What Does It Mean to Be Human and Why Should Schools (and Students) Care?

One topic that I don’t think we can think about enough, but that we typically aren’t inclined to think about is the question, “What does it mean to be human?” Huh?

The available answers to this question can take you in a number of different directions that span just about every available discipline—anthropology and biology, obviously, but in a certain sense every discipline (economics, politics, literature, theology, philosophy, sociology, history) has a stake in the answer.

Computers, computing, robotics, artificial intelligence, and the futurist movement are interrelated topics that highlight the importance of this central question. At this point I just encourage you to explore the following three resources and consider the questions, “What do you think it means to be human?” and “What do you want the future to look like?”

First, an article from The Atlantic ​entitled “The Man Who Would Teach Machines to Think.”

Second, a recent On the Media show entitled “Robots! (And Artificial Intelligence)”. I commend in particular the interview with Jay Kaplan of Stanford and the piece on Google’s efforts with robots.

(Both of these pieces include an important debate among people in the field of artificial intelligence about exactly what that phrase means.)

Third, the book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, and a Ted Talk by its author, Sherry Terkle. Terkle began her career and the book exploring robots but the implications and her work extend far beyond that.

There are people, like Ray Kurzweil, who think it would be a good thing, and really just a matter of processing power and data, to replace, or at least augment, humans with computers. I don’t. But the difference is that futurists like Kurzweil have Google and cultural and economic momentum behind them to create the world in their own image—in other words, to answer for the rest of us the question, “What does it mean to be human?”

What does this have to do with schools? Though it can take a little while to help students understand why this question—and others like it—matter, I think it is our responsibility to make sure they are aware of them and equip them to figure out how to answer them over the course of their lives. If students go in the same direction Kurzweil, great. I just want them to know that that’s what they are doing rather than blindly follow cultural momentum, wherever it leads. Equipping them to lead an examined life, in all respects, is our most important responsibility.

(And for those who prefer a novel that explores these topics, I commend to you The Circle by Dave Eggers.)

And, as always, though I’ve provided links to these book titles on Amazon, I encourage you to shell out a few extra bucks to purchase them via a person-to-person encounter at your local bookstore or wait until you’re in Washington and pick them up at The Hickory Stick Bookshop.

Just Try to Pay Attention

This article from the Washington Post is just the most recent installment in the emerging story of the Internet’s impact on our brains, habits, and how we see the world. It reports on what we all know: for most of us, it is a lot more difficult today to concentrate on written material than it was five, ten, and twenty years ago. (If you enjoy this article I also commend to you David Carr’s 2008 article in The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and his ensuing book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.) Full disclosure: I had to work very hard to finish this relatively short, interesting article in one sitting for precisely the reasons the author points out.

This topic matters for a lot of reasons and schools can’t focus on it enough. It is not enough for schools to equip students with the latest technology and the knowledge and skills for using it. Schools—and their teachers—must also be great at equipping students to think about technology—the ways that technology shapes us as we use it, the benefits and costs of using more of it. This has intellectual, moral, social, physiological, and even spiritual ramifications and does not get enough press or attention in most schools today.

It also becomes clear that in addition to teaching students how to understand and decode literature or poetry, or to work through a challenging problem in calculus or physics, we also need to teach students how to pay attention. Let’s be honest, it was never easy, at least for me in high school, to choose between reading Hamletand doing just about anything that my buddies were doing at the same time. Actually, it was easy and Hamletoften got left until late at night once everyone had gone to sleep. But all of the distractions that existed then—human distractions, in person (we thought it was really fun to play backgammon in between classes, on a real backgammon board, no less)—exist today and ten thousand more (e.g. Angry Birds). The author of the article I referenced originally demonstrates what it means to exercise the attention muscle intentionally and great teachers and advisors of high school students need to help students develop the interest to do the same.

Just like any other thing—money, power, etc.—technology can be a positive force when we use it well. When we don’t, however, it can have unintended negative consequences—distracting us from things that matter most, corrupting our vision of the world and understanding of ourselves, limiting—rather than expanding—our ability to engage the world with wisdom and courage. Most high school students—let’s be honest, most adults—don’t want to think about this. They’d rather just text, Google, YouTube (I know the first two are nouns that we’ve turned into verbs so assume that the third will be if it isn’t already), etc. At least one part of the equation is putting great, thoughtful adults with whom they can relate in their path to interrupt the taken-for-granted.

I’d appreciate any suggested readings or resources that have gotten you to be more mindful of how you interact with technology day-to-day (and I’m particularly interested if you’re reading this and are under age 21!).

Prefect Speeches

Tuesday night, the 18 members of the class of 2015 who are running for Prefect gave their candidate speeches to the school community. Assistant Head of School and Dean of Students, Chris Baudo, began the evening with some remarks about the process and its importance to our school. I share them with you here:

Let’s begin tonight with some guidelines or recommendations.   18 of your peers sit before you in quite possibly the most intimidating moment to date in their short lives.   They want badly for this experience and their delivery to be flawless.   Listen to their message, and in doing so display support for their effort.   This group certainly exhausted a great deal of physical time and emotional energy over the past month, and it stands as the pinnacle moment to date for the candidates.   Support is something we do better than any other school, and tonight provides us with another opportunity to proudly display that community trait.   We also recommend that this one speech not be the sole reason you vote for a candidate.  I think we can agree that the most influential leaders never take a day off.   They are tone setters who prove reliable in their decision making and actions.   The young women and men sitting in front of you have had, at minimum, seven months to display their ability lead our school forward next year.   Take into account everything you know about them rather than one speech when deciding if they are best suited to lead us forward next year.

The Prefect elections provide all of us with our first opportunity to begin shaping the next school year.    The process forces us to think deeply about who we are, what we value most, who we aspire to be, and which group of six seniors can help us inch closer to our ideal vision.   Based on the recent survey results, and assuming that we put quality thinking into our responses, the student body collectively wants leaders who are HONEST, SUPPORTIVE, and EXCELLENT CITIZENS above all else.   You seemingly want people who set the ethical bar as high as possible, and then more importantly meet that standard every day.   Still, I also ask you to think tonight about adding the characteristic of COURAGE to your vision of a leader.   In my mind, COURAGE is what separates the well-liked and respected role model from a true leader.   Don’t get me wrong, a role model is something we all should strive to be, but to be a role model does NOT make you a leader.   The difference lies in the level of courage that one must show.   It certainly takes courage to be a role model, because being a role model usually means, to some level, going against popular culture.   It simply isn’t cool to do everything the right way.   It definitely takes courage, but as a role model, the decisions you make tend to be geared towards insuring that “you” meet the standards set forth by yourself or the institution.  

Leaders, on the other hand, need the courage to make decisions that impact the world around them, and for us, those decisions specifically impact The Gunnery.    Gunnery leaders are often confronted with ethical decisions that impact people well beyond their individual selves-decisions that impact the school, and in most cases, students within the school.   Disagreeing with an peer’s idea, preventing a friend from making a bad decision, or being the positive voice during a potentially negative stretch-a Gunnery leader—or any leader—must follow their moral compass and make decisions in the best interest of the community,  with the knowledge that doing so might jeopardize their social status.    Leaders make decisions that people will not necessarily “like” or approve of, because they recognize that the betterment of the school must be placed ahead of their own place within the social pipeline.   COURAGE…MORAL COURAGE…the willingness to do what is right in the face of potential consequence…it is what separates role models and leaders, and it is what we should attempt to build within, and expect of, our own at The Gunnery.  Tonight, we will begin with Colin Kanuch.