We necessarily function at a human ability scale when we assess the magnitude of challenges we confront. For example, we can recognize up to four objects at a glance. We have an auditory range of about ten octaves. We know how far we can jump, and when to cross a street.
Although we have an innately limited body/brain, we’ve always been curious about what’s beyond our capability range. We observed birds flying and fish swimming. We wondered about the immense sweep of the stars and the innards of insects. We continue to live comfortably within our human scale, but we do push at the edges.
Children realize their developmental limitations, and so toddlers observe runners, and preschoolers ask their parents to read to them. Much childhood effort is focused on the playful practice that moves them towards the adult capability levels they observe. Young children are initially content to simply watch their older siblings play video games, but not when they feel ready to play and want a regular turn. They’re similarly willing to let their parents drive the car — until mid-adolescence.
Adults are fascinated by those who make the dedicated effort to extend the human scale. The Olympics periodically gather the strivers and entertains the watchers, and our species cheers when someone extends a human capability range ever so slightly. We financially support individuals and groups who can play games or music at a virtuoso level, or who can understand complex mathematical concepts, or think more profound thoughts than the rest of us. We do love the edge.
Unfortunately, it would require extended evolutionary time to develop the much larger body/brain we’d need to expand our biological range enough to satisfy our insatiable curiosity. We couldn’t wait that long, and so opted for Plan B.
Plan B: Technology
At some point long ago, humans developed the frontal lobe capability to technologically off-load tasks that required them to go well beyond the normal human scale. Wheels eventually moved people and wires moved thoughts. We contained fire to create energy and developed paper and then silicon chips to process information. Our brain, imprisoned within a limiting skull, has broken free by creating a technological brain outside our skull that took us well beyond our human scale. Technology thus gave us an edge in natural selection (and a polluted environment for good measure).
Still, with all the current technological glitz, human scale remains important. Parents want their children to be able to spell accurately and compute without the electronic support they themselves use. We supplement miraculous medical technology with bedside comfort. We flock to folk festivals. We expect our cultural heroes and political leaders to be ordinary as well as extraordinary. Human beings are the measure of all things, the ancient adage suggests.
The technological explosion of the last third of the 20th century allowed scientists to explore natural phenomena far beyond the human scale. So most folks who learned to differentiate unseen textbook molecules from atoms are totally mystified by the differences between charm and bottom quarks (let alone their definitions). Folks who learned to differentiate stars from planets among the bright night sky dots are mystified by invisible quasars and black holes.
Being biologically imbedded in a human scale as science sprints way beyond it causes problems. Many people are psychologically committed to various ancient religious and philosophical explanations of natural phenomena. Part of the appeal of these explanations is their stability and comfortable human scale — they’ve been around so long that they’ve become part of the moral/ethical fabric of our culture. In the competition for allegiance, the more-difficult-to-understand and constantly-emerging scientific explanations and technologies are at a disadvantage.
Where Will Technology Lead Us?
Schools are expected to teach students current cultural knowledge, but educators now confront the problem of a rapidly widening gap between human scale explanations and scientific and technological developments — science driving technology and vice versa. Technological advances formerly tended to occur at a relatively slow pace that allowed us to comfortably assimilate them. Current advances occur with a suddenness that’s culturally confusing. A young man cobbles the Internet to create Napster, and decades of carefully crafted copyright agreements are in disarray.
School patrons who are fearful of a runaway science and technology become even more committed to their human scale beliefs — a cultural-curricular disconnect. We’re experiencing this in the Creationism controversy, sexuality education, and in the fear of what might happen to children searching an untrammeled Internet. Those on both ends of the continuum tend to be intolerant of the beliefs of others about an appropriate education, and those in the center search for accommodation. Things won’t become easier to sort out, since escalating advances in the Genome Project, cognitive neurosciences, and computer technology will pose a bewildering series of moral/ethical/legal/cultural issues that students will have to be prepared to confront.
Those who are quite comfortable with their current beliefs and a simple world aren’t very curious about alternate scientific explanations and new technological developments. Those who are momentarily thrilled by a new scientific/technological development tend to quickly shift their curiosity to what the next development might be. Both groups send their children to school, the last pencil-driven institution in our increasingly electronic society.
Next month’s column will explore possible educational responses.