Humanizing Technology - Cardinal Newman Society

Humanizing Technology

Two significant studies within the Google headquarters have unearthed surprising results. Google was founded on the principle that hiring and retaining the best of the best in computer science would make their company the best of the best. Kudos to Google for digging deep and seeking an honest picture, rather than just presuming a path of success based on the model they set up. Their studies, Oxygen and Aristotle, totally upended the founders’ expected model of hiring, progress, and success.

The first in-depth study on hiring, retention, and promotion was called Oxygen—a clever name, and somewhat prophetic, for it breathed new life into the company. It also shocked the founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, by highlighting the principal characteristics of their top achievers as being all soft skills, with STEM skills coming in last place. After further review and study, Google expanded its talent search pool to include graduates in the humanities, artists, and even MBAs to increase its excellence in the areas identified as most important, those “soft skills” like communication, listening, insights into human nature, respecting others’ ideas, and being able to think about them and discuss them.

The latest study was appropriately titled Project Aristotle. This study found more of the same. It also found, interestingly, that the B-teams produced the most important and productive new ideas. This also upset the apple cart, toppling the presumption that the top tier teams always achieved the most. An article in the Washington Post that details this goes on to list other corporate giants who are finding similar things. In a world of increasingly specialized technocrats, young people trained in the more humanities-based majors are emerging as the most likely to succeed in the corporate world. As author Valerie Strauss writes, “billionaire venture capitalist and ‘Shark Tank’ TV personality Mark Cuban… looks for philosophy majors when he’s investing in sharks most likely to succeed.”

While Brin and Page felt computer wonks would propel Google to the top of the tech world, they found the real power lay in the human relationships built on creativity, understanding, philosophy, etc. It is not a surprise, then, to see many others in the tech world coming to similar conclusions and making choices based upon those conclusions, especially in their own families, where it counts the most. A New York Times article gives some insight into one example of this trend:

The chief technology officer of eBay sends his children to a nine-classroom [Waldorf] school. …So do employees of Silicon Valley giants like Google, Apple, Yahoo and Hewlett-Packard. But the school’s chief teaching tools are anything but high-tech: pens and paper, knitting needles and, occasionally, mud. Not a computer to be found. No screens at all. They are not allowed in the classroom, and the school even frowns on their use at home.

This same article, interviewing parents who are tech executives, continued:

“Teaching is a human experience. Technology is a distraction when we need literacy, numeracy and critical thinking.”

“Engagement is about human contact, the contact with the teacher, the contact with their peers,” said Pierre Laurent, 50, who works at a high-tech start-up and formerly worked at Intel and Microsoft.

And where advocates for stocking classrooms with technology say children need computer time to compete in the modern world, Waldorf parents counter: what’s the rush, given how easy it is to pick up those skills?

“It’s supereasy. It’s like learning to use toothpaste,” [Google executive,] Mr. Eagle said. “At Google and all these places, we make technology as brain-dead easy to use as possible. There’s no reason why kids can’t figure it out when they get older.”

In Catholic education, we should take this as a serious and important object lesson. We should not blindly run off with the next pretty technocrat or datacrat that comes calling and skip away into the forest of STEMs. We should resist the marketing and the allure, not to mention the plethora of studies that cite data faster than Bloomberg TV’s ticker. We, in Catholic schools, should know better and soundly adhere to the Church’s uninterrupted teaching that our educational programs need to spring from Christian anthropology – the true understanding of man’s dignity and purpose. That demands we form our children’s imagination with story, heroism, beauty and goodness. It requires we habituate them to the acquiescence that there is Truth, and that we can (and must!) know Him. It calls us to what both Cardinal Versaldi and Bishop Caggiano called us to at the National Catholic Education Association’s annual convention this April—teachers are to be missionary disciples “forming young people for service in the Church.”

Google’s study confirmed that success, even in the heart of the STEM world, is based on education and formation that is human, relational, historical and meaningful—an education the Church has offered since her first schools. May we all keep the allure of enticing glitzy, new and fun technology in its proper place, and really invest in the importance of keeping ourselves and our children rooted and growing in reality and relationship.

MICHAEL J. VAN HECKE, M.Ed., a seasoned headmaster and educational speaker, is also the founder and president of The Institute for Catholic Liberal Education and the Catholic Textbook Project. In their spare time, he and his wife farm avocados.

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