Let me begin with a few tentative generalizations about the state of knowledge about the world today that may give us clues about the world that today’s youngsters are likely to live in as adults. I ask you to accept them provisionally, as suggestive and plausible rather than proven truth.
• We seem to face greater uncertainty and feel less confident about what we know about the world and its futures than any earlier generation. This is particularly true of our economic and political futures.
• The growth of technology has given us great confidence that the experts who design it truly understand the ways the world works. We have allowed ourselves to grow ever more dependent on technology and technological solutions to our problems. Yet few of us understand the workings of most technologies that we use, and even the experts cannot agree about their effects on our societies and on nature in the long run.
• Nowadays no expert in any field or discipline is able to master and apply deep knowledge over more than a very narrow range of the field. Experts now know more and more about less and less.
• For the first time in human history, youngsters seem to know and experience many things that the adults associated with them – parents, teachers and other significant adults – do not know and have not experienced. Is this intergenerational gap real or only apparent? And what does it mean for education?
• For the first time in human history, we have more access to more information and knowledge than any previous generation, but have no greater capacity to make sense of what it all means; in many cases, we understand even less. Life often seems chaotic and absurd.
• In politics, advanced, prosperous democracies are seeing a decline in their rates of participation in political processes. Democracy is usually confined to the ritual of election every few years between periods of political hibernation. The essential P A R T of democracy (P - participation, A - accountability, R - responsiveness and responsibility, T - transparency) is often forgotten, or practiced only in name. Participative politics is regarded as a waste of time. Civil society feels encouraged or forced to practice the politics of no politics.
• Consequently, knowledge and technology are no more seen as public goods, but as private goods allocated through a market. And markets are seen to be outside the realm of public control, when in reality they are frequently in the control of large corporations.
At the same time, the next generation will inherit several crises and problems. These problems have already made their appearance, but they are likely to become increasingly intractable:
• Global hunger and poverty at a time when there are even more rich people and more wealth than ever before;
• New forms of diseases that are resistant to currently available medicines;
• Depleting resources, deteriorating environments and unpredictable climate change;
• Unprecedented movements of people from villages to cities, and from the poor countries to the rich;
• And finally, the continuance of wars and violent conflicts between and within nations all over the world.
As a consequence of the changes outlined earlier, our ability as ordinary citizens to control, share and add to knowledge has in fact diminished even while we experience these problems. In none of these examples is there a concerted attempt to develop solutions in sight, or to implement the solutions that have already been conceived. Indeed in some of them, such as the disease epidemics, or international conflicts, we are going backwards, because the older solutions are unable to cope with violence and disease that are now returning in new forms. Although we are now vastly better endowed with the technological and economic resources that can be devoted to mitigating, if not solving, of many of these problems, the political will to do so seems difficult to mobilize.
These problems are the symptoms and effects of various underlying factors that have at least three general features:
a) The factors appear to be increasing in number. For instance, hunger and poverty used to be regarded as a consequence of insufficient income and economic growth; but this view is already regarded as too simple. Much more than just low income is involved in keeping people hungry and poor– for instance, the access to education and health is also now recognized as a crucial factor in enabling people to overcome poverty, as is the ability to organize social action against their lack.
b) They appear to be increasingly interconnected. Poverty, for instance, has been found to be much less in societies that value their girls and women, suggesting a connection between gender equality and the capacity to escape poverty. It has been found that girls who receive some degree of even school education are better able, as adults, to look after the health of their children.
c) The changes in the variety and complexity of the problems appear to outpace our capacity to adapt to them. While the pace of change in many of these factors also seems to be increasing, our capacity to adapt to these more rapid changes, though quite considerable, may have remained limited by our evolution as a species.
The world our children will inherit is therefore likely to be more complex than ours, and with much greater dynamic interdependence between nations, institutions and communities, and also between nature, technology and human societies.
Of course, change has always been an accompaniment to human history, and has often been chaotic and even violent. But increasingly there is now a sense that the knowledge that is available to us, through our schools, universities and research centers, may be somehow failing to equip us to understand the world, and so may be becoming more rapidly obsolete. At no previous time has it been so uncertain and chaotic, with so many ramifications that cannot be entirely foreseen. The reliability and certainty of knowledge seems to have changed in inverse proportion to its quantity. Consequently, the human capacity to adapt and adjust to change has been under severe duress. There is enormous potential for confusion, both in our grasping facts about the world, and in making the moral and political judgments for creating a better world. This is already apparent in the degree of disagreement among experts about almost all the crises that I have mentioned.
What does all this mean for educators? Our task as educators of future generations needs to change in at least three respects.
Firstly, the thrust of our education must be redirected not at simply transmitting the knowledge of the past. Teachers need to nurture the capacity for acquiring that knowledge and applying it to new questions and new situations. Where the older ways of understanding are found to be inadequate, our children will need to evaluate their current mental pictures about the world, and re-construct new ones to function in the changed situations. They not only need to be able to acquire knowledge and understanding, but also judge its strengths and weaknesses, and improve upon them, or refashion them altogether. They not only need to think, but also think about how they think.
This is the intellectual or cognitive side of the educational enterprise. But it needs to be supplemented by an affective and an experiential side as well, with each side reinforcing and nurturing the other two.
More than ever before, we will – indeed, already do - need to look beyond the interests and achievements of our own nations or communities. We will also need to perceive how intimately our own futures are connected with those of others. This means we need to deliberately cultivate a compassionate cosmopolitanism that looks beyond our own local concerns without losing sight of them. We need to build what Noam Chomsky refers to as communities of common concern and action with people in societies, nations and cultures other than our own.
Finally, the history of the last hundred years should have made it amply clear how perilous to our own survival we have often been as a species. In order to survive and bequeath a livable world to future generations, our children will need to experience the difficult processes of collaboration, resolving conflicts and building peace and justice. But judging by the widespread prevalence of conflict and injustice of all kinds, we ourselves have largely failed to do so.
Schools as presently constituted are entirely inadequate to these tasks. (See the previous post.) Mark Twain's witticism: "Never let schooling interfere with your education" makes a very serious and valuable distinction. To bridge the yawning gap between schooling and education, not only do schools need to be redesigned as institutions, but the walls that separate them from the communities they serve ought to be broken down. This will not only allow students to play a more valuable role in the economic and cultural life of the community, but also allow competent and caring adults to play a more active role in the upbringing of youngsters in the community.
More on this later...