Myodicy, Issue 6, December 1997

End-of-Term Report:
Fall Term 1997-98

by Theodore Plantinga

This term was to be my opportunity to try my hand at computerized education -- whatever that might be. I was to teach an internet-based version of my Introduction to Philosophy course for off-campus students. Because of certain errors and/or misunderstandings, the course did not get off the ground: the advertising came too late, and the experiment (it would have been the first such course in Redeemer's history) was scrapped.

It was my hope that such a course would nudge the college to move further in the direction of integrating computer-based research and communication into day-to-day academic life. Yet, although my course did not materialize, this past term did turn out to be a time dominated by discussions about computers in relation to. The reason is that some time after the internet course was approved, sentiment began to build in the college (I'm not sure where it originated) in favor of greatly expanding the use of computers in on-campus educational activities. We began to gather information and ideas on what many called the "laptop" concept. Just what was meant by this notion was not always clear: we were presented with examples from other institutions where students brought their computers along to the classroom and used them for both note-taking and internet activity. Of course classrooms used in this way would have to be "wired" so that the laptops could each be connected to the internet.

Soon a "task force" was appointed to investigate and make recommendations. I was invited to serve on it and thus had plenty of opportunity to nudge the college toward greater computer use. In this regard, then, my original hope was realized.

At the time of writing, the task force's report to the president has been made public, but the various councils and boards are still in the process of acting on its recommendations. The college will make its own announcements in due course. Here I will say no more than that the task force recommends some interim steps that can help Redeemer become a "wired campus" but which do not, by themselves, make such a step necessary or inevitable.

Two aspects of the discussion that took place are worthy of commentary here. First, those who spoke out against expanded computer use on campus did not quite know what their position or alternative recommendation was. The task force went out of its way to solicit their input, but not much was forthcoming.

Now, it was not the mandate of the task force to consider whether substantial computer use was a good thing or not. The college was already moving in such a direction, and no one seriously proposed stepping backward when it comes to computers. The task force was asked to consider how quickly to go about it, and in what way.

During the discussions, we had occasion to ask: how did computers get onto our campus in the first place? Part of the answer is: with not much discussion. Since I have been on the faculty since Day One, I can recall the major stages.

When the college opened in 1982, there was virtually no computer use for educational purposes. There were Commodores in the administration area, but typewriters were still the norm. During the mid-1980s and the move to the new campus in 1986, there was a growing recognition that we needed to make effective use of the new technology. There was never a debate as to whether such technology had a valid place in the Christian college. And it is also notable that from a very early point on, we offered courses in computer programming. The college's first instructor in this area was my younger brother, Edwin Plantinga, who was at that time pursuing graduate study in the field.

I myself did not begin to use a personal computer on a regular basis until 1987. In April of that year I moved to 85 Larraine Avenue in Dundas, where I spent nine years. With my brother's help and advice, I ordered a computer just before the move and set it up in my new study immediately afterward. Redeemer was already committed to providing computers for the profs to use at school, and I soon had a computer on my desk at the college as well. As we moved into the 1990s, more and more profs got into the act, using a computer for their work while they were at school, and in some cases using one at home as well.

Perhaps the biggest step in Redeemer's computer history came when the college connected itself to the internet. Suddenly one could sit in the computer lab and surf the net, using Lynx. I was serving on the Computer Services Committee at the time, and one of our agenda items was the predictable business of pornography on the internet. We could assure the authorities that no one was looking at dirty pictures in our computer lab because our netbrowser was text only -- no graphics. (Of course dirty pictures could be downloaded in our computer lab and then viewed elsewhere in a computer set up to handle graphics.)

The move to internet use on campus took place in 1995. Was it a big deal? Apparently not: it was not a matter of discussion. Yet one could make a case that something momentous had occurred.

