Technological literacy and social purpose

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  • This article was downloaded by: [Western Kentucky University]On: 16 November 2014, At: 14:09Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registered office: Mortimer House,37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

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    Technological literacy and social purposePaul W. De Vore aa Professor of education , West Virginia UniversityPublished online: 05 Nov 2009.

    To cite this article: Paul W. De Vore (1992) Technological literacy and social purpose, Theory Into Practice, 31:1, 59-63, DOI:10.1080/00405849209543525

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  • Paul W. De Vore

    Technological Literacy and Social Purpose

    Throughout this century, schools have been ina state of flux as they have attempted to meetthe needs of a constantly changing society.Within the field of technology, there has beenconsiderable confusion as to direction, a confu-sion that has resulted from a variegated past ofdifferent curricular movements designed to servevarious politically acceptable purposes. Therehas also been confusion about the place of tech-nology within education as a field of study.

    The context in which programs in technol-ogy education exist today presents a new chal-lenge and responsibility. The new context ne-cessitates not only an integration with fields ofstudy such as science and society, but alsodirects attention to the evolution of the disci-pline and science of technology as a significantfield of study mandated to meet the need forinformed human action in a changing world.

    A Changing WorldWe live in an interdependent, ever-chang-

    ing worlda world of accelerating industrializa-tion, rapid population growth, widespread mal-nutrition, increasing depletion of nonrenewablesources of energy, and a deteriorating environ-ment. As the number, magnitude, and serious-ness of the problems continue to increase, wehave at the same time more scientists, econo-mists, statisticians, political scientists, lawyers,

    Paul W. De Vore is professor of education at WestVirginia University.

    and other experts and specialists than ever be-fore. What seems to have taken place is anillusion of progress but no true progress in im-proving the potential for a long-term quality fu-ture for all people.

    In earlier times our technical means werenot as powerful and dependency on multiplesubsystems was not as great. If systems weredisturbed, they returned to equilibrium in a rela-tively short period of time and damage to hu-man beings and the environment was limited.Not so with the technical systems of the 20thcentury. Eric Sevareid (Kidder, 1987) cited threeproblems he believes are new in history, eachof which is related directly to the creation anduse of technical means: "One is the leap intospace. Another is the existence of ultimateweapons. And the third is the poisoning of thenatural resources of lifethe rivers, air, andfood" (p. 6). Sevareid pointed out that he didnot believe any of our real problems would besolved in outer space but rather in "inner space,"within the inner person and on "terra firma."

    Dependency on common sense and the folkknowledge of yesterday will not suffice in to-day's increasingly complex technological envi-ronment. Many years of disciplined and sys-tematic study are required to understand thebehavior of our technical systems and their im-pact on the human, social, and environmentalrealms. The context and reality are different and,thus, a different order of knowledge, know-how,and responsibility are needed.

    Theory Into Practice, Volume XXXI, Number 1, Winter 1992

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  • Kidder (1990) noted that the two major is-sues that will shape the next decade will betechnology and ethics. He questioned where wewill get the designers and engineers who areethically sound enough and knowledgeableenough to be responsible for the technologicalenterprises of the future. These and other anal-yses have altered our thinking, changed our viewof the world, and brought about a shift in ourcultural paradigm.

    A Shifting ParadigmA new perspective and a new ethic have

    been evolving from an increasing awareness thatthe earth is not large enough, nor the resourcesplentiful enough, to tolerate a long-term escala-tion of our current anthropocentric and aggres-sive technological behavior. We have come tothe realization that we inhabit a living planetthat has limits to clean air, fossil fuels, potablewater, waste absorbing capacity, and the resil-ience of its life-support ecosystems (Harman,1977, p. 7).

    The predominant world view in the Westhas been based on a technocratic, industrial-scientific paradigm that perceives nature as amechanistic system that can be understood viaits simple components and their external rela-tions. The belief is that nature should be con-trolled for the benefit of humans and that onlyminor adjustments in technological systems arenecessary to protect the earth's ecosystem fromharm (Drengson, 1983, p. 63). When testedagainst the criteria of sustainability, this per-ception of the world seems to be lacking. Theevidence is mounting of extensive, and at timesirreversible, damage being done to the ecosys-tems that sustain and nourish life.

    This reexaminaron of our thinking has cre-ated a shift from viewing life in instrumental waysto perceiving the intrinsic worth of all life. Thechallenge to educators, and to technology edu-cators specifically, is to address the many im-plications this new perception has for the struc-ture, content, and research direction of the dis-cipline of technology.

    A New Role for KnowledgeOur future and the future of succeeding gen-

    erations will depend on human action based onknowingknowing about the earth and the be-havior of humans and the interrelation between

    natural systems and technological and socialsystems. Public policies and individual actionswill require new levels of responsibility, a re-evaluation of our ethics, and a reassessment ofthe nature, content, and structure of education.

    The current ethic, which supports individu-al and collective violence against nature andhumans, has brought about destructive conse-quences for life on earth. Jonas (1984) asserts,when "the realm of making [technological activ-ities] invades the space of essential action, thenmorality must invade the realm of making, fromwhich it has formerly stayed aloof, and must doso in the form of public policy" (p. 9). In Jonas'sview, acquiring the knowledge required for in-telligent human action becomes a duty beyondanything claimed for it heretofore.

