Education and the Long-Term: Automation As Example

The American Revolution: Pages From a Negro Worker’s Notebook

Chapter 2: The Challenge of Automation

“Since 1955 and the advent of automation, overtime has been detrimental to the workers. Again and again workers have been faced with the decision to work overtime or not to work overtime, and the decision has usually been: ‘To hell with those out of work. Let’s get the dollar while the dollar is gettable.’ The amazing thing is that this has nothing to do with the backwardness of these workers. Not only can they run production and think for themselves, but they sense and feel the changes in conditions way in advance of those who are supposed to be responsible for their welfare. But with all these abilities there is one big organic weakness. Over and over again workers in various shops and industries, faced with a critical issue, only divide and become disunited, even though they are well aware that they are being unprincipled and weakening their own cause as workers. Since the advent of automation there has not been any serious sentiment for striking, particularly if the strike was going to come at the expense of material things that the workers already had in their possession, like cars, refrigerators, TV sets, etc. They were not ready to make any serious sacrifices of these; they would rather sacrifice the issue. Between the personal things and the issue, they have chosen the personal. Most American workers have geared themselves to a standard of living that is based on a five-day week plus—either in the form of overtime or another job, part or full time. And any time this standard of living is threatened, it is a personal crisis, which means that more and more decisions are being personalized and individualized rather than collectivized and socialized.”

(The American Revolution: Pages From a Negro Worker’s Notebook, James Boggs, Monthly Review Press, 1963, page 33)

As far back as 1963, with President John Kennedy in office, James Boggs (a Detroit autoworker) was already quite aware of automation and its challenges.

A “meta-intelligent” education means we learn from any sources available including “angry pamphlets” without worrying about the ideological blinders or fireworks because our desire is not to engage in polemics but to “extract signals” from a noisy world.

Chapter 2 of James Boggs’s pamphlet is called “The Challenge of Automation” and begins: “Since 1955 and the advent of automation, overtime has been detrimental to the workers…”

This immediately tells you that automation is a very long-run historical trend and should be seen in a larger sweep with history as your searchlight.

Indeed the famous German classic The Weavers by Gerhart Hauptmann is about machines as a threat to employment:

The Weavers (German: Die Weber, Silesian German: De Waber) is a play written by the German playwright Gerhart Hauptmann in 1892. The play sympathetically portrays a group of Silesian weavers who staged an uprising during the 1840s due to their concerns about the Industrial Revolution and replacement by machines and automation.

In 1927, it was adapted into a German silent film The Weavers, directed by Frederic Zelnik and starring Paul Wegener.

A Broadway version of The Weavers was staged in 1915–1916.

To dismiss all such movements and revolts as Luddite-like is not useful since it sweeps legitimate problems under the rug.

This includes Ernst Toller’s classic The Machine Wreckers (German: Die Maschinenstürmer). Two of his early plays were produced in this period: The Machine Wreckers (1922), whose opening night in 1937 he attended, and No More Peace, produced in 1937 by the Federal Theatre Project and presented in New York City in 1938.

All of these critiques of machines and automation are part of a long-term historical overview of machines and jobs and in our time, robotics and AI, etc which should be analyzed as a trajectory and arc where “machine wreckers” à la Hauptmann or Toller are understood empathetically and realistically and not dismissed as vandals.

Education and the Kinds of Wholeness

We have stated several times that we seek more educational holism in particular, the tentative kind made by students themselves after they study these “exercises in holism.” Let’s explore this.

There’s a short story by Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (29 January 1860 – 15 July 1904), a Russian playwright and short-story writer, who is considered to be among the greatest writers of short fiction in history. In his classic “A Boring Story,” he tells the reader about his inner yearning for some wholeness in his life:

“In my predilection for science, in my wish to live, in this siting on a strange bed and trying to know myself, in all the thoughts, feelings and conceptions I form about everything, something general is lacking that would unite it all into a single whole.

Each feeling and thought lives separately in me, and in all my opinions about science, the theater, literature, students, and in all the pictures drawn by my imagination, even the most skillful analyst would be unable to find what is known as a general idea or the god of the living man.

And if there isn’t that. there’s nothing.”

(Selected Stories of Anton Chekhov, Anton Chekhov, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (translators), Modern Library, 2000, page 104, “A Boring Story”)

The author wants to unite everything (i.e., “something general is lacking that would unite it all into a single whole,” as he puts it).

This is not what we have in mind because there is no “scheme of things” or “unified field theory” that we impart to students. That is for various kinds of “madrasas” (Arabic: مدرسة) including secular ones.

Rather, we encourage students to “walk around” topics, fields, educations, discussions, books, movies, quizzes and exams, lectures, assignments to develop a more “circum-spective” view of knowledge.

Remember “Husserl’s rhomboid.” Edmund Husserl (Heidegger’s teacher, died in 1938) would bring a matchbox to his classes in Germany and get students in his classroom to see that one cannot view the whole matchbox at once nor can rotating it capture all of it. Parts are visible, the whole matchbox is not.

We apply this principle to education and knowledge acquisition and offer the mental habit for students of “homemade” exercises in making more holistic views.

The narrator in Chekhov’s story, yearning to have a god-like view of reality and knowledge and experience (theatre, science, etc.) as a unified “thing” is not our interest since it too elusive.

William James (died in 1910) says several times in his writings that “one mind can’t swallow the whole of reality.” Therefore we avoid such “totalizing” visions in favor of much more modest attempts at connecting things better.