At the time I thought of those Anabaptists who carry cultural and technological caution the furthest. Such Anabaptists are sometimes thought to be opposed to electricity as such, but this is not the case. Their claim is rather that one should never be dependent on the world or hooked up to the world. Thus one does not sign up as a customer of Ontario Hydro. But it might be all right to generate electricity on the farm and use it in the barn. Those same Anabaptists would also argue that it is unwise to get hooked up to the world through the internet. (Beware of Bill Gates!) But no such voice was raised on campus.

Principled -- but vaguely stated -- objections to the computer revolution were finally heard this fall when the laptop idea hovered over the campus and the administration and task force solicited discussion and asked for pros and cons. But the objectors never formulated an alternative or made much appeal to the anti-computer and anti-internet literature that is currently in circulation. Eventually it became clear that while some members of the faculty might drag their feet when the time came to march boldly into the brave new cyberworld, everyone assumed that the change in question was inevitable. It was mainly a matter of whether we should be among the first to implement the new ideas and technologies. Some thought that a Christian college should have an old-fashioned look about it.

The argument which I offered in the task force, in various other meetings I attended, and in some writings which I distributed to facilitate discussion, was that the wired campus notion had mainly to do with enhanced communication. And there was already a change in this regard this past term: it seemed to me that e-mail finally took off at Redeemer and began to realize its potential, even though it had been on campus for some time. I used it to good effect in the upper-level course I taught in Philosophy of History. To encourage students to make an early start on their term paper, I required a topic statement from them four weeks before the deadline for paper submission, and a thesis statement two weeks before the deadline. These statements were to be submitted in writing (on paper), and I promised to respond via e-mail, encouraging the student to get back to me on e-mail or come and see me to talk further. The system worked well: I had more input into term papers this semester than ever before. And I was surprised at how much it proved possible to deal with matters of substance in fairly short e-mail notes.

A second aspect of the on-campus discussion about enhanced computer use is more subtle, for it has to do with what was not said. What I did not hear, although I waited patiently for it, was what many would call Kuyperian argumentation about the new computer possibilities.

For some the term "Kuyperianism" is basically an appeal to an alleged Golden Age of Christian scholarship: it sounds grand and glorious, but one wonders whether there is not a good deal of mythology involved. Yet for many others, "Kuyperian" is the unofficial label by which they would most like to be known. Now, those who take pride in being Kuyperians would presumably place the question of the wired campus within a Kuyperian framework of reference. Yet this did not happen.

At one point, a suggestion came forward in the Foundations Division to bring over Egbert Schuurman from the Netherlands to help us discuss and sort out the issue. Schuurman is the author of Technology and the Future: A Philosophical Challenge, (Toronto: Wedge Publishing Foundation, 1980, trans. Herbert Donald Morton), and he has strong Kuyperian or neo-Calvinist credentials.

At first I thought it a foolish suggestion, but then I changed my mind and supported it. Still, the proposal did not go through. Many other suggestions were made regarding academic resource persons, but they were not followed up either -- at least, not during the fall semester and the discussion that led to the task force's recommendations.

Since no one articulated the Kuyperian approach to our question during our meetings, let me try to do so here. The neo-Kuyperian line on computers (I add "neo" since I'm not sure the historical Abraham Kuyper would recognize himself in all the lines of reasoning offered nowadays in his name) would have to do with developing a Christian alternative. Now, I know there are some who believe that one dons Kuyperian garb simply by promising to transform or redeem this or that "area of life," but in the turn-of-the-century Dutch cultural world where Kuyper himself was influential, the key notion was organizing one's activities in the Lord's service on a Christian basis. This imperative applied especially to activities undertaken in concert with others: one should cooperate mainly with fellow believers, and then on an explicitly Christian basis. It was important to be "rooted and grounded." Christian organizations were the key, and they functioned as counterparts and alternatives to organizations founded on Humanistic or Roman Catholic principles.

