nothing stopped working. Since then their march towards world domination has continued apace. Computers and the artificial intelligences that control our social, intellectual and even spiritual lives (through Facebook, Instagram and the like) have taken over our children’s minds to a degree we could never have imagined when we were their age.
Peter has cried ‘wolf’, or rather ‘robots’ so many times now that most people no longer worry any more that the mighty microchip will destroy us all. And yet, recent research is beginning to ring alarm bells again; this time, it is about what robots are doing to our children. It seems that 42% of our 9-16 year olds are using Google Home, Alexa, or similar “talking” Artificial intelligences, to help with homework. The others are probably using plain, “old-fashioned” Google search. This is apparently leading to their inability to relate politely to teachers and others, and also to be less confident about formulating questions. When one asks Google (even just the search engine) a question one only has to type a few letters and the whole question is suggested. It is difficult not to see in this a standardisation of thinking based on nothing more inspiring than statistics.
Google culture replaces the virtue of studiousness with the vice of curiosity; and the capacity for awe and wonder, which was so much a part of education a generation ago, has been replaced with quick, and cheap thrills. The average age at which children encounter pornographic films is now about 12, and the addictive nature even of what seem to be harmless games means that children will now routinely prefer the connection with their screen to connections with family, friends and teachers.
But because artificial intelligence (AI) is more efficient than human intelligence in planning and performing routine tasks, it is seen as the only way to ensure a fast and accurate response to the growing needs of consumers in entertainment, banking, food production and even in healthcare. In the UK, for example, the NHS is being forced to employ robots for hip operations because currently 45,000 people are suing for errors in procedures.
We are told by government and industry that we need to prepare children for the fact that in the very near future, routines will be removed from most human jobs and so workers will need new higher-level competencies. The World Economic Forum suggests that only 2% of the present population has the necessary skills for today’s labour market. Education has to adapt so as to give future employees the necessary academic, communicative, social and ethical competencies to work with intelligent machines. But the flipside of our dependence on technology is that our children’s brains have all turned to mush. The flexible thinking required by this new cybernetic age has been destroyed by computers and robots. And sadly, in a rush to be up-to-date, many educationalists have ditched the traditional content of education in favour of teaching ‘skills’ , which are largely ill-conceived and misunderstood. Like the RE lessons of many schools in the 1960s and 70s, their content proves increasingly useless over time.
The late Chris Woodhead, former Chief Inspector of Schools in the UK, saw this all happening a long time ago. That is why he made it obligatory for all new teachers to have at least a C in English and Maths at GCSE. It was the only legislative lever he could think of pulling to stop the high-speed educational train coming off its tracks. Without language we cannot think, and without logic we cannot think straight. The key to preparing our children for a robotic future is to ensure that their teachers have the mental agility to teach them and that content of their teaching is safe from built-in obsolescence. The education I survived as a boy had its faults, no doubt, but it prepared me for a life of rapid cultural and technological change such as the world has never before witnessed and I am now more proficient in the use of technology than many people half my age, simply because I was able to learn (and frequently update) the necessary skills later in life. Because good children become good adults by imitating and assimilating the model of their teachers, parents and elders (isn’t that what we say about our relationship with Christ?) my view is that if we want to prepare the next generation for a life with robots, we should keep them out of the classroom until the children have enough maturity to ensure that they do not become robots themselves.
Ferdi McDermott is Headmaster of Chavagnes International College, the last remaining UK- curriculum Catholic boarding school for boys.
An earlier version of this article appeared previously in the Universe, Catholic newspaper, in March 2018.