AI Bildung and the Genealogy of Educational Imaginaries

Lina Rahm   Foto: Privat

Lina Rahm talar på humanistiskt forum vid Jönköping University.

Lina Rahm, lektor vid KTH, presenterar sin forskning om teknikutvecklingen och medborgarnas lärande vid humanistiskt forum den 20 december kl 13. Seminariet hålls på campus i Jönköping, i rum Hc229, men går även att följa digitalt via Zoom:

AI Bildung and the Genealogy of Educational Imaginaries

Lina Rahm, Department of Philosophy and History, The Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment, KTH, Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden

The word Bildung is often seen as difficult to translate into English. Maybe because of its broad roots, going back as far as classic Greek philosophy and the idea of citizen schooling. The metaphor used to describe Bildung is often that of a sculptor’s process of carving out a form from raw material, corresponding to a process of the cultivation and self-formation of man. Bernt Gustavsson (1991) suggests that two key elements have been used to describe Bildung throughout history; on the one hand, a free, infinite process derived from the Greeks; and on the other hand, an image of the ideal human, taken from Christian mysticism (Imago Dei). Bildung then aims to describe a free process in the sense of starting from where we are (and who we are), but has potentially infinite personal development opportunities, where the result can be understood as the ideally educated person in da Vinci’s or Goethe’s sense (Gustavsson, 2013). As such, it is based on the renaissance humanistic idea that humans are free to become anything. When the concept of Bildung was institutionalized in the 19th century, this ideal image of man was transformed into common social goals for popular movements, concerned with democracy, justice, and equality. In the Nordic countries, Bildung gained a strong foothold and great significance. The root of the Nordic Bildung tradition is usually said to be the Dane Grundtvig. He founded the idea of a Folk High School during the phase of the national liberation from Germany in the 1840s. Grundtvig opposed the idea of universalism in the French Enlightenment sense, and instead argued that each nation had its own culture (best understood through its songs, stories, and folk culture). Grundtvig’s main idea was nevertheless the ‘Folk Enlightenment’ (Danish: Folkeoplysning) of the people, or the Bildung of life: young people should have the opportunity to have a free period to seek their way of life and to study issues about themselves and society. However, notions of who the people are, are not neutral but contain inclusion/exclusion processes. As such, Bildung efforts has historically construed and reproduced colonial, gendered and racist, ideas (Dahlstedt & Nordvall, 2011; Österborg Wiklund, 2018; Rydbeck, 2018).

The core concept of the free process and the ideal image linger on today, and this is also the starting point for my argument, namely that we need to maintain a critical gaze on education and Bildung as political imaginaries of sociotechnical futures.
The underpinning justification for Nordic institutional Bildung, i.e., Nordic Popular Education (Swedish: folkbildning, Finnish: vapaa sivistystyö, Finland-Swedish: fritt bildningsarbete and Norwegian/Danish: Folkeoplysning) relies on ideas that a society should be built by its citizens, but also that this building requires (certain) knowledge. This paradoxical mix of emancipation and regulation can be seen as a foundation of popular education, and this contradiction is important in understanding the strong position and success of the state financed Bildung efforts historically. Popular education is often described as being independent (free) and voluntary–that is, free from parliamentary governance and freely chosen by those who want to enroll. However, Berg and Edquist have shown that the government grant system from 1870 has shaped popular education both as a part of the free civic society, but because of its governmental funding, also as contingent on certain forms of governance as well as being assigned with certain political-practical functions, resulting in blurred boundaries between state and civil society:
We argue that civil society has not been the passive object of state domination and regulation; in fact, state and civil society are not to be regarded as separate entities at all. Instead, we emphasise that ‘civil society’ has been constructed as a free and independent sphere with the help of government, which has consequently reproduced it in an overall process we term autonomisation. By autonomisation we basically mean that formal government decisions - financial support not the least - have created autonomous sectors such as popular education outside the public sector, and yet regulated it so that it has performed public functions. (Berg & Edquist, 2017, p. 3)

Thus, the state has, for quite some time, mobilized popular education as a part of a governing ambition. It is this governing ambition of AI Bildung that I am interested in studying further. So, to put it simply, my research is about technological change and the education of citizens. More specifically, I focus on public policies. I study educational policies looking for visions of technological change; and I study technical policies looking for visions of educational change. It is in this overlap between sociotechnical imaginaries, and what I call educational imaginaries (Rahm, 2021), that my research is situated. What I am interested in is how citizens are governed and shaped by means of education to meet a future technology-dense society. Historically computerization has been anticipated as both a problem and a solution in society, and education has repeatedly been used to solve these problems and realize these solutions.