    Thus, the very act of creating technicalmeans has brought about the necessity of re-assessing what it means to be educated in theworld today. Our technological activities havebecome the "infinite forward thrust of the race,its most significant enterprise, in whose perma-nent, self-transcending advance to ever greaterthings the vocation of [humankind] tends to beseen, and whose success of maximal controlover things and [ourselves] appears as the con-summation of [our] destiny" (Jonas, 1984, p. 9).

    The new imperative calls for individual andcollective understanding and control in the de-sign, development, and use of the technicalmeans of society in relation to the natural orderof which humans are a part. This mandates anew form of literacy for citizens throughout theworld, a technological literacy grounded in thecontext of ethical, individual, and collective re-sponsibility.

    A New LiteracyTechnological literacy is a form of literacy

    never before provided by schools and formaleducation. If our choice is to live in a free dem-ocratic society where every individual becomesultimately responsible for the proper function-ing of the community and nation, then we allmust be prepared for our critical roles as deci-sion makers and contributors to the functioningof an increasingly complex world.

    Two driving forces are behind the changein thinking about education in a democratic-technological society. One concerns the impactof technological illiteracy on the community ornation. The other relates to the shift in the cul-

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  • tural paradigm that emphasizes technologicalliteracy as a part of basic literacy.

    From a social perspective, technologicallyilliterate citizens affect a community and nationin many ways. Among the more critical are thefollowing:

    1. an increasing drain on the resources of a com-munity by citizens unable to contribute in ameaningful and productive way in an increasinglytechnological world;

    2. a loss of competitive economic potential by busi-nesses and industries unable to obtain employeescapable of functioning effectively in complex,ever-changing, technological environments;

    3. a lessening of defense and disaster responsepotential during times of national emergency, dueto a citizenry that lacks knowledge and know-howin the technologies; and

    4. a growing number of citizens disenfranchised,both economically and politically, from participat-ing effectively in the governance andmanagement of their communities.

    It is not possible to select, design, operate ap-propriately, or control technical means and sys-tems without a thorough knowledge and under-standing of the behavior of technological sys-tems (how and why they work) and the relationof these systems to humans, their society, andthe natural environment. The technological sys-tems of the future will, in general, need to bemore complex, not less, because of the require-ment that they be compatible with the naturalenvironment and th diverse bioregions of theearth. The systems will also be more complexand diverse in order to meet the goal of transi-tioning to a sustainable social-technological fu-ture.

    Technological literacy has become a nec-essary and basic component in the educationof all citizens. Such a literacy prepares citizensto be conversant in the language of technolog-ical systems and to comprehend the basic con-cepts required for understanding the dynamics,interrelatedness, and impacts of technical meansat all levels of society and the natural environ-ment.

    Technological literacy not only prepares cit-izens for their responsibilities in managing theircommunities but also prepares them to func-tion responsibly and effectively in the economicrealm. It reconnects people to the technical sys-tems from which they have become separated.

    The Study of TechnologyThe nature and character of technical means

    have evolved over many centuries. The study ofthe creation and use of this reservoir of know-ing and doing is the field of study called tech-nology. Perceptions of the importance of tech-nical means have changed as the means havechanged. Perceptions about technology as afield of study have also changed. Viewpointsabout technology range from technology asthings or tools only to technology as a majorcomponent of the adaptive systems1 of society.The word technology brings to mind mental con-structs such as skill, artifacts, technique, engi-neering, a body of knowledge, a discipline, asystems of means, or an effect. Each of theseviewpoints has contributed to a more completeunderstanding of the nature of technology aswell as adding to the confusion.

    Even standard definitions of technologytend to cloud the issue. The numerous dictio-nary definitions of the word technology include(a) the branch of knowledge that deals with theindustrial arts, applied science, and engineer-ing; (b) the science of the application of knowl-edge to practical purposes; and (c) the totalityof the means employed by a people to providethe material objects of their culture (De Vore,1980).

    Others define technology from the perspec-tive of their discipline. Economists define tech-nology with reference to production; sociolo-gists from the perspective of social relationsand political structures; and engineers in termsof physical structures or technical systems. Ifthere is an agreement, it is that the createdtechnical means and adaptive systems are wo-ven into the entire fabric of Western society andincreasingly so in other societies as well.

    The Science of TechnologyThe diverse and conflicting viewpoints about

    technology are of little help to those concernedwith public policy, education, and technologicalliteracy. The diverse viewpoints only increasethe confusion and dissonance. With no com-mon agreement on meaning, it is difficult topursue intelligent public policy, develop validcurricula, or establish programs to attain de-sired levels of technological literacy.

    Most unabridged dictionaries define theword science as a branch of knowledge or studydealing with a body of facts, truths, or concepts

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  • systematically determined, or as systematicknowledge of the physical, material, or naturalworld. There is general agreement that sciencemeans not one branch of knowledge but nu-merous branches such as psychology, anthro-pology, geology, and biology. Each of thesebranches of knowledge, including technology,shares a common factorthe systematic de-termination of facts, truths, knowledge, and un-derstanding of the behavior of the systems be-ing studied with the goal of being able to pre...

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