At the start of the school year it always feels good to ask myself why I teach English. Since I was in school, technology has completed changed the way we read and write. These changes have also transformed not only how I teach, but the content of it as well. I often wonder how these changes affect the reasons why I teach.
My brother in law runs a machine shop. In practical terms in the context of this current industrial economy, the job of a skilled machinist is all but obsolete compared to what that title would have meant when he and I were high school students. With a foundation as a machinist, and with a Masters of Fine Arts, my brother in law employs himself in a niche of the economy in which machining and mass production are not necessarily synonymous. He creates and restores works of art that require machine parts for museums and science centers, and he does precision work for the kinds of machines that are not necessarily mass market products that would be profitably built by a large factory, such as large devices used in hospitals. With few exceptions, the machines he runs in his shop would be recognizable to a machinist 100 years ago. The exceptions are how the story of his shop relates to my reasons for teaching.
When I visited him at work last spring, he was running parts on one of his automated milling machines. This machine has multiple stations, and the working arms at each station can be fitted with multiple tools. On this particular day, the first station was performing three tasks on the parts he was producing, and the second station, three more tasks. The machine is not fully automated. My brother in law stood by, placing the parts, moving the parts completed from the first station to the second, and checking the quality of the parts to ensure that the pieces were being cut to the parameters for the work.
Once upon a time, the parts he was making would have been made by six men at six machines, or one man at one machine reworking the same part six different ways with different tools at different times, or some other equivalent of the time and space of these combinations. For a machinist to perform each task would require knowledge of machine, tool, and part. Additionally, to perform each task with precision would require skill, experience, a muscle memory gained from years of work. Even with all these attributes, the opportunities for error would no doubt be greater, not to mention inefficiencies of exhaustion, pace, and floor space that are solved by automation. What the printing press did to the scribe, the automated milling machine did to the skilled millwright. In large scale industrial production, the change is even greater. Fully automated machines move parts from station to station, could likely be programmed to retool themselves, and most probably can perform routine quality control checks. Do machine operators today even learn to perform by hand the operations they program their machines to run?
One reason my brother in law is able to do the kind of unique museum work he does is because he has the skill, experience, and patience to do the kind of distinctive precise piece work a machinist would have had to be able to do by hand in past centuries. He knows how to run automated machines, and he is also capable of running the same functions by hand as a machinist. His understanding and experience inform the tasks he programs his machines to perform.
It is tempting to want to be drawn into analogies between manufacturing technology and the media, from the scribe to the printing press to film, TV, the internet, and social media, but I am not a historian, researcher, or linguist, and I do not think this helps me answer my original question of why I teach.
The analogy that I prefer is much more broad in scope. While language might change as media develops, media and language are not the same technology. Language itself is a machine. As human beings, we invented it, we produce it, transform and update it, and we make it work for us. We are the ones who have invested words with meaning. The machine of language gives individuals control over the ideas and values they choose to believe and follow. Language brings individuals together in sharing and understanding these ideas and values. It is the machine that makes the bonds that hold us to ourselves and to each other. We have little else that performs these tasks so effectively or well. And yet — look at the news — we can always improve.
That’s why I teach. Because language is a tool, and the product is humanity, and I want the people who follow me to know how to use this tool as skillfully and as precisely as they possibly can, so that even in a world where technology has quickly automated the efficiency with which we spread our words and may continue to do so even more, my students know through experience and understanding the exact functions they are asking the machines of their words — our language — to perform.