For example, in current discourses and what has become known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, AI is predicted to radically change labor markets and automate jobs (Frey & Osborne, 2017), and in an imminent future, nine out of ten jobs are anticipated to require digital competences or skills (European Commission, 2018). As more jobs are automated, many also foresee a polarization of skill sets, creating a growing global surplus of poor and uneducated people. In countries where the economy is primarily centered around manufacturing, as much as 85 percent of jobs are predicted to be completely automated (World Bank, 2016). As such, increased automation potentially generates a growing ‘unnecessariat’—people who lack the necessary skills, and who are thereby rendered superfluous (Bastani, 2019), which will impact on the need for reskilling and lifelong learning. Digital skills are thus prioritized, and are put forward as one of eight key competences in lifelong learning, meaning that the main agenda for many supra-national and national institutions has become to improve the digital skill set of the population
However, AI is also predicted to change the preconditions for democracy and citizenship,
where malicious use of deep fakes, disinformation, propaganda, and polarized presentations of news demands new and improved skills in both information and AI literacy (NSCAI, 2021). Further, AI-driven and big data-driven media technologies have raised questions about personal well-being, surveillance, self-tracking and how we understand the environmental impacts and sustainability of our actions (Partnership on AI, 2020). As such, citizens are also supposed to gain the necessary skills to act responsibly and thrive in an increasingly complex and information-dense world (AAAI, 2016). AI is also predicted to impact on education and lifelong learning, where on-demand personalized learning, automated talent acquisition, real-time monitoring of workflows and constant knowledge assessment will increase the possibilities for individualized and flexible lifelong learning, as well as creating new expectations for continuous reskilling and upskilling (AAAI, 2016).

When technical systems increasingly also learn from us, it is further argued that we also need new and better general knowledge—and not only technical knowledge but enhanced soft skills—for example what OECD calls ‘learning compasses’ (OECD, 2019). In a similar way, UNESCO stresses the urgent need for ‘futures literacy’ (Miller, 2018). Enhanced soft skills such as proficiencies in anticipation, predictive knowledge, and social and emotional management (such as self-regulation) are seen as increasingly important for individual well-being, responsible citizenship, and thriving in a digital world (OECD 2019). Concurrently, lifelong learning and Bildung are seen as increasingly important, spurring new educational initiatives.

In present times it can be argued that digitalization is construed as requiring certain skill- and mindsets, so much so that a new type of (desired) citizen is being construed. Importantly, this also envelops conceptualizations of the normal, and the ‘othered’; of those who need to be adjusted, and those who do not. That is to say that the problems and hopes of digital technologies are often reconceptualized as educational problems and this also entails power asymmetries. In this paper power is understood in a Foucauldian sense—not as something one holds, but as a reproductive force that generates certain effects.

Going back to Grundtvig’s original idea of Folk Bildung, it is also important to note that he was critical against the emerging machinist society. When Bildung was institutionalized, it was a collective effort, and that collective learning processes and reflection were at the center of the educational efforts. Even though there is a mythical opposition between technology and Bildung, which does not have to be true, it has nevertheless often been the aim of education technologies to rationalize and individualized education.

The concept of Bildung contains an understanding of knowledge as something more than what is just rationally beneficial to society right now. Bildung also includes a view of learning as an important collective process that strives towards more just societies for all. The concept of AI Bildung also entails the notion that knowledge is collective, but further, in a Harawayian sense, that imaginaries of the ideal human (citizen) are untenable, since man and technology cannot be separated. Following this argument, I further argue that there are built-in power differentials within the concept of Bildung that needs to be problematized. If wereturn to the building blocks of popular education—the free process and the beneficial ends—these need to be put under scrutiny: who is free to be educated? What knowledges and skills does the future citizen need to have? According to whom? And, not least, leaning on Susan Leigh Star, ask the question: who benefits from certain imaginaries (Star, 1991)?

So, what I think supports more nuanced discussions about values reflected in emerging educational sociotechnical imaginaries is that the notions of sociotechnical imaginaries (visions of sociotechnical futures) are always entangled with educational imaginaries (visions of correlated and necessary changes in knowledge and skills) and that this is a political form governance even if it might also hold emancipatory potentials.

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