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The dark side of technology: a textual interpretation of school organizations.

One sign of healthy scholarship within a given discipline is the extent of debate over the relative usefulness of the various methods available for studying the basic subject matter of the field in question. A variety of social sciences has been used to enrich more traditional approaches to the study of school organizations and to answer important questions in education. Analytical approaches such as phenomenographics (Harris, 2008), semiotics (Cowan & Albers, 2006), symbolic interactionism (Strahan, 2008), deconstructionism (Beaty & Alexeyev, 2008), structural analysis (Benner, Graham, & Mistry, 2008), and case studies (Etscheidt & Knesting, 2007) claim to uncover meaning in education, school culture, and school organization that might otherwise escape notice. Among the most valued functions of such approaches are the ability to provide perspective, to reveal phenomena, to distinguish between phenomena, and to show what is and what was. One such method for expanding the scholarly horizons for studying education is hermeneutics. Our thesis is that the development and growth of the school organization correlates positively and quite strongly with increased educational failure rates and a dwindling public perception of the social good that school organizations are created to ensure.

Because hermeneutics has not been applied to any great extent in the study of education, we intend to provide a heuristic example of how the method might be used to broaden how we look at education from scholarly perspectives. Our working example will be a book, written by a German thinker named Georg Friedrich Juenger, titled The Failure of Technology: Perfection Without Purpose (1949; original text published 1946). In general, we are interested in what Juenger said about how the growth of organizations seems to correspond to the dwindling of the resources that these organizations are created to protect. In particular, we attempt to apply his logic to the organization of schools and the dwindling "resource" of learning in society commensurate with increased problems in schools, such as dropout rates (Prevatt & Kelly, 2003), school violence (Loque, 2008), and truancy (Reid, 2005) and the concomitant decrease in the public's perception of the efficacy of K-12 education in society (see, for example, Immerwahr, 1999). Despite the increasing emphasis on and attention to improving education, the nation's schools are generally seen by the public to be failing: "In survey after survey, employers express disappointment in the skills of high school graduates" (Wise, 2008, p. 9).

Before we begin our hermeneutical journey, though, a caveat is in order. Given our focus on the current relationship between the growth of school organizations, increased school problems, and the worsening of social perspectives on education in general, this choice of Juenger's essay begs the question: Why not a text written more recently? The answer is methodological: We wish to demonstrate the ongoing nature of hermeneutics by interpreting an interpretation; our intent is to uncover the relevance of a text written about another era to our own times. Today, in the midst of a technology explosion, the power of textual interpretation lies in helping us read, in the hermeneutic tradition, the implications for contemporary society of an argument posed some time ago about similar issues.

Our Reference

To provide a foundation for our argument, we turn to The Failure of Technology: Perfection Without Purpose by Georg Friedrich Juenger. The manuscript, which was written just before the storm of World War II broke over Europe and which was hidden from the Nazis during that war, was first published in German in 1946 and in English in 1949. Briefly, we will explore Juenger's general theme of the negative consequences of technology, consider the essay's comments on the nature of organizations and their relevance to the correspondence between the growth of school organizations with increased problems in schools and a declining public perception of education, and finally discuss the implications of Juenger's argument for education professionals and scholars.

Juenger's Thesis

Juenger defines his central thesis in the title of his essay: the idea that it is possible that technicians, once they set their minds to it, can achieve technical perfection, but that such progress represents an advance in only a very narrow, technical sense.
   Those who place their hopes in the machine--and hope implies an
   anticipation of the future-ought to be aware that the hopes
   themselves must be of a technical kind, for one cannot expect from
   a machine something which lies outside its potentialities. (p. 5)

Juenger's point is that technological perfection in itself is not significant in the context of social or cultural progress. Technology, used here in the same broad sense that Mumford (1934) used "the Machine" to refer to an entire edifice of organization, he argued, fails to advance culture because it does not typically entail thought being given to the end or purpose of the production or to the possible impact on people resulting from the perfecting. In education, for example, "Ubiquitous access to computers has shown to help students acquire increased comfort level with a range of software applications and the ability to apply technology to access, manipulate, and organize information" (Mouza, 2008, p. 450). Perhaps, but this says nothing about the purpose of education that John Gould Fletcher (1930/1977) described as nourishing "the pupil's mind in such a manner that he can master for himself whatever subject he wishes to take up, and to enlarge his mental horizon by showing the relationship of this subject to the whole of human life" (pp. 115-116).

