Recapturing the Real: Physicality, Imitation, and Tradition in a Digital World


According to In the Swarm, a new book by the German philosopher Byung-Chul Han, digital technologies encourage swarm behavior. Our agitated, unstable, disorienting existence has serious consequences. As he puts it, “digitality radically . . . dismantles the real.”[1] In such a world, there is perhaps nothing more important than finding ways to regain a fully human life.

Traditionally, education is the way in which such human lives are formed. But our digital environment presents new challenges for this endeavor, especially considering how the technological mindset of standardized tests, numerical grades, technological devices, and bureaucratic credentialing has overtaken educational institutions. Teachers must carefully extract themselves from this world and proactively embrace physicality, imitation, and tradition as the enduring characteristics of education.

In order to take up this work of forming human persons, we have to extract ourselves from the regnant technological mindset. Philosophical baggage notwithstanding, a bit of Heidegger is helpful here as he makes a scathing critique of technology by connecting it to the fundamental issue of being, or ontology. Heidegger proposed a holistic ontology where the human mode of being is embodied meaning-making. It is this anthropology that causes him to discard previous understandings of being, which he argued succumbed to the perennial temptation to dichotomize mind and body[2] as seen in Plato’s cave, Descartes’ res cogitans and res extensa, or cognitive science’s information processing model of human intelligence.[3] Such dualistic views continue to shape contemporary understandings of the human person and are exacerbated by tendencies inherent in digital technologies.

In “The Question Concerning Technology,” Heidegger addressed the essence of modern technology, which he saw as “something completely different and therefore new.”[4] For Heidegger, modern technology is not merely a neutral means to an end; rather, users of such technologies come to view everything as standing-reserve, as resources to be consumed. Heidegger harbored serious doubts as to whether we can maintain a distinctly human experience in such a world, for though man drives technology forward, the resulting revelations of truth are “never a human handiwork.”[5] This technological understanding of being and the mode of revealing it engenders eventually makes us all mere objects to be manipulated:

[This is] not just any danger, but the danger. . . . As soon as what is unconcealed no longer concerns man even as object, but exclusively as standing-reserve, and man in the midst of objectlessness is nothing but the orderer of the standing-reserve, then he comes to the very brink of a precipitous fall, that is, he comes to the point where he himself will have to be taken as standing-reserve.[6]

In other words, as technology allows humans to commodify objects, the final end game is the commodification of ourselves.

Heidegger sees this notion of humans as standing-reserve as the danger because it eliminates other understandings of reality.[7] Commodifying nature and humanity leads us to discard other understandings of being-in-the-world and the practices, beliefs, and ideas that accompany them: all aspects of reality are incorporated into the ordering of standing-reserve. This “threatens to sweep man away into ordering as the supposed single way of revealing, and so thrusts man into the danger of the surrender of his free essence.”[8]

In recent years, technological changes have only confirmed Heidegger’s concerns: the smartphone, social media, and the internet of things have increasingly opened up “a narcissistic space—a sphere of the imaginary—in which one encloses oneself.”[9] The consumeristic tendencies of modern society only deepen this self-referential digital loop, which facilitates further commodification and monetization of human experiences through likes, followers, and influencers. To challenge these powerful anti-human forces, the teacher must be armed with a robust philosophy of technology to help ward off the temptations of disembodied digitality. Particularly in this context, our educational approach should include the validation of physicality, the imitation of the master, and the celebration of tradition.

The Validation of Physicality

We can counter technology’s tendency to disembodiment by embracing human physicality. One way educators can embrace the human body is by reading, touching, and displaying real books. The tangible book conveys a sense of permanence amidst transience and of logical order with a beginning and end. Books should be displayed prominently on the shelf, beckoning students to partake. Embracing physicality in education also means incorporating beautiful art and music to elevate students’ tastes beyond basal instinct. The original hands-on activity of writing with pen and paper engages the body and mind in a deeper way than screens, and it ensures students are not unintentionally alienating themselves from their work through a mediating screen technology. Finally, valuing the other by looking students in the eye during lectures, class discussions, debates, seminars, and oral questioning invites us to be fully present with one another.

