Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Difficulties of Schooling for the Future

Most of us have seen articles in popular magazines that attempt to portray the future. How accurate are these prognostications? There is little room for optimism. Writers of the 1920's and 30's trying to look fifty years into the future, for instance, predicted bigger and faster airplanes, safer and more reliable cars, people commuting via autogyros or personal jet packs, and entire cities encased in plastic bubbles within which was a man-made environment of pristine perfection.

We now are beyond that “future.” To be sure, planes are even bigger and faster than predicted, but no one is whizzing to work in their own autogyro. Car are safer and more reliable than ever, but they are often gridlocked in traffic. Cities are not encased in plastic bubbles but in envelopes of noxious man-made effluvium that eats away at both person and property.

Yes, the futurists of the 20's and 30's only got some things right when they speculated about the material future. And there are other things these futururists tended to miss altogether. They rarely anticipated the changes in race relations that have since occurred. They did not imagine the change in attitude toward the handicapped, gays, sexual behavior, the pill or opportunities for women. As a matter of fact, the people depicted in the illustrations accompanying those old time futuristic articles were all white and able-bodied with the women smiling happily in kitchens of the future.

Why did the popular writers of the 20's and 30's commonly dream of sleeker cars and more efficient kitchens but not of a more humane and compassionate America? Why was it unexceptional for them to predict faster planes but exceptional for them to visualize anything like the Voting Rights Act? Because they took much of their culture for granted. In fact it was transparent to them. That’s just the way things were.

We too are like that. We also take aspects of our culture as a given, yet many of the things we never question, perhaps never notice, will change in the future. That’s the difficulty of schooling children for the future. We can’t really imagine what that future will be like. Perhaps educators should be satisfied with preparing students for the present. That's hard enough.

To examine these issues further, see Dissecting School Benefits: a typology of conflicting goals

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