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.

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