Teachers should also challenge the dichotomy between mental and physical work. White collar work is not more worthy than blue collar work. This stigmatization of the physical is problematic as it pushes students towards jobs as knowledge workers completing abstract, immeasurable tasks instead of also considering the mental and physical satisfaction of the skilled trades. Matthew Crawford, in The World Beyond Your Head, writes,

[M]any students are sitting there in class with the silent conviction that what is on offer is “underserving of their full attention” and engagement. This problem is surely exacerbated by the availability of hyperpalatable mental stimuli. But I believe the more basic issue is the disembodied nature of the curriculum. . . . To reclaim the real in education would be to understand that one is educating a person who is situated in the world and orients to it through a set of human concerns. . . . Education requires a certain capacity for asceticism, but more fundamentally it is erotic. Only beautiful things lead us out to join the world beyond our heads.[10]

The Imitation of the Master

Second, the imitative nature of education can counter technology’s dehumanizing effects. Technology provides access to information without a context; education provides the context for that information as the teacher situates it in a time and place. The student encounters this in-the-world aspect of learning by way of the teacher. In this sense, teaching is an incarnational vocation. The teacher embodies knowledge, holding it up before students and reveling in its complexity and beauty. As Michael Polanyi states about this master-apprentice mode of transmitting knowledge,

You follow your master because you trust his manner of doing things. . . . By watching the master and emulating his efforts in the presence of his example, the apprentice unconsciously picks up the rules of the art, including those which are not explicitly known by the master himself.[11]

Modeling and imitation are powerful forces in human formation, revealing an inherent moral dimension to education. Crawford puts it this way: “there is a moral relation between teacher and student that is at the heart of the educational process. Of course, the student must trust that the master is competent. But he also must trust that his intention is not manipulative.”[12] Atomized bits of information found via technological devices eviscerate the moral element of education and provide no guidance for incorporating the new information into one’s worldview. Teachers enter to provide commentary and context for such information as they model the moral response and mental processes used to incorporate new information into a coherent whole. For imitation to work, the teacher must model embodied knowledge. Many recent proposals in education, however, essentially flip the proper roles of imitation by encouraging teachers to cater to student tastes in attempts to be relevant, or by allowing too much student choice in attempts to increase student engagement. These attempts short-circuit the whole process of education by making the teacher a shallow reflection of what the student already wants. As aptly put by Mark Bauerlein in The Dumbest Generation,

The custodians of culture . . . maintain the pathways into knowledge and taste – the school curriculum, cultural institutions, and cultural pages in newspapers and magazines—guarding them against low standards, ahistoricism, vulgarity, and trendiness. If the pathways deteriorate, don’t blame the kids and parents overmuch. Blame, also, the teachers, professors, writers, journalists, intellectuals, editors, librarians, and curators who will not insist upon the value of knowledge and tradition, who will not judge cultural novelties by the high standards set by the best of the past, who will not stand up to adolescence and announce, ‘It is time to put away childish things.’ They have let down the society that entrusts them to sustain intelligence and wisdom and beauty, and they have failed students who can’t climb out of adolescence on their own.[13]

When teachers hand down enduring wisdom, they enable their students to transcend the limitations of their current world and grow as persons. In the words of Stratford Caldecott, “to make the content of the curriculum relevant to the everyday life of the pupil, it is essential not to shrink the content to match the pupil’s present experience, but to expand the life of the pupil to match the proposed curriculum. The key is the fact that to grow as a person, we must learn self-transcendence.”[14] Or if your prefer, Matthew Crawford puts it this way in his article “The Computerized Academy,” the task of the teacher is to “seduce students toward those subjects which draw them out of themselves: arts and sciences, classically understood. This requires that students come to see their superior beauty, and come to recognize that liberal education is often more real than the advanced forms of vocational training that win over many students who want to be ‘practical.’”[15]

The Celebration of Tradition

A third way to offset technology’s enframing is to embrace tradition in the classroom. Polanyi makes this connection: “a society which wants to preserve a fund of personal knowledge must submit to tradition.”[16] Submitting to tradition in the classroom can be applied in at least three ways. For one, it means valuing the timeless techniques of educating the human person and not falling prey to the latest and greatest that technology offers. By this I don’t mean slavishly following old techniques just because they are old, but using the best methods from different eras and places. These proven strategies tend to be very low-tech and require teacher and students to engage with texts, topics, and big questions.

