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College Quarterly
Spring 1996 - Volume 3 Number 3
In Defense of Educatinal Luddism
by Ralph V. Barrett

Only recently has the term Luddism been formally applied to those critical of technological innovation. In 1989, for the first time, the Oxford English Dictionary defined a Luddite as “one who opposes the introduction of new technology.” Thus taken out of their historical context, the original Luddites, whop were skilled workers in the textile trades in early nineteenth-century England, are usually dismissed as mindless machine-breakers, as “rebels against the future” (Sale, 1995: 203).

For history professor David Noble of York University, the Luddites “were perhaps the last people in the West to perceive technology in the present tense” (Noble, 1995: 7). They had not been brought up in a modern society which promotes “technological adoration” as an unquestioned virtue in order to promote a “digital revolution” which “represents a $3.5 trillion market” (Slouka, 1995: 76). Unlike most of us, and especially unlike those who seek profit and perhaps salvation in virtual reality, the Luddites did not live in a society in which “technological determinism - the domination of the present by the past - and technological progress - the domination of the present by the future - are combined … to annihilate the technological present” (Noble, 1995: 6).

The Luddites were forced to confront the new technologies which mill owners were using to depress wages, to de-skill workers and to destroy traditional communities. These workers were not against new technology itself but were opposed to the lowering of wages, the unemployment and the starvation which accompanied the gig mill, spinning jennies, power looms, and the factory system of production with its intense discipline, longer hours of work, and reduction of work tasks to endless, simple, repetitive, physical motions. In the words attributed to their mythical leader, General Ned Ludd of the Army of Redressers, the Luddites were opposed to “all Machinery hurtful to Commonality …” (Sale, 1995: 118). Mill owners who used their machines to threaten the livelihood and standards of living of “the common people in general and their particular communities long established and cherished” had their machines destroyed by organized, disciplined members of the Luddite army (Sale, 1995: 119).

Employers who did not use their machines to undermine the wages and employment of their workers were left alone. Machine breaking was widely supported in the industrial areas of England in a time when “combining” to protect wages and working conditions was a criminal offence; in a time when legislation protecting skilled trades (some of it going back to the reign of Elizabeth I) was rescinded with little debate in a Parliament controlled by a remote ruling class of landlords and mill owners; and in a time when Luddite demands for a tax on new machines to provide retraining for displaced workers, for a minimum wage, for restrictions on child labour, and for “a democratic community, in which industrial growth … and the pursuit of profit be subordinated to human needs were rejected” (Thompson, 1968: 603).

As Noble points out, the Luddites “… had nothing against machinery, but they had no undue respect for it either. When choosing between machines and people … they had little problem deciding which came first.” They knew from their own experience that the benefits of technological progress were to be denied to the majority of working people and their families. “Thus, they were able to perceive the changes in the present tense for what they were, not some inevitable unfolding of destiny but rather the political creation of a system of domination that entailed their undoing. They were also able to act decisively-and not without some success when measured in terms of a human lifetime-to defend their livelihoods, freedom and dignity” (Noble, 1995: 8).

Eventually, the Luddites were defeated by a ruling class determined to protect their profits by dispatching thousands of troops to defend machines rather than working people who believed that the “function of industry was to provide a livelihood for those employed in it …” (Thompson, 1968: 594).

The Luddites were not against the benefits of technology; they were against technology benefiting only the ruling class while harming their own communities. To dismiss the Luddites as romantics or as ingenuous cranks innocently battling technology is to sanitize the past and undermine any critical analysis of the vested interests of those who promote technological progress as inevitable and progressive.

When it comes to the pursuit of power and profit, technologies are never neutral. They do not simply improve productivity but express the political and economic values of those who gain from their use, and they require a constant sales effort on the part of technocrats who peddle technological fantasies of reducing social, political and economic problems to the application of the appropriate technological fix.

The Luddites questioned the moral and political issues raised by technology. They saw through the cant of those who praised the future. They contested the narrow interests of the industrialists, insisting that the alleged benefits of technology be publicly debated and such benefits-when proven-be equitably shared. They saw technology in the present tense as the raw material of political and social oppression, and they made technological innovation a public, moral and political issue. And it is that which is the main lesson of the Luddites' rebellion for a society facing an information revolution, the benefits of which are relentlessly espoused by those who promote the illusions of virtual reality as technological determinism and technological progress.

The computer and the information revolution must be perceived by us in the present tense before any debate is dismissed as the ramblings of those intimidated by change, interested only in their own job security, and constrained by their linear thought processes. A public debate “… to determine when machinery is hurtful or to define a commonality whose members might have something to say about a technology's introduction or use …” (Sale, 1995: 263) is long overdue in our society, especially in educational institutions where teachers and students interacting in real classrooms are to be replaced by virtual classrooms using interactive video software.

Community college professors face what is now fashionably called a “paradigm shift” in which human-centred teaching will be systematically swapped for technologies which are supposed to promote productive, efficient learning: “Learning will no longer depend on a faculty member's teaching. Although the centuries-old model of teacher-student-classroom will not disappear, it will no longer dominate [and] we must adapt” (Plater, as quoted in the Association of Colleges of Applied Arts and Technologies in Ontario - ACAATO - Council of Presidents' White Paper on Learning-Centered Education).

