An especially objectionable feature of the edtech discourse is its use of the word “Luddite” as a term of abuse. Uttering “You’re a Luddite” to the edtech sceptic is an act of verbal expectoration that is supposed to end the conversation, dismissing the sceptic as someone suffering from an intellectually crippling phobia.
The time has come to take a stand against this thoughtless use of “Luddite” in the pejorative. The historical record needs to be set straight, and it needs to be set straight as a prelude to defending a Luddite approach to education.
The record: The Luddites (who were groups of textile artisans in various parts of England in the early 19th century) were not flatly opposed to new technology. They destroyed selected types of machinery in carefully chosen factories (usually owned by the most unscrupulous and exploitative industrialists) because this was a tried and tested means for the voiceless to put pressure on the new power brokers. There was no interest in destroying other kinds of new technology.
Nor were the Luddites flatly opposed to progress, simply defending all the old privileges of a trade that used to bring in a relatively good income. No, Luddism at its most articulate was a movement inspired by the prospects for radical political change opened up by the French Revolution. Luddite leaders issued written declarations making it plain that the attacks were part of a revolt against old and new forms of tyranny. One declaration, for instance, spoke of the hope that aid from revolutionary France would arrive to help them “in shaking off the Yoke of the Rottenest, Wickedest and most Tyranious [sic] Government that ever existed; then down come the Hanover Tyrants, and all our Tyrants from the greatest to the smallest and we will be governed by a just Republic.” And to that was added the thought that “the wish and Prayer of millions in the Land [is that] the Almighty hasten those happy Times.”
With the echoes of the French (and American) declarations in their ears, the Luddites stood up to the first line of tyrants confronting them in their communities: the new industrialists – people tyrannically lowering human dignity — reducing people (often children) to low-paid machine-minders whose fates depended entirely upon the whims of the factory owner, and who were denied any say in what was happening.
And far from being crippled by phobias, the Luddites were willing to risk their lives to make their vision of a new political order into a reality. Not only was machine-breaking a capital offence, but the Luddites were perceived to be such a threat to the entire oligarchic political establishment that it was made a capital offence simply to swear an oath of allegiance to them.
In stark contrast to the fluffy talk of a thousand “revolutions” coming from plush conference halls in places like Long Beach, California – talk that reduces serious political discourse to the level of a sales pitch – the Luddites were willing to pay the ultimate price for a real revolution in the prevailing power relations, hoping to build a social order that forward-thinking people like the Luddites might be able to believe in.
A Luddite pedagogy for the 21st century
Just as the 19th century Luddism was interested far more in a forward-looking political agenda than in particular pieces of technology, so a 21st century Luddism in education will be concerned with more important issues than whether or not allowing pupils to use their own devices in class is a good idea. Like their political ancestors, the Luddite pedagogues will wield a hammer, but they won’t see any urgency in bringing it down on trivial things like touch-screen gadgetry. Instead, the targets lie elsewhere.
One place they lie is in the false talk of liberation that has gained popularity among people using the #edtech hashtag. A Luddite pedagogy is a pedagogy of liberation, and, as such, it clashes head on with the talk of liberation peddled by advocates of edtech. According to the latter, the child, previously condemned to all the unbearably oppressive restrictions of having to learn in groups, can now be liberated by the tech that makes a 1:1 model of education feasible, launching each and every child on an utterly personal learning journey. Liberation as personalisation – here the Luddite finds something that ought to be smashed.
But what needs to be smashed is less the pedagogy itself than the idea of freedom it rests on – the more general political notion that freedom is all about freeing individuals from social constraints so that they can pursue their personal projects unhampered by the claims of society. This is the essentially liberal idea championed by Sir Ken Robinson, for instance, for whom it is enough for individuals to find things to do that they enjoy and that allow them to develop a talent.
But we need to be clear here: Luddism doesn’t want to smash the concern for personal freedom, rather it wants to smash the idea that it is enough. The untruth of personalisation is its unjustified narrowing of the horizon of liberation.
That terrible narrowness is all too obvious in the edtech plans for a mechanised personalisation. The child at her computer might get a rush of personal fulfilment in being able to hurry on ahead with the new software, enjoying solving problems to get to the next level, but the satisfaction can only last as long as she keeps her head down. If she lifts her head and gazes at the now much larger class, indistinguishable from all the others that have been gamified and flipped in exactly the same way, with every child being monitored continuously by the immortal Big Teacher with the pixelated grin who feeds the Biggest Data Machine in the history of civilisation, and if she wonders where on earth all this mechanisation of education is heading, she finds herself face to face with an order so vast and impersonal and impenetrable that it leaves her feeling utterly alienated.
Personalisation can only seem enough to people who keep their heads down. The Luddites are among those who look up and protest against the fragmentation of the world into a private realm in which we are supposed to be free, and another where we experience the opposite.
In a sense, the Luddites are taking the claims of the person more seriously here than the narrow-minded personalisers, since the critique emerges out of a personal experience of alienation. They insist, in effect, that in addition to things like the ability to exercise choice and speak their minds freely, people need to find themselves in a broader social world where what is being done makes sense to people passionate about human freedom. And this means not simply coming up with a new narrative, but coming up with a new world in which the higher claims of thoughtful persons can find their satisfaction.
