|Sociologist Forsees "Hacker Ethics" as Threat to Traditional Concept of College
October 13, 2010
Contact: Bill Giduz
| King Associate Professor Gerardo Marti
The traditional notion of small liberal arts colleges as "formative educational retreats" is being threatened by "hacker ethics."
That's the message that Gerardo Marti, King Associate Professor of Sociology at Davidson College, will deliver at the upcoming 20th anniversary national conference of the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts. His address is titled "Hacker Ethics and Higher Learning: The Moral Clash Determining the Future of Education."
Marti will be one of three plenary speakers at the October 15-17 conference at Valparaiso University addressing the theme "Face to Face in Time and Place: Perspectives on Place in Higher Learning."
Marti will assert that a "hacker" model of self-education is forcing a reconsideration of the importance of "place" in higher education. Using network technology, students are no longer bound to the traditional model of a self-contained physical college campus that fosters mentor-student learning relationships.
He believes that technology, which traditional colleges have eagerly embraced with little consideration of the consequences, inherently promotes a model of education incompatible with traditional education. "Online digital education was pioneered by people not just creating technology, but with a philosophy that the education system as we know it is broken," Marti said. "The hackers believe that information should be equally accessible to everyone everywhere. They contend that traditional education has taken the joy out of learning. They say educators centralize information they want us to know and spoon-feed it to us so we become nations of sheep or clerks, rather than people who experience the joy of discovery, who collaborate with others on things that really matter."
It's not an argument over whether to use or not use technology, Marti continued. "It's two different moral orientations about what higher education should look like in the future."
Marti has delved into the archives to find evidence supporting his contention. He notes that Davidson College itself was founded on a traditional education model emphasizing its location far enough from major cities so that students could "avoid temptations to immorality" and be molded by professors and staff into "virtuous and upright adults."
He finds evidence of hacker philosophy as far back as 1974, when a computer scientist named Theodore Nelson wrote a booklet titled "Computer Lib/Dream Machines." Nelson embraced computing not because of its promise in number crunching, but for its potential to foster virtual communities and allow open access to knowledge.
Nelson wrote, "The human mind is born free, but is everywhere in chains. Everything in the universe is intrinsically interesting, but school ruins it for us."
Nelson identified "the enemy" as central processing, a single point where information is managed, protected and selectively distributed.
The hacker ethic believes that open access facilitates rich communities of interest rather than forced communities of instruction. It proposes to let people make their own decisions about what they need to know and when, and promotes the notion that they should cultivate their own ideas and interests, engage in seat-of-the-pants problem solving, and be willing to break things to find solutions.
Marti finds evidence of encroaching hacker culture in the increasing number of online educational institutions and open access initiatives. He cites a New York Times Higher Education article that proclaims, "Open learning and new technology are about to smash the structure of the modern university."
Marti believes that church-affiliated institutions like Davidson will more profoundly face the dilemma between discipline formation and hacker ethics. He says church-affiliated schools promote productive constraint, while complete freedom is the goal of hacker ethics.
He notes that younger scholars are more accommodating of hacker ethics because they have grown up embracing the technology that enables it. They view computers not as dehumanizing, but as enabling a release of the human spirit. "New media becomes a source of beauty, truth, and - ultimately - transformation," Marti said. "Hacker ethic makes a distinction between education and knowledge, and says that a lot of education doesn't contribute to knowledge."
Marti continued, "I think this radical notion is threatening to traditional higher education, which is built on creating closed systems of moral virtues. We cloister students to be disciplined and often pious people. The idea of a formative moral retreat is at the center of our idea of American higher education. We want to gather people into our community and keep them there so they can listen to our experts and end up promoting our values. There's a strong sense of boundary keeping, ranking, hierarchy and paternalism."
Marti's address to the Lilly Program assembly accentuates his role as a committed educator and complements the main focus of his scholarship, which has focused on racial and ethnic diversity in churches, twenty- and thirty-something religion, and congregational responses to social change.
He hopes that his remarks prove provocative, and that traditional educators will seriously consider the implications of hacker culture. "I'm not interested in romanticizing computer technology or digital connectivity, but perhaps we've romanticized an era of higher education that will no longer exist." He concluded, "We can fight against change. But the more ambitious and transformative route is to have the courage to open ourselves to the unseen possibilities now available through the expansion of new forms of communication."
In addition to several journal articles, Marti is author three books: A Mosaic of Believers: Diversity and Innovation in a Multiethnic Church (Indiana University Press, 2009); Hollywood Faith: Holiness, Prosperity, and Ambition in a Los Angeles Church (Rutgers University Press, 2008); and Worship across the Racial Divide: Notions of Race and the Practice of Religious Music in Multiracial Churches (Oxford University Press, forthcoming).
Marti, who joined the Davidson faculty in 2000, received his Ph.D. from the University of Southern California and recently held a visiting position as the Lynette S. Autrey Visiting Professor of Religious Studies through the Humanities Research Center at Rice University. Marti serves on the Executive Council for the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, the Council of the Association for the Sociology of Religion, and the Steering Committee for the Religion and Social Science Section of the American Academy of Religion. He is also an associate editor for the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion and the book review editor-elect for the journal Sociology of Religion: A Quarterly Review.
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,800 students located 20 minutes north of Charlotte in Davidson, N.C. Since its establishment in 1837 by Presbyterians, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently regarded as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country. Through The Davidson Trust, the college became the first liberal arts institution in the nation to replace loans with grants in all financial aid packages, giving all students the opportunity to graduate debt-free. Davidson competes in NCAA athletics at the Division I level, and a longstanding Honor Code is central to student life at the college.