On the Priestly and the Prophetic in Technical Innovation

by Robbie McClintock

A memo in written in the Fall of 1984 as part of a Teachers College team developing a grant proposal to IBM Research for an iniatiative in teacher education.

Length: 2,250 words

In reflecting on our meeting Thursday afternoon, I have begun to wonder whether we are trying to deal with two quite diffenent questions through one proposal. I had thought that IBM's concern might be summarized as follows:

We at IBM don't know much about how teachers are educated, yet we suspect that for the potential uses of information technologies to develop fully in education it will be essential to perfect the use of information technologies in the education of teachers. We are seeking you out at Teachers College becaase you are engaged in educating teachers and if you can draw together a group among you interested in perfecting the use of information technologies in the education of teachers, we would like to assist their efforts.

I am beginning to infer from the direction in which the draft proposal seems to keep moving that IBM's concern was somewhat different. I'd put a capsule statement of this inferred concern thus:

We at IBM don't know much about the uses of information technologies in educational settings and thus we can't provide the kind of user support to schools that we customarily do to businesses. We are seeking you out at Teachers College because you are experienced in providing support to schools in implementing innovations and we want you to assist us in developing model user-support strategies for schools and we expect you might be interested in doing this because it would provide a valuable setting for researching the dynamics of change in education and would strengthen your networks with practioners.

To me the main difference between these concerns is that we can carry out the latter well without significantly straining or expanding our own substantive command of the educational uses of information technologies. Rather we would be acting as technical consultants, expert in managing the introduction of new ways, be they X, Y, or Z, in educational settings, without our substantive mastery of the new ways being introduced, in this case information technologies, being much at issue. In short, the locus of the charge would be the schools, not the programs of Teachers College.

If the task at hand is to develop a response to something like the second concern, I have serious doubts about what I can contribute to it. Such a concern would seem to me to be something that IBM might possibly have and it would seem to me very appropriate for a group within Teachers College to develop a response as such a response would quite naturally extend what is now going on within various programs. Personally, however, I am not particularly interested in such a project. I simply do not think that the information technologies are transparent, neutral innovations which merely promise greater efficiency and effectiveness in the performance of well established functions. These technologies, for better or for worse, will transform educational functions. I thought IBM was offering us an opportunity to take some responsibility for the ways in which the information technologies may be made to transform the processes and functions of teacher education. I don't think we have yet begun to respond to such an offer in our draft proposal.

In the general discussion with Mr. Roberts last Spring, he said two things that forcefully stuck in my mind. First, in response to a rather practical proposal by Bob Holloway, Roberts put it very memorably: through its grant programs IBM seeks to assist, not the priests, but the prophets. He also made unmistakably clear that IBM acts positively only on those things it recognizes as serving its self-interests. I take him to have been serious on both points and assume therefore that he did not withdraw the comment about priests and prophets with his stipulation that proposals must be recognizably in the self-interst of IBM. Rather, the real strength of the two statements is in the way they fit together: it is easy enough to propose activities helpful to IBM's self-intersts, but one is likely to become priestly in the process; it is also easy enough to propose prophetic iniatives, but these are likely to be so vague that no one, certainly not IBM, can be sure what interests, if any, they will serve.

Now the draft we have developed since that discussion seems to me to have become very priestly in an effort to make sure that IBM will recognize our intentions as responsive to its self-interests. Priestly work seeks to diffuse observance of teachings, both doctrines and practices, among a populace without significantly transforming its complex forms of worldly activity. Prophetic effort, in contrast, aims precisely at fundamentaly reforming a people's worldly way of life; it opposes to the given the vision of a possible alternative and offers reasons why people should actively prefer that possiblitiy to the present actuality. Our proposal, as it stands, promises to train lay-priests of the information technologies to work within various school-parishes in our region. Functionally, I do not see how it differs from a fleshing out of the idea that Harold Noah floated during our meeting with Roberts, an idea which Roberts unequivocally discouraged. I think we need to develop a more prophetic proposal or our efforts are likely to be as decisively put down in the end.

As I understand the evolution of discussions since the meeting with Roberts, IBM has made clear that it will be most responsive to a proposal dealing with teacher education. It may seem paradoxical, relative to the priestly-prophetic polarity, that IBM should want a proposal centering on teacher education, for teacher education might be characterized as the most priestly of our activities. But that might be precisely why IBM would perceive a prophetic proposal relative to teacher education to be something very much in IBM's self-interest. The more comprehensive that a worldly domain becomes, the more resistant it becomes to transformation by prophetic effort. Relative to education as a whole, teacher education is a highly circumscribed domain, yet it is one strategically situated so that the prophetic restructuring of teacher education might well promise a considerable multiplication of effects through the priestly work of the teachers newly educated. Such reasoning might well make a prophetic proposal aimed at the restructuring of teacher education by full, advanced use of information technologies very attractive to IBM.