Education in this new paradigm is largely reduced to constructing environments and technologies which gather, format and manipulate information, and which simultaneously allow for the precise measurement of learning outcomes mainly defined as the short-term retention of decontextualized “facts” and simple “skills.” The new learning paradigm discounts the analysis and interpretation of the information provided by the required technology; instead, since the major concern is measurable productivity rather than effective teaching, “… learning environments and activities are learner-centred and learner-controlled. They may even be teacherless.'” Furthermore, it is claimed that this arrangement can be implemented “… without regard to any particular curriculum or educational experiences” (Barr and Tagg, 1995: 21).

Classrooms, curricula and experienced professors fade into the educational background as highly motivated, self-centred learners eagerly engage in a scavenger hunt for information and, possibly, knowledge in the virtual classroom, a pit-stop on the information highway. “Teacherless teaching” and teacher-proof information technology will free the learner to roam the Internet in search of skills, learning experiences and competencies. Unfortunately, the sheer volume of information that is available is made no easier to understand by increasing electronic accessibility even if the now redundant “sage on the stage” is replaced by an interactive talking head on a CD-ROM. Still, in an age of silicon consciousness, the role of an able professor with a piece of chalk and a well-written textbook must “contract” in relation to preparing classes, teaching and providing student evaluation.

One need not be a vestal virgin of virtual reality nor a cyber-evangelist to recognize the profound threat to present-tense education represented by this new “paradigm.” Applying Noble (1995) to the current college setting, we may be the last generation of community college professors to perceive education and technology in the present tense. Accordingly, we must act now to evaluate critically and not merely reject technological innovations. We must keep in mind that teaching facts without disclosing important questions about the facts is not education, and that it represents both our own de-skilling as professionals and the devaluation of our students. We must not passively accept the “contentless” content required for precisely measurable learning outcomes, but recognize instead that such educational minimalism may well reduce the employability of our students in the challenging and rewarding jobs promised in the global marketplace, and equip them instead only for the intermittent underemployment of emerging cottage industries.

Above all, we must force a public debate on educational goals, curriculum content, professional development and the genuine needs of our students. To provoke critical thinking, critical learning and critical teaching is to risk being controversial and even adversarial; such provocation, moreover, can only occur in a real classroom with real teachers and real students. Computer literacy is no substitute for literacy in language, in science and technology, in the humanities and in the social sciences - all of which are best taught in classrooms which encourage direct communication among students and teachers.

To paraphrase Max Weber (1958: 181), cyber-technocrats have a vested interest in creating silicon cages; to control information is to control power; to put course material on CD-ROMs is to dominate education. All are essential steps toward the “teacherless” college in which students will be free to “surf” the Internet merrily until they inevitably “wipe out.” Unlike the seaside amusements from which their metaphors derive, these techno-erotic fantasies are not harmless. Like the “jobless” recovery of our economy, they encourage progress without people.

As the Luddites remind us, people ought to be more important than profits and must be central to any sane definition of progress. It is in the interaction among professors and students in classrooms, libraries, hallways and cafeterias that the future can be made “user-friendly” for real as opposed to virtual human beings. Educational technology must not be allowed to be harmful to the college community; and so, when it promotes teacherless education, we ought to follow Ned Ludd by literally pulling the plug. Present-tense education is necessary for the future careers of our students.

Now, the practical questions arise. Can we control or even limit the consequences of computer-driven educational technology and the belief in technological adoration which seems to guide most administrators and many professors in Canada's community colleges before it is too late? Can we pull the plug before we are overcome by the predicted glut of educational information and measurement? Or is it already too late?

The answer may lie in the contradictions inherent in the promises of those promoting the new paradigm. While acknowledging the inevitability of some temporary dislocations, their basic theme is that technology will soon produce graduates who will slip effortlessly into a full-employment information society. After all, they ask, didn't the industrial revolution eliminate many blacksmiths and saddle-makers, but shortly replace them with many more jobs in the automobile industry, and aren't we all better off because of that transition?

The proponents of the new learning technologies seem to assume a friction-free information society based on unrestrained individual competition and unlimited consumption. Those who criticize technological developments such as computer-based instruction run the risk of being seen as socially obstructionist, if not emotionally disturbed. In this context, the exercise of power may be disguised as psychological therapy.

The missionaries of virtual education will, of course, deny their commitment to stamping out the pagans of the present tense, teacher-student-classroom in the interests of corporate profits, global competition and educational effectiveness. Nonetheless, pink slips for professors and invoices for computer hardware, software and “teachware” are the physical evidence of a process that begins with the rooting out the heretics in the name of the ideology of technological determinism sanctified by rituals of technological adoration and ends with a future wherein teaching has been replaced by machine-managed information elsewhere known as propaganda. Socrates would weep, but his tears would go unrecorded, for Plato© has already been turned into a computerized student testing system widely used in computer-assisted instruction facilities across the province.


Barr, R., and J. Tagg (1995). “From Teaching to Learning: A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education.” Change (November-December).

Noble, D. (1995). Progress Without People: New Technology, Unemployment and the Message of Resistance. Toronto: Between the Lines.

Sale, K. (1995). Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution - Lessons for the Computer Age. New York: Addison-Wesley.

Slouka, M. (1995). War of the Worlds: Cyberspace and the High-Tech Assault on Reality. New York: Basic Books.

Thompson, E. (1968). The Making of the English Working Class. London: Penguin.

Weber, M. (1958). The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.

Ralph V. Barrett teaches in the School of General Education at Seneca College in Toronto .