Second, classroom traditions must be established. Routine and ritual are valuable tools that generate the rhythms which facilitate deep learning. Providing a consistent structure and order to the classroom allows the student to focus fully on the content, not on figuring out the new mechanics of an unknown strategy. And third, it means embracing the tradition of human history. As Stratford Caldecott explains,

Our technology also tends to eliminate tradition, and with it the possibility of truly human living in time. If human memory and knowledge is evacuated into cyberspace, the past too becomes something we treat as external to ourselves, something other than us, something we sit back and observe. The self then contracts to a point, and . . . is no longer fully embodied. It becomes a detached observer of the grid of knowledge, an insatiable consumer set loose in an infinite supermarket of information. . . . Technological consumerism at its worst thus threatens to become not just the enemy but the perfect inversion of tradition. Whereas tradition requires the initiation of persons into a living world that is received as gift and calls for gratitude, anti-tradition converts the world into a pattern of information that can be transferred instantaneously from one mind or computer to another, in exchange for money. The purpose of tradition is to serve the personal growth and development of man. But the purpose of the mechanical order that currently dominates education is for man to serve the growth and further evolution of the machine.[17]

Tradition starts with the identity one finds in faith, family, and local community and expands from there to include the overarching human drama. This narrative anchors us to reality, reminding us that we are not as “new” as we may think and helping us fight against the mechanistic and transactional nature of education in a technological age. In this way, we avoid the temptations of presentism, what C.S. Lewis called chronological snobbery. Tradition and history help us lay down roots in a permanent and lasting identity amidst the shifting winds of culture.[18]

Beyond the Classroom

Recapturing the real by embracing physicality, imitation, and tradition in the face of the digital world applies outside of educational institutions. The life of the church is only strengthened when its teaching is embodied in worship that engages the human body and all the senses. Incorporating ancient traditions in our worship makes evident the timeless nature of Christianity, while the lives of the saints and martyrs provide models for imitation. So too the family is buttressed when family members are fully present with each other through roughhousing, cooking, playing, and reading together. Connecting the family to meaningful traditions, old and new, provides lasting memories and habits for future imitation by the next generation. And the life of a community thrives when people are physically present with each other: sweating together in manual labor, celebrating together, and developing a seasonal rhythm of life in community. All aspects of our existence can remain fully human insofar as they incorporate physicality, imitation, and tradition.

In light of the breakneck speed of technological change, we need to articulate and practice these values that can safeguard the human endeavors of education, faith, family, and community from the totalizing and dismantling effects of digitalization.

  1. Byung-Chul Han, In the Swarm: Digital Prospects (MIT Press: MA, 2017), 22.
  2. D. Krell, General Introduction: The Question of Being. In J. Gray (Ed.), Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1977), 19.
  3. H. Dreyfus, What Computers Can’t Do: The Limits of Artificial Intelligence (New York: Harper & Row, 1979). 67-75.
  4. M. Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology. In J. Gray (Ed.), Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1955), 288.
  5. Ibid., 300.
  6. Ibid., 308-309.
  7. Ibid., 315.
  8. Ibid, 314.
  9. Byung-Chul Han, In the Swarm: Digital Prospects (MIT Press: MA, 2017), 22.
  10. Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: NY, 2016), 257.
  11. Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge (University of Chicago Press: IL, 1962), 49.
  12. Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: NY, 2016), 138.
  13. Mark Bauerlein, The Dumbest Generation (TarcherPerigee: NY, 2009), 161.
  14. Stratford Caldecott, Beauty in the Word: Rethinking the Foundations of Education (Angelico Press: NY, 2012), 35.
  15. Matthew Crawford. “The Computerized Academy,” The New Atlantis no. 9 (2005): 53.
  16. Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge (University of Chicago Press: IL, 1962), 49.
  17. Stratford Caldecott, Beauty in the Word: Rethinking the Foundations of Education (Angelico Press: NY, 2012), 47.
  18. Sue Shellenbarger, “The Benefits of Retelling Family Stories,” The Wall Street Journal (New York, NY), Nov. 12, 2019. Turns out, this stability is scientifically measurable contributing to an improved sense of identity, and lower levels of anxiety.
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Joshua Pauling is contributing editor at Salvo Magazine, columnist at Modern Reformation Magazine, and has written for a variety of other publications including Areo Magazine, Forma Journal, Front Porch Republic, LOGIA: A Journal of Lutheran Theology, Mere Orthodoxy, Merion West, Public Discourse, Quillette, The Imaginative Conservative, Touchstone Magazine, among others. He is a frequent guest on Issues Etc. Radio Show/Podcast. Josh also taught high school history for thirteen years in the public school setting and is now a classical educator and runs his own business making custom furniture and restoring vintage machinery. He studied at Messiah College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Winthrop University, and is vicar at All Saints Lutheran Church (LCMS). He and his wife Kristi have two children who are being classically homeschooled. On their family homestead of sorts they host "Closer to Home" home-ec and shop class summer camps and workshops to teach the skills of resilient living.


