Puritan Origins of Technological Understanding in the USA: From William Ames's Technologia to Technicism

Douglas McKnight, Stephen Triche


The last decade has witnessed a growing discourse within educational research about the necessary use of computer and other digital technologies as a primary tool for educating democratic citizens. Such claims incorporate assumptions about the meaning and function of "technology" that goes unrecognized by researchers who advocate theses technologies as practical instructional tools for developing democratic "skills." Technology is not only a material thing that houses manipulated data. Since the mid-1800s, while in the mind of popular culture technology has been analogous to a machine, to social and curriculum theorists, it has functioned as an efficient, rationalized method and technique to measure, store, and retrieve visually represented data in an effort to efficiently manage all aspects of society. This conception of technology has a direct relation to the history of curriculum in the US, emerging specifically out of the colonial Puritan efforts to build an educational theory of "the good life." This impulse toward mapping out for the individual a path for living "the good life," resulted in the creation of the first American college, Harvard College, and the first formal curriculum entitled Technologia (Sprunger, 1966, 1968).  Technologia as a curricular construct came to the colonial Puritans by way of William Ames (1576-1633), who spent his life in England and Holland as a separatist Puritan, but whose theological and educational works and personal relationships with significant colonial Puritan figures placed him at the center of intellectual/cultural life in seventeenth-century "America" (Gibbs, 1979). Ames helped define the moral nature of curriculum as a technological construct, a "circle of knowledge" (Gibbs, 1979).  However, over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Ames's curriculum construct of  technologia as a moral enterprise devolved to just one very small part of technological understanding -- curriculum as a linear, prescriptive technological discourse, hence, losing the moral and ethical import of curriculum on the individual life.

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