An old-fashioned Kuyperian would find something promising about the notion of the computer, but would wish to see it Christianized. For many years I have been waiting for people to suggest that we must build Kuyperian or Christian computers, as opposed to using models obtained from IBM or Apple. Or, if this were too daunting a prospect, perhaps we could have our own Kuyperian or Christian operating system. (Who needs DOS, or Windows 95?) And if not a Christian operating system, could we at least have Christian software -- perhaps a uniquely Christian word processor and a basic spreadsheet? Not a word have I heard by way of implementation of such possibilities.

And then there is the business of the internet. Nowadays one also hears a good deal about intranets, which are private and limited in scope and accessibility, somewhat like private Christian schools. Wouldn't it be Kuyperian to form an intranet and try to set it up as a rival to the internet, which is besmirched by pornography, racist websites, and crass commercialism? The Anabaptists preach that Christians should not be hooked up to the world, and then they proceed to practice what they preach. (Well, some of them do.) Kuyperians should preach that we need to transform or redeem the computer possibility by establishing Christian alternatives, but they seem tongue-tied in the current debate. It happens, by the way, that the most vocal Kuyperians on campus were generally in favor of some sort of move toward a "wired campus."

I have long felt that the rise of computers and new electronic technologies associated with them represent a difficult challenge for those who hold to a Kuyyperian approach to questions of Christianity and culture. On my reading, the Kuyperians have come up empty thus far. And that's why we needed Egbert Schuurman, or someone like him, to be involved in the discussion.

Perhaps the point should be broadened somewhat, in a way that leaves the strengths and weaknesses of Abraham Kuyper's legacy out of the picture. Part of the problem with extensive computer use in education is that computers have something of a positivistic bias, which is to say that they counteract the healthy hermeneutical impulse to make much of interpretation. Presumably it was my own responsibility, as philosopher-in-residence, to make such a point during the discussion, and I did indeed lay it on the table from time to time, along with other points of an essentially philosophical nature. But our meetings had a practical orientation, with the result that certain ''philosophical" comments were judged not to be relevant to the issue at hand. It was explained to me that if we had to explore this, that and the other philosophical angle, we would never get our work done and we would remain bogged down in academic speculation. Indeed, this impatience with the philosophical issues is one reason why I am devoting a certain amount of space to these questions in this end-of-term report.

Another highlight for me this term was the discussion of repressed memories in my philosophy of history class. At the beginning of the term I told students about a book just then coming out, namely Lost Daughters: Recovered Memory Therapy and the People It Hurts, by Reinder Van Til (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997). The book is of special interest because RVT is a co-religionist, a Calvin College graduate (which is where I first made his acquaintance), a cousin of Redeemer's Thea Van Til Rusthoven, and a son of Henry Van Til, a Calvin College theology professor and the author of The Calvinistic Concept of Culture (Philadelphia: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1959). HVT is in turn in turn a nephew of Cornelius Van Til, a theologian and philosopher who defended the Reformed faith with great energy for many years while teaching at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia.

Reinder VT's fine book is a good survey of the repressed memory therapy problem and nicely illustrates the relevance of epistemological issues to real life in the world. Are recovered memories infallible? Do they contain internal marks or indicators of their own truth? Does God guarantee their truth, as some people seem to think? Do they need corroboration when they become the basis for lawsuits and criminal charges? Or are they always to be taken at face value? The "lost daughters" mentioned in the title of Van Til's book bring the issue home: Van Til and many other accused men have been cut off from contact with daughters whom they dearly love because of allegations stemming from these controversial recovered memories.

The class discussion of these matters was somewhat of a disappointment to me. But the issue did generate considerable heat and tension outside of class, and it led to a number of fruitful conversations in which I was involved. I suspect that members of the class also got into some good discussions among themselves, perhaps involving other students as well, when I was not present. In this regard, the repressed memory element in the course was a success. But I was reminded that certain topics of great interest are hard to discuss in a fairly large group setting. [END]

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