Education assists in tackling ‘predicament of subjectivity’
Generally, people exert their subjectivity to a greater degree as society advances. However, the subjectivity of contemporary people has been greatly impacted by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, characterized by the advent of AI and other technologies. Humans often exist beyond themselves and within technology. Technology both reveals and conceals. While it presents humans in a certain way, it obscures their other attributes and affects the meaning of human existence.
Firstly, humans become customized resources. Individuals are reduced to links of social production. Humans, like objects, serve as resources that are stored and deployed as needed, deprived of their independence and potential, and left with specific meanings, purposes, and uses. Secondly, the meaning of life is being dissolved. Technology requires humans to sign an unspoken “contract” at birth: we consent to give up meaning in exchange for power. This is not a blessing for humanity. Without meaning, the future of humanity is unimaginable.
Education is endowed with a significant mission whenever technological challenges arise, because it is regarded as a powerful “regulator.” In ancient times, education centered on the distinction between humans and other animals. In modern times, with individuals’ growing sense of subjectivity, education was aimed at fostering individuality that distinguishes one person from another. In contemporary or future times, education should focus on differentiating humans from machines and emphasize human autonomy.
However, the distinction between humans and machines is not absolute but rather relative. Machines continue to evolve as technology advances. Functions unique to humans and human nature are gradually emulated and surpassed by machines. Nevertheless, the essence of education remains to teach and nurture, and its overall value orientation is always to protect human autonomy and prevent humans from being overshadowed by machines.
What becomes more complex today is the specific mission of education. For example, how can human uniqueness be determined in relation to machines? How can this uniqueness be nurtured and enhanced with the help of technology? In what ways will new forms of uniqueness emerge as certain forms are supplanted? What ethical principles must be observed by humans and machines to preserve human uniqueness?
Modern people still need to seek meaning in experiences, although meaning in conventional experiences has been dissolved by powerful technologies. Humans can leverage emerging technologies to create new experiences and discover new meanings in new experiences. However, not all experiences qualify as the meaning of life. Education should lead people to ponder what should be pursued in life and what kind of life is worth living based on technological realities, the understanding of the human mind, historical and cultural traditions, theoretical debate on value, and the actual choices made by individuals.
In the future, the meaning of life could be embodied in the pursuit of rich data, agile algorithms, and the experience of freedom of information. It may also involve breaking through anthropocentrism and human exceptionalism to perceive the outside world from a more equal and humble perspective, striving for shared prosperity.
Technology appears to be advanced and reasonable. At the micro level, all individuals seem to benefit from technology. At the macrolevel, however, people are embedded in an increasingly integrated process, subject to coercion but unable to escape. It is imperative to re-examine both humans and education in the face of such hidden danger. In terms of its primary goal, education should teach people to be adequately cautious about technology and maintain critical thinking to avoid being misled by “false needs” created through technology.
In terms of process, as technology has been internalized in every aspect of human behavior and human interaction with the external world, the human-technology relationship is essentially the relationship between the “self” and the “function.” The coexistence of control and counter-control and precision and ambiguity will manifest in specific relationships in education, such as the teacher-student relationship, the learner-content relationship, and the human-machine relationship.
In terms of outcomes, standards for educational evaluation are expected to become notably different. What can be learned and processed by machines will become less important, while content that imparts human uniqueness and the meaning of life will be embraced. By then, “education entails educating the human soul, not the accumulation of rational knowledge and understanding” will become self-evident.
Wang Weihua and Xiao Lingen are from the School of Education Science at Hunan Normal University.