  1. Great article! Care is warranted in “Imitation of the Master” not to countermand your argument from “Validations of Physicality”; that blue collar work is indeed good, but not so much in the “practicality” of advanced vocational training. I get it, but wordsmiths might pounce.

    Enjoyed it!

    • Mike,
      Thanks for engaging with the article and for your thoughtful insight regarding a possible contradiction between those two sections. Some other readers have mentioned similarly that this point is in need of clarification. If I may briefly attempt to clarify. I would suggest what actually helps prepare people best for a life in the skilled trades, is not “advanced vocational training” ad naseum, but actually a truly diverse liberal arts, or classical education where students have to engage with human dillemas, read classic literature, engage in history, math, science, and music, and think, listen, read, write and discuss. The student who experiences this type of education will be better off in the long run than the student that is trained for a trade since Middle or High School (Which happens a lot nowadays in public schooling where students pick a “track” they are interested in.) This is something many businesses and companies are coming to realize in their hiring of workers. The student with the “specialized degree” in that field many times falls far short in the other necessary areas of the job, and is quickly surpassed by the worker who had a broad, liberal arts education.

      In Crawford’s “The Computerized Academy” which I quoted, he is dealing especially with the problem of over-specialization early in the educational process and the negative effects of education solely for the practical benefits of getting a job. he looks at these aspects especially in light of technological changes in education. So, the unity of of my two sections, Validation of Physicality and Imitation of the Master, is that the way to value the physical and prepare for a life of meaning with your mind or your hands, is to realize that they are intimately connected and that they all stem from the same source: a meaningful education, classically understood. The plumber needs to know how to think just as much as the writer, for there is a unity to mind and hand, thinking and doing. The master shows this unity whether he is reveling in the joys of Shakespeare with his students, or admiring that hand-cut dovetail joint. So, to truly prepare students for a fully human life of using head and hands, we should not specialize on vocational training, but on the deeper purposes of education, which in the long run better prepares students for anything. Perhaps this is the context that helps Crawford’s point make sense. After all, he is the author who wrote Shopclass as Soulcraft, which also does a great job showing the unity of physical and mental work and the satisfaction of both.


  2. An excellent essay with a helpful structure of recommendations. It resonates a lot with the three-part series I published at FPR last year and this year on the digital mindset: I also cited Polanyi in regard to implicit vs explicit knowledge.

    However, I discovered while researching part 3 this year that the problem predates Heidegger, who predates the Information Age. It can be traced back about 200 years to Utilitarianism and the notion that “money is the measure of all things”.

    We can see late 20th century science adapting this axiom to biology, with expressions like “the tree won’t produce large leaves because it isn’t worth the organism’s expenditure of energy”. Instead of money, their currency is energy: in the tropics large leaves represent a profit due to the abundance of sunshine, but in temperate zones they’re risky and represent a loss on average.

    Heidegger’s notion of “standing-reserve” is a clear warning sign, summarized cogently by Josh. It’s definitely a wake-up call about consumerism, almost as scary as The Matrix. I addressed dehumanization in my third essay: Rise of the Robots?

    Somewhat counter-intuitively, I suggest that newness isn’t really the enemy of tradition, as Josh implies in his reference to Heidegger’s mistrust of technology as “completely different and therefore new.” Rather, I would point to George Gilder’s critique of artificial intelligence which he identifies as rooted in faith in the “eschaton” (based on the same Greek root as “eschatology”), a kind of “final state” where everything important is already known (even though much of it is new to us at the present time). The hubris of finality goes beyond both tradition and newness (and it can be a flaw of either position).

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