Education Matters: Technology, and our saving grace

Editor's Note: Numerous instances of plagiarism have been discovered in Dan Kimber’s “Education Matters” column, which ran in the News- Press from September 2003 to September 2011. In those columns where plagiarism has been found, a For the Record specifying the details will be appended to the piece.

I saw one of those movies the other day that give us one of those bleak accounts of life in some distant future.

There was hopelessness everywhere — lives were lived mechanically against the background of a sterile and colorless, often violent, world. People were vacant, pressed into painful uniformity and seemingly without personality.

It brought to mind many conversations I’ve had with classes over the years about how my kids envision their futures. One of the biggest question marks that comes up is the rapid pace of technology, and just how adjustable my students will be as the rate of change continues to accelerate.

How can they possibly compete with machines that no longer just duplicate human effort, but far surpass it?

How will they secure jobs when their employers are enticed by the services of a laborer that can work continuously, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, flawlessly without need of breaks or lunch hours or weekends or paid vacations or salary of any kind? This worker would never join a union, never need health benefits or a pension plan — in other words, every employer’s dream.

Who will hire humans in the future when robots and automation are increasingly employed not just in manufacturing, but in service industries?

We may be getting a glimpse of the future in supermarkets and large retail outlets that have installed automated check-out facilities. Already these stores seem to be encouraging patrons to use this method of payment, eliminating cashiers altogether.

Over the years, my kids and I have wondered which occupations in the future will be exempt from this trend and what services that we humans render to each other are indispensably human. It’s interesting that teaching is most often put into this category, as my students cannot fathom how their education could someday be dispensed by anything other than a human being.

But just for the sake of argument, I ask them to imagine a classroom where each desk is converted to a learning module where they could access a world of audio/visual hook-ups, could be privy to the most brilliant lectures on any given subject, could be given instant feedback and perfect answers to all of their questions, and could proceed at their own pace with a program specifically suited to their individual needs.

“Where’s the human touch in all of that?” I am invariably asked.

I am always pleased to hear that question, along with other observations about how they perceive their education.

“There’s got to be some fun in learning and no technology can deliver that”...”We’d end up like the machines that taught us”...”No computer can show empathy or compassion or humor or.…”

Music to my ears.

We all sometimes feel swept up in a modern culture that places increasingly less emphasis on people-to-people intimacy. Perhaps it is part of a love/hate relationship with a technology that takes us to the limits of our imaginations but often abandons us there, feeling more isolated than ever.

Looking back into our history between the Civil War and the century’s end, economic and technological change came so swiftly and massively that it seemed to many Americans that a whole new civilization had emerged.

Voices of doom were sounded back then by many who bemoaned the loss of a bond between producers and consumers, who bemoaned the loss of a time when people were more important than profit. (Was there ever such a time?)

Future job seekers may indeed find that the loss of employment in one area will open doors to employment in other areas. They may actually find rewards in transferring human labor to machines, thus affording more leisure time to pursue interests and hobbies and creative endeavors.

The notion, however, that humans one day will be replaceable or expendable goes against an abiding faith I have in humanity and its demonstrated ability to adjust, to evolve.

Simulating human traits is one thing, duplicating them is something else entirely. That may well be the saving grace of us all as we move forward into this new century.

DAN KIMBER taught in the Glendale Unified School District for more than 30 years. He may be reached at

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