A Luddite pedagogy takes its cue from this need to build (and later maintain) a world – a society – of a certain sort. And in pursuing this end, the Luddite hammer has to be brought down again on a number of currently dominant assumptions about education.
One is the assumption that education must be child-centred. Luddites laugh at the assumption that education must have a single centre. No, it has two (as Hannah Arendt argued). It must also be centred on the needs of the society whose construction and maintenance depend partly on education. Rather than the ideal of letting the child pursue his or her curiosity unconstrained (an impossible ideal in any case), Luddite teachers are right to cultivate the broadest possible engagement with the world that children will find themselves bearing responsibility for in the future.
And this means that the education of children at its best is less about personalisation than socialisation. And, no, it is not a form of indoctrination beginning with infants being frogmarched around the schoolyard before being compelled to learn the Little Red Book off by heart.
This does not imply any antithesis to solitary work or personal choice or occasional use of 1:1 techniques. All it entails is the inclusion of these in the broader framework of an education taking place chiefly in a school outside the home, where children can be introduced to the habits, values, ideas and ways of thinking that are crucial to a free society.
Like all societies, that free society, at the very least needs to be able to use the pronoun “we”. We can only achieve freedom historically if we find ourselves among people similarly engaged by the questions of who we are, what we are doing, what we believe and what makes sense to us. As preparation for this, a crucial initial task of school is to enable children to feel that they are part of a larger whole beyond the family, and then to equip them and inspire them to carry on the dialogue about the beliefs and ideas and frameworks of sense that hold society together.
The concern for the “we” gives us a reason to reaffirm things like the value of classes that stay together throughout the period spent in a particular school. And, no, this is not a mindless insistence upon a factory model of education. The liberal edtech idea that children should see their education as a personal affair destroys the whole that children need to feel a part of.
Uniforms might also have their part to play, but more important will be dialogue since the most important form of collectivity in a free society is not one that lines up silently in front of a flag, but one emerging through a shared engagement with issues that people discuss together – a collectivity that combines a deep concern for the whole with a respect for a plurality of points of view. And here we have another reason for bringing the Luddite hammer down hard on the edtech plans to atomise the class in line with the 1:1 model. The Luddite pedagogy insists on a maximal use of debate across the entire curriculum, with students discussing the sense of everything being looked at and everything being done. Anything that reduces the opportunities for individual students to take part in meaningful debate with their classmates and teachers is to be opposed. And sporadic chatting with various people found online is no substitute for a longer-term involvement with groups at school, where a deeper sense of identity can be formed, and where difficulties have to be faced and resolved, not avoided by clicking an “unfollow” button.
Because of the centrality in that debate of the questions about who we are, what we are doing, what we believe the Luddite pedagogy entails what might be called a Delphic model of education (recalling the inscription outside the Temple of Apollo in Delphi: Know Thyself), and it entails bringing the Luddite hammer down hard on the liberal taboo against what we would call an education in belief (and they would call indoctrination).
The broader liberal framework of personalising edtech requires keeping values out of education as much as possible, except as things to be studied “objectively” (e.g. in the form of comparative religion, where belief systems are presented without being questioned and evaluated). Only a minimal set of values are to be openly endorsed: chiefly the values of a respect for the facts and logic, combined with the minimal liberal agenda of tolerance, peace, and the value of a sort of idle critical thinking (idle because it is not really in earnest about criticising other systems of belief – that would be too illiberal).
A Luddite pedagogy puts the non-idle interrogation of values at the centre of the curriculum, at least in the high school, when children have a broad enough background to draw on when making their critical appraisals of ideas about value – the aim being to help children begin to think more deeply about what we believe and what makes sense and what doesn’t.
To ensure that that discussion of value and belief is as intelligent as possible (and a truly free society is one in which intelligence feels at home) the discussion needs to be informed by a certain amount of philosophy – the discipline in which we think about thinking, looking, for instance, at the idea that all values are personal or relative and so reasonable discussion is impossible. It wasn’t by chance that democracy and philosophy were born together in ancient Athens. A certain philosophical interrogation of our deepest beliefs is a crucial element of a free society, and this has to be included in the curriculum of all good Luddite high schools.
There is a lot more to be said about what a Luddite pedagogy requires because the Luddites, unlike their liberal edtech counterparts, understand that liberation is a complex affair. It is not enough to let children choose something from the shelves of the educational supermarket and then offer only minimal assistance as they live out their child-directed pedagogic liberty. A real pedagogy of liberation requires an entire curriculum.
In closing, we want to concede something to the edtech critics of Luddism. They say we Luddites refuse progress. Well, in a way, yes. Luddite revolutionary action is a courageous insistence that the world make sense to people passionate about freedom. In the current context, what passes for progress, and what sceptical teachers are feverishly urged to catch up with, is an insanely unsustainable trajectory that does not make sense. We cannot go on like this. So, the revolution needed is one that (as Walter Benjamin described) pulls the brake on this runaway train of history. Unlike the pseudo-radicals that want to see that train going even faster, stepping up the pace of atomisation, mechanisation, and subservience to technical imperatives that go unquestioned, we Luddites want it to come to a complete stop, creating a space in which we can begin to have a sensible discussion about how best to build a better alternative.