The modern social theorist Neil Postman (1988) calls this questionable triumph one-eyed, "because, like Cyclops, it sees only what is directly in front of it" (p. xiii). Without peripheral vision or depth perception, the future becomes fixed on technological possibilities only: "In America, and increasingly in Europe, technology is a one-eyed king ruling unopposed amidst idiots cheering" (p. xiii). Or, as noted by Robert Morrison (1980), the upshot is that modern technologists "are so very good at getting you to Paris in three hours but so very poor at telling you what to do when you get there" (p. 57). In schools, technological innovations seem at times to be the raison d'etre of organization. DeWitt (2006) made this point in criticizing the 2002 conclusions of the National Technology Leadership Initiative: "The most significant flaw in the conclusions is a logical outgrowth of the group that created them" (p.261). The National Technology Leadership Initiative is a collaboration of teacher education faculty and the U.S. Department of Education that was created in an effort to address the Department's conclusion "that preparing technology-proficient educators to meet the needs of 21st-century learning is a critical educational challenge facing the nation" (Bell, 2001, p. 517). This mission puts technology, and specifically computers, at the forefront and contributes to a mindset that posits computers as the main factor in educational improvement.

Juenger was not in the least opposed to purposeful technology. But, using the example of the automobile, he pointed out that perfecting a car concerns the means of production only, and not the end.
   Let us suppose that five million cars had been built according to
   such a well-constructed model and that they were all in use. ...
   But we must not forget that this efficiency is a matter purely of
   design and of production; that is, that it is a special efficiency.
   Whether it serves a purpose that every adult in the country owns
   and operates an automobile is, however, quite a different question.
   (pp. 66-67)

This question, that progress may be measured in terms other than those of a technical nature, as Juenger asserted, goes beyond the realm of technology, which "is why technicians have never asked it" (p. 67). The overwhelming use of technology in schools may have made certain tasks more efficient, but has it really improved student achievement overall?

Measuring progress in nontechnical terms deals more generally with how we live rather than with how much. Juenger's sentiments mirror the concern raised by Stark Young (1930/1977) in his description of what he considered a transparent argument by an apologist for technical progress:

"In our town we've got twenty thousand miles of concrete walks." "And where do they lead?" I say. He will not have thought of that. (p. 335)

The Increasingly Technical Nature of School Organizations

Increasingly, technological innovations are supplanting many of the traditional issues and practices of schools. Consider as an issue, for example, the growth of social networking sites and the entirely new resulting challenges facing school administrators. Moyer, Haberstroh, and Marbach (2008) noted that adolescents may encounter online sources describing how to engage in self-injurious behavior, of which school counselors need to be aware and to search for methods for handling.

Learning management systems (see, for example, Shein, 2008) provide electronic platforms for course delivery, administrative tasks such as tracking students, and teacher support. These innovations improve efficiency yet, in and of themselves, do nothing to educate students, especially in a human sense. Consider the argument made nearly a century ago by Sherwood Anderson in Poor White (1920) about the lack of connection between progress and education:
   A new force that was being born into American life and into life
   everywhere all over the world was feeding on the old dying
   individualistic life. ... Thought and poetry died or passed as a
   heritage to feeble fawning men who also became servants of the new
   order. Serious young men in Bidwell and in other American towns
   whose fathers had walked together on moonlight nights along
   Turner's Pike to talk of God, went away to technical schools. (pp.

To be sure, many of the technological innovations of recent decades have positively impacted education. Advances in digital media have been shown to increase learner motivation, improve understanding, reduce cognitive workload, and provide information to users with special needs (Altya, Al-Sharrahb, & Beacham, 2006). In terms of both student learning and administration of schools, however, the law of unintended consequences may be operating.

