1992.  I was working for the Southwestern Michigan Urban League.  The Urban League “has built a bridge between races and has sought to emphasize the greater reliance on the unique resources of the African-American community to find solutions to its own problems.”  I was one of two white team leaders for the Youth Volunteer Corps that year.  The Youth Volunteer Corps was founded in 1987 to engage youth in service projects that are challenging, rewarding and educational and promote a greater understanding of diversity in their community.  Another of their fundamental goals is to promote a lifetime ethic of service; it certainly did that for me.  Our service projects included rehabilitating homes for young single mothers.  Our young black kids were learning community responsibility by being responsible for their community through plumbing, carpentry, and caring for their vulnerable neighbors.  

While we worked, we frequently listened to Erik B. & Rakim’s Don’t Sweat the Technique (1992) and Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet (1990).  These were the philosophers the day who sculpted the ideas for the youth, and ff there was ever a time I understood “the poetry of teaching and learning,” that was probably it. They understood, earlier than others, what it meant to be institutionalized by technique.

Chuck D’s infamous: “I got so much trouble on my mind.”

Erik B. “They wanna know how many rhymes have I ripped and wrecked / But researchers never found all the pieces yet.”

Chuck D: Caught in the race against time / The pit and the pendulum / Check the rhythm and rhymes / While I'm bending 'um / Snakes blowing up the lines of design / Trying to blind the science I'm sending 'em / How to fight the power / Cannot run and hide / But it shouldn't be suicide / In a game a fool without the rules / Got a hell of a nerve to just criticize.”

Erik B. “Philosophers are wondering what's next / Pieces took the last to observe them / They couldn't absorb them / They didn't deserve them / My ideas are only for the audience”

I loved those albums. I loved that year.  I loved teaching and learning with these kids.  When Shelley talked about listening and remixing the poetry of teaching and learning, it was hard not to think of rap music and the fact that this balding, middle-class, middle-aged white guy still listens to Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos as he works out. “I gotta get out, but that thought was thought before.”  I don’t know if there is a way out.   

As Shelley said “everything has become a technique.” She’s right.  And better minds than mine, Ursula Franklin and Jacques Ellul, seem to think so too.  As Ellul says,

Each of us, in his own life, must seek ways of resisting and transcending technological determinants. . . Freedom is not static but dynamic; not a vested interest, but a prize continually to be won.  The moment man stops and resigns himself, he becomes subject to determinism.  He is most enslaved when he thinks he is comfortably settled in freedom.  In the modern world, the most dangerous form of determinism is the technological phenomenon. It is not a question of getting rid of it, but by an act of freedom, of transcending it.  How is this to be done? I do not yet know.  (1964, p. xxxii - xxxiii).

For Ellul, no one is capable of making a true and itemized account of the total effect of existing techniques.  The same could be said for teaching techniques: (think-pair-share, minute papers, exit tickets, jigsaws, problem-based learning, inquiry learning, case studies, peer instruction, self-assessment, reflective journals, the prediction effect, the testing effect, concept mapping, role plays, debates, student-led discussions, community service learning, work-integrated learning, high-impact educational practices, learning outcomes, rubrics, constructive alignment, etc.).  

And the machine (the computer, the device, the hardware and software)

represents the ideal toward which technique strives. The machine is solely, exclusively, technique; it is pure technique, one might say.  For, wherever a technical factor exists, it results, almost inevitably, in mechanization: technique transforms everything it touches into a machine.

This is not just a polemic. In March 2018, OECD put faces to people at risk of automation, and they estimate 32% of jobs could face technological unemployment, and training (education) is not going to be a successful remedy because “participation in training is significantly lower for workers in jobs at high risk of automation” (OECD, 2018, p. 1).

Oxford University estimates that some of the jobs at risk of automation include career and technical education teachers (26% likely), adult literacy teachers and instructors (19% likely), and middle school teachers (17% likely) (Scott, 2017).  Who knows if this is true and/or when/will it come to pass, but many are beginning to think it is time to sweat the technique.  Ursula Franklin, like Ellul, was an early thinker in this area, and she speaks to the difficulty of applying language to technology.  

How does one speak about something that is both fish and water, means as well as end?  That’s why I think it is better to examine limited settings where one puts technology in context, because context is what matters most. . . I think it’s important to realize that technology defined as practice shows us the deep cultural link of technology, and it saves us from thinking that technology is the icing on the cake.  Technology is part of the cake itself (Franklin, 1990, pp. 14-17).

And this icing and cake is transforming the act of teaching (transforming being used here without positive or negative judgment to indicate that what teaching will look like in the future will resemble nothing like its present state).  

Franklin describes two primary types of technology – holistic and production technologies. Franklin sees teaching as a holistic technology par excellence.

All of us who teach know that the magic moment when teaching turns into learning depends on the human setting and the quality and example of the teacher – on factors that relate to a general environment of growth rather than on any design parameters set down externally.  If there ever was a growth process, if there ever was a holistic process, a process that cannot be divided into rigid predetermined steps, it is education (Franklin, 1990, p. 29).

Even though Franklin describes teaching as a holistic technology, she also recognizes that “schools and universities operate according to a production model.”  This application of the production model may be especially true for online education.  Franklin (1990) describes prescriptive or production technologies as technologies that break down the holistic process into clearly identifiable steps where a separate worker or group of workers carry out individual jobs.  This is what Bates (2015) refers to as the “disaggregation of services” (sec.10.10.3), and this disaggregation is an important aspect of achieving flexibility and scale.  It is now possible to disaggregate course development from delivery, assessment from delivery, and certification from assessment (Contact North, 2016).

Pedagogy is one of the human techniques Ellul outlines, and the conquest of technique renders former modes of social organization incompatible with technique, especially when the technique is applied in the interest of the state. 

When modern youth are fully educated in the new psychopedagogic technique, many social and political difficulties will disappear. . . The new pedagogical methods correspond exactly to the role assigned to education in modern technical society. . . furnish administrators for the state and managers for the economy, in conformity with social needs and tendencies. . . education no longer has a humanist end or any value in itself; it has only one goal, to create technicians. (p. 348)

See any number of articles on the death of the liberal arts.  Farewell poetry.  You have no place here. Or, maybe you do.  I truly hope Shelley can do what Ellul suggests: “What we must do is look about us and note certain obvious things which seem to escape the all too intelligent philosophers” (1964, p. 9).


Bates, T. (2015, February 18). The implications of ‘open’ for course and program design: Towards a paradigm shift. [Personal blog]. Retrieved from https://www.tonybates.ca/tag/disaggregation/

Contact North. (2016). The future of higher education and learning: A Canadian view. Toronto, ON: Contact North. Retrieved from https://contactnorth.ca/sites/default/files/pdf/external-presentations/future_of_higher_education_and_learning_0.pdf

Ellul, J. (1964). The technological society. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Franklin, U. (1990). The real world of technology. Toronto, ON: CBC Enterprises.

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. (2018). Policy brief on the future of work: Putting faces to the jobs at risk of automation. Retrieved from http://www.oecd.org/employment/Automation-policy-brief-2018.pdf

Scott, P. (2017, September 27). These are the jobs most at risk of automation according to Oxford University: Is yours one of them. The Telegraph. Retrieved from https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/09/27/jobs-risk-automation-according-oxford-university-one/