IBM is a huge organization whose revenues exceed ours by over a thousand-fold. It is important to keep in mind what part of IBM we are addressing, namely those in it who are responsible for granting, in ways conducive to the self-interests of the company, that small but very substantial increment of its annual revenues set aside for the support of education. IBM does not need to allocate those monies for funding short-range development and implementation activities. Other parts of IBM might be interested in funding something like our draft on a contract basis as part of an effort at regional support for educational marketing. IBM has made it clear that their educational grants in the past have gone primarily to support activities in engineering and the hard sciences. Would the grants they made, say, to MIT have been for the purpose of providing basic training to engineers on applications of computing technology to selected problems, those engineers to be primarily ones employed by selected firms in the greater Boston area? I am sure that IBM offers a great deal of such training to such engineers, but not through its educational support grants to MIT -- although such training may serve the self-interest of IBM, it would not be in the self-interest of IBM to use its monies set aside for the support of scientific and technical education in that manner.

In search of a way out of my discontent, I have gone back to the various documents that we have so far generated and my attention has fixed on a proposition in the June Proposal to IBM, a proposition reiterated in the memo of October 16th convening our working group:

The history of education as a social institution suggests that it has been remarkably flexible in absorbing, digesting and then eliminating with little trace "innovations" that were thought at the time to offer great educational promise.

I suspect it would behoove us to rethink that proposition, for it may point us in a fundamentally skewed direction. The more I have reflected on the pertinent history, the more I am convinced that the warranted proposition is somewhat more complex:

The history of education as a social instutition began with a technical innovation, namely the invention of writing, and there has been one instance since in which the thorough-going restructuring of education as a social institution has been triggered by a further innovation, namely with the invention of printing and with its systemmatic adoption as the basis for storing and retrieving knowledge in our culture. Since then, the established system of education has absorbed, digested, and eliminated with little trace other innovations, despite exaggerated expectations about their probable effects.

The burden of the first formulation is that the inertia of education as a social institution is so great that it is nearly impervious to innovation unless extreme astuteness is achieved in efforts to implement change. The burden of the second formulation is that education is foremost an intellectual, not a social, institution, with the result that innovations that change the basic organization and structure of knowledge will powerfully change education as a social institution, despite its immense inertia, whereas innovations that do not affect the basic procedures for deploying and preserving knowledge will have little effect on education for they are at most cosmetic relative to its activating purposes.

I think the second formulation is a better reading of the relevant history, one that takes into account a wider range of documentable developments and one that provides sounder perspective on the present juncture. Will the innovations occurring in the information technologies change the basic organization and structure of knowledge? I think they are powerfully, ineluctably doing so in a transformation that is rapid in the sweep of historical time, however slow it may appear according to the clocks of our own careers. The problem will not be one of sustaining innovations in the face of the social inertia of organized education, but of finding ways to sustain and perfect basic educational purposes in a setting in which, over the coming decades, wave after wave of innovation will break, sweeping away much that now seems securely solid.

Such change does not come as one single, discrete innovation, which can be either adopted, or not, as preference would have it. Rather such change will be experienced as a series of waves, one following after an interval upon another, with the cumulative effect of transforming the intellectual basis of education. One such wave broke over us in the early 1980's, comprised of the personal computer and its generic applications programs -- word processors, database managers, and spreadsheets. A second wave is just beginning to build and it will crest at a much higher level of sophistication, consisting of massive storage capacities, effective computer communications, and general access to expert systems -- the importance of applications programs will be supplanted by generative, trarsformational programs. Between the two waves a trough of some duration, say four to seven years or more, will intervene, with many thinking that the arrival of computers in education can now properly be spoken of in the past tense, with the conclusion drawn that it wasn't all that it was cracked up to be, and others developing the systems and software the effects of which will begin to build into the second wave.

It is important, I think, to reflect on the character of the software and implementations that mediate the real linkages between people and the computing systems they use. In the first wave broadening the use of microcomputers, applications programs mediated the linkage between people and machines, and this type of program is properly called that for it consists of programs useful when applied to common functions -- typing, planning, accounting, cataloguing, organizing and keeping records. These programs are priestly programs -- they do not change the worldly ways of people but they can be applied to doing a bit more easily all manner of familiar tasks. Word processing programs do not change the nature of reading and writing in the intellectual economy of our culture; database management programs do not alter the function of information storage and retrieval in sustaining our civilization; spreadsheets do not transform the place of statistics and quantitative projections in our lives: all in contrast have proved themselves to be powerful applications in doing what have been, for generations, the staple activities of workaday life. All these applications are to computing what the applications of the fist printing presses to the improved production of illuminated manuscripts were to printing: the applications that introduce into use the novel technology. Such an introduction into use is a precondition, but little more, for the transformations that can then result as people learn to make novel, unexpected use of the potentialities unique to the new tools.