The Implications of Technology for School Organizations

What would Juenger say about the increasing technical sophistication with which educators do their jobs? Juenger's work speaks directly to the relationship between progress and how educators perform their role in society. He presents an insightful argument to refute the contention that technical progress will be the ultimate benefactor of society vis-a-vis the efficiency with which educators perform their role by reducing the burden of tedious tasks in which educators engage:
   No one has any doubt that the amount of work done by machines has
   grown. But how could it have grown without a corresponding increase
   in the amount of work done by men! (1) ... The machine replaces the
   worker only where the work can be done in a mechanical fashion. But
   the burden of which the worker is thus relieved does not vanish at
   the command of the technical magician. It is merely shifted to

   areas where work cannot be done mechanically. And, of course, this
   burden grows apace with the increase in the amount of mechanical
   work. (p. 8)

What Juenger is telling us here, relative to the work done by school personnel, is that technical advancements (e.g., management information systems) not only reduce some of the mechanical tasks previously performed by educators, which is why such advancements were introduced, but also create work that did not exist previously: the manipulation of these data bases and the generation of reports drawn from the information contained in them, for example, that did not previously exist. Juenger's point is that, in the final tally, the time and effort saved is negative. We have created more work than we have saved. The newly created work serves primarily to drive the technical advances that created the work which, in turn, results in the loss of time available for the primary function of developing an educated public. As Helsby (1999) noted,
   Workloads for most [teachers] have also increased as a result of
   coping with constant changes, attending more frequent team
   meetings, satisfying more extensive accountability, reporting and
   quality assurance requirements and meeting target for continuing
   increases in productivity. Job insecurity tends to enhance
   compliance, as people work longer hours in order to meet work
   demands, which increasingly impinge upon their private life. ...
   rapid technological advances have frequently obliged people in
   employment to acquire new capabilities. (p. 7)

The clear implication in Juenger's indictment is that, as a whole, we would be better off, from the standpoint of what schools are supposed to do for society, without highly technical and bureaucratically systematized organizations. His point is not that such organizations are inefficient or ineffective at what they do; rather, his point is that what they do, as a result of their increasing technical sophistication, is losing relevance to actual education. To understand the logic behind Juenger's argument, we turn to the chapter titled "The Distribution of Poverty" that deals with the function of organizations.


Whales were Juenger's chosen example for explaining how organization relates to the distribution of poverty. To our way of thinking, the logic holds for education as readily as it does for whales. Juenger asserts that one must ask, "What is the object of organization?" He answers
   Obviously, the object of the organization cannot be what is already
   organized; the organization must seize necessarily upon the things
   as yet unorganized, for only they offer the means to keep the
   organization alive. If I manufacture nuts and bolts, the material I
   am using will not be finished nuts and bolts but iron melted from
   crude ore. (p. 15)

Juenger then pins down the problem with the way organization evolves relative to the availability of the resource being organized. After explaining how organization must focus on unorganized raw material, he suggests that "here a peculiar and compelling law governs. Where there is plenty of unorganized material, organization is slight. Where material dwindles, organization begins to extend and intensify itself" (p. 15; italics added).

Juenger asks us to consider the international agreements to control whaling. He argues that there was little reason, at the time of his writing, to regulate ocean fishing because the oceans were large and fish were plentiful. But, he continued, when such regulations are in place, as with whaling, "they are due to an anticipation of scarcity" (p. 15). If we substitute an increase in school problems (e.g., acquisition of basic skills, dropout rates) and a decrease in the public's perception of the quality of education for whales and the school administration for the international body that regulates whaling, the result is sobering. For clearly, the administration of schools has burgeoned in recent years, (2) and the argument would not be difficult to make that today's society is less well-educated than that of less technicallyoriented and earlier times. (3)

Even more sobering, though, is the continuation and culmination of the chain of events surrounding the regulation of a dwindling resource, such as whales, as described by Juenger. The remarkable feature of such scarcity-organizations, he tells us,
   is not that it increases riches, but that it distributes poverty.
   But when poverty is distributed something occurs that cannot be
   prevented: it spreads. Thus it has to be distributed constantly
   anew; it has to be distributed continually, and so it spreads ever
   wider. Unorganized material decreases in proportion until the point
   is reached where the organization collapses, because nothing is
   left to be distributed, for when the number of whales has been
   reduced by ruthless whaling to the point where the hunt no longer
   makes sense, whaling stops. (pp. 15-16)

This progression gives rise to a couple of disturbing questions. If one again substitutes the increased problems in schools and the decreasing public perception of the quality of education for whales in Juenger's discussion of scarcity, we ask, will we reach a point at which the perception is that education is utterly and completely broken? And, more disturbingly, what will be the social consequences should we move in the direction of such a perception? In some cities in the United States today, for example, local governments are assuming responsibilities for schools because of the perception that school organizations can no longer manage themselves.

Where, then, will public reaction to our broken schools stop? No Child Left Behind was enacted to halt education's plunge in efficacy, yet already society is wary of the negative effects that No Child Left Behind has had on the curriculum of many schools (Forum on Educational Accountability, 2007; Jennings & Rentner, 2006; Meier & Wood, 2004). Sadly, education has moved from its goal of passing on culture and creating knowledgeable citizens to a tool, aided and abetted by technology, to enable students to pass tests. And, perhaps sadder still, this tool is not efficacious.


Through our brief reading of Juenger's perspective on organization and its implications for scholarship surrounding the study of schools, we have introduced the basic features of hermeneutics to

the field.

As to our particular reading of Juenger, there are several issues that need deliberation. First is whether or not there is merit to the idea that the growth of an organization results from a decline in the resources that the organization is created to regulate. To Juenger, the issue was hardly even debatable. "There is no clearer, no more infallible sign of poverty than the progressive rationalization of organization, the comprehensive administration and management of man by a bureaucracy of experts especially trained for the task" (p. 16).

To be sure, whales and the other resources Juenger mentions such as ore and oil, are things rather than an idea as slippery as the relationship between the public's perception of education and the failure of schools with the corresponding role of schools in society. The issue is whether we are first willing to accept Juenger's argument in general and then whether we believe it can be applied specifically to a qualitative and conceptual subject: an abstraction such as the school organization.

In the general sense and sticking to material resources, we cannot easily identify any example that would refute Juenger's argument. Even the management of nuclear energy, which supports a major bureaucracy and is plentiful, does not seem to contest his logic, for here it is not the resource itself that is regulated but the human-made and radioactive product of the energy; moreover, this control is driven by safety rather than scarcity.

But what about the abstract or immaterial ideas and those designated institutions organized to keep certain kinds of experiences alive in our culture? If we step back from the study of education and apply the question to other illusive social/technological institutions, does Juenger's argument seem to hold? Even a casual look at the changing structure of higher education over the last half-century reveals a great deal of collective consternation, both inside and outside of the academy, that the quality of education today has deteriorated compared to earlier days (Bloom, 1987; Piereson, 2007). Bruce Wilshire (1990) argued at length that the well-known crisis in universities, referring to reports from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the National Commission on Excellence in Education, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Association of American Colleges, is due "in significant part because of our proud professionalism" (p. 95), by which he meant our focus on process (e.g., accreditation) rather than outcomes (e.g., imparting knowledge). James Engell and coauthor Anthony Dangerfield (2005) see the demise of the modern university as a direct result of the need for profit from both the university and the student attending it.

The underlying thesis of Wilshire's (1990) study is his near hopelessness in the face of a growing technological institution, the multiversity, and a critical contracting in the appearance and preservation of what he calls "the educating act" (p 21). Our technological power, Wilshire says, is remarkable. But without knowing the ends to which that power is put, Wilshire claims that we are living through a "scientific nightmare," as described by William James over one hundred years ago: "In the ordinary nightmare we have motives but no power. In the scientific nightmare we have power but no motives" (p. xxiii). Who hasn't noticed the increase in the bureaucratic complexity of our modern educational institutions? Who isn't aware of the disproportionate growth over the years of managers, provosts, vice-presidents, chairs, and directors to professor-types?

As an example, the American Association of University Professors reported that, from 1975 to 1989 at Purdue University, the number of students increased 21%, the number of faculty 12%, and the number of administrators 81%; by the 1988-89 academic year, the number of administrators at Purdue had exceeded the number of faculty.

Who hasn't experienced the power of the institution, yet at the same time sensed the lack of sensible motives behind the use of this power? Similar arguments could be made for the perception of public safety, the increase in crime over the last half-century, and the growth of police bureaucracy; the public's engagement in leisure and the growth of leisure services organizations; human well-being and the burgeoning of social welfare agencies; and so on. In a cursory look at every case, it seems that the primary responsibilities of a bureaucratic organization are professionalization and selfperpetuation. This is what Juenger was driving at when he suggested that organizations necessitate "an enormous personnel, a personnel which is wholly unproductive, yet increasing in number all the faster, the less there is of the thing produced" (p. 17).

If we accept Juenger's assertion of the proportional relationship between growing organization and dwindling resources and apply his claim to schools, there still are points to address. Juenger's use of the notion of organization was narrower than ours: "We are using here the concept 'organization' in the definite and limited sense it has in the vocabulary of technical progress" (p. 14). He was concerned with the effects of the development of technology on people. Our first point, then, is that social institutions, including schools, are similar to technical organizations in their potential to affect the way we live: Both seem to have a life of their own and are generally greater as a whole than the sum of the parts that constitute them. When we speak of NASA we do not think of the experts who make up the organization, we think of NASA itself. It is no different when we hear of a decision rendered by a social welfare agency, a police department, or a school system. When we think "schools" we are not generally thinking of the individual 3rd grade teacher, the custodian, and the assistant principal.

As a second point, we have noted that problems in schools have increased in recent decades (Chapin, 2008; Bon, Faircloth, & LeTendre, 2006) and the public perception of education has declined (Phi Delta Kappan, 2008) and that this decline could theoretically and ultimately result in a society which assigns education no value. This is not to argue that societies in which schools are less technically sophisticated are problem-free. Technology has brought considerable advances to the quality of our lives, but as Juenger pointed out, the gains have not been without costs, one of which is the growing disconnectedness of our society. Finally, school organizations are busier with their technical sophistication today than in earlier times (Enomoto & Conley, 2007).

Accordingly, Juenger's argument and our extension of it to schools should not be read as an absolute indictment of contemporary education. Today's schools are effective (Reeves, 2005); witness the benefits noted above brought on by advances in digital media. But because of the public's overall perception that the value of education is decreasing, the reality is rendered somewhat moot.

Implications for School Organizations

What are the implications of Juenger's argument for schools? If we accept Juenger's argument as valid, then it would seem to lead, at the broadest policy level, to some selfexamination regarding whether the education profession should continue to exist in its current form. It is unlikely, of course, that any profession would willingly dismantle itself or even entertain suggestions for radical change. Moreover, contemporary society needs schools. To the extent, however, that we can reconcile the merit of Juenger's logic with the drive to selfperpetuate, we may need to answer the question of identity: Exactly what do we collectively want the primary focus of our school organizations to be? There are two basic options available from which to choose.

The first of these options would be to continue with the status quo and presume that Juenger's arguments either are wrongheaded altogether or at least do not apply to schools. The problem with this approach is that current realities suggest that Juenger was on to something and that this something has implications for schools. On the one hand, the public's perception of education in society is declining. On the other, schools seem to be drowning in a sea of regulations and busy work, neither of which existed prior to the technological advances that have occurred this century, particularly in the last 50 years. It is especially sobering to note that these advances tend to increase exponentially rather than linearly; the resultant effects on schools may follow suit.

A second option would be to halt, or at least slow, the extent to which schools focus on technology and organization in order to manage the working environment and monitor work tasks at the expense of the more essential responsibilities of educating.

What a differently focused educational philosophy should be and how it might be implemented are beyond the scope both of this paper and our thinking. In light of the pre-existing technological foundation of society and its potential threat to the true raison d'etre of schools, our point is twofold: First, educational philosophies and strategies need to change to a more humanistic focus and, second, unlike Twain's (1876/1979) comment about the weather, we, collectively, need to do something about it.


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(1) Juenger's reliance on masculine nouns and pronouns is typical of writing in the period in which he composed his essay.

(2) According to the National Center for Education Statistics, from 2000-2001 to 2001-2002, the percentage of school and district administrators and administrative support staff increased from 10.1% to 10.8% of all school personnel. See and

(3) One must also take into account that the number of students who are in the education system is greater these days and that there is a greater diversity within these numbers. The question then is: "Are we educating all students as well as we did the few in the past?"

Randy Schultz and John Hultsman

California State University

Bakersfield, CA

Randy Schultz is an Assistant Professor in the School of Education Teacher Education Department and a Coordinator for the Multiple Subjects Credential Program at California State University, Bakersfield, CA.

John Hultsman is Interim Vice President for Student Affairs at California State University, Bakersfield, CA.
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Author:Schultz, Randy; Hultsman, John
Publication:Teaching and Learning
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Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2010
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