Things Our Grandparents Got Right #4: They didn’t try to educate us for the ‘future’.

  Part One

 This is kind of anti-intuitive.  The very process of educating children seems to rest on the idea of preparing them to meet their future.  The whole concept presupposes that the end of the process will create an educated member of society, many years down the road.  That part is fine:  of course we want to have a purpose in education, and it seems reasonable that it has something to do with kids becoming adults over time, which kind of implies the involvement of the future.  The problem comes when we start to think we know what that future will look like.

 Ever wonder why so many Science-Fiction movies set in the future are either Utopic (rare) or Dystopic (way more common)?  And have you noticed that all the fashions and hairstyles of these movies are just reflections (usually shinier, or slightly more ridiculous) of styles in vogue at the time the movie was produced?  And when the movie is set in a year that we’ve already lived through, how utterly unlike the reality of that time it is?  Further, have you noticed that these films are usually good indicators of the varieties of social angst that were current when they were made?  How many “Alien Invasion” movies from the 1950s mirror Cold-War fears of foreign infiltration and invasion? 

Who knew that those dresses would still be in style 400 years later?

It shouldn’t really be a shock to us that we can’t read the future.  What’s a lot more shocking to me is how often we act as if we can, and how infrequently we learn from being proved wrong.  Dan Gardner, in his book Future Babble, exposes the degree to which relying on experts, against all intuition to the contrary, actually renders us less able to predict and adapt to the future.

Gardner makes reference to studies that have been done over the years to try to verify the accuracy of expert predictions about the future.  This is, of course, a separate question from the amount of knowledge about a certain subject (gained from studying the past) any given expert possesses. The question is, “Does having a lot of knowledge about a particular subject increase your chance of being right when making predictions about the future of the area of study?”  Some of these studies have been conducted by the media (admittedly not very scientifically).  Here’s Gardner: 

“In 1984, The Economist asked sixteen people to make ten-year forecasts of economic growth rates, inflation rates, exchange rates, oil prices, and other staples of economic prognostication.  Four the test subjects were former finance ministers, four were chairmen of multinational companies, four were economics students at Oxford University, and four were, to use the English vernacular, London dustmen.  A decade later, The Economist reviewed the forecasts and discovered they were, on average, awful.  But some were more awful than others:  The dustmen tied the corporate chairmen for first place, while the finance ministers came last.” (p.21)

Other more recent examples have also come from the press:  If anyone remembers the famous accuracy of  Paul the Octopus, a cephalopod who was able to predict the correct outcome of all seven matches AND the final of the German team’s 2010 FIFA World Cup of soccer, they might be amused to hear of other animal ‘predictions’ that put our purported abilities to shame:  Chippy the chimpanzee embarrassed famous American pundits by choosing flashcards indicating political outcomes at a higher rate of accuracy than the experts, two months running.  In the field of meteorology, Wiarton Willie, the groundhog who predicts the onset of springtime every February second in Ontario, claims to be accurate 90% of the time on his personal website (though a larger study puts groundhog predictions in general over the last 40 years at about 39% accurate).  National weather bureaus claim about a 60% accuracy on long-range forecasts, though many think this is too high.  Certain ancient traditions of haruspicy are still being practiced; a pig farmer in North Dakota who examined the spleens of his pigs to predict the weather boasted of an 85% success rate.

None of these, of course, point to any magical powers possessed by animals.  (A better candidate for a claim of that sort is perhaps to be found in the case of the Tsunami of December 2004, in which more than 150, 000 people were killed, but relatively few animals, who anecdotally seemed to know that something was about to happen and fled).  At best, they indicate that when a series of choices is made more or less randomly, the accuracy rate is higher than when experts make them.  This is embarrassing enough, but to find out that one’s chances of being right actually decrease when one’s confidence and expertise increase is downright humbling.

Philip Tetlock, a psychologist at the University of California, conducted the largest experiment on the subject over a number of years after the spectacular failure of anybody to predict the downfall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet empire.  He studied 284 experts in politics, economics, and journalism, and compiled 27, 450 predictions about the future.  Conclusion:  the experts would have been beaten by a “dart-throwing chimpanzee”.  Some, however, were a lot worse than others:  these experts would have vastly improved their accuracy if they guessed randomly.  Tetlock discovered that these experts’ backgrounds or education didn’t explain their inaccuracy; instead, it was their mode of thought.  They were particularly uncomfortable with complexity and uncertainty.  They worked from an ideology and were extremely confident that it was correct.  Tetlock called these experts “hedgehogs”, after the fragment of the poem by Archilochus:  “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”.  The foxes, on the other hand (the experts who had no preconceived ideology, but worked from data, synthesising multiple sources and self-critically correcting for error as they went), did much better, and did manage to do better than just flipping a coin.   Much has been made recently about studies that appear to show differences in the tendencies of conservatives’ and liberals’ ways of thinking that mirror these broad categories:  Conservatives tend toward hedgehoginess, and liberals to vulpine leanings.

Interestingly, hedgehogs who are more ideologically extreme are even more likely to be wrong, and their accuracy actually declines when they know a lot about their subject, as well as when they predict something over a long period of time.  As Gardner puts it, the lesson is that “if you hear a hedgehog make a long-term prediction, it is almost certainly wrong.” (27)   And, of course, the problem is that we get most of our predictions from hedgehogs.  They are on TV and in the news all the time: they are confident, educated, knowledgeable experts who are willing to say bold, loud, easy-to-understand things about the future.  No media source wants to have foxes on TV; they will tend to want to say things like, “It depends,” or discuss things at length, giving a nuanced opinion.  And, in the end, though they do much better than hedgehogs, foxes are no prophets:  the world is fundamentally complex and unpredictable.  You can beat even a fox at predicting the future by predicting that “nothing will change”.  The things that are predicted are almost always wrong, (remember Y2K?  The paperless office?  The list is huge) and the things that end up happening, such as the collapse of Eastern-Block Communism, the Arab Spring, the housing crisis of 2008, and 9/11, leave pundits scrambling to rationalise all the reasons they hadn’t seen anything coming.

So the hubris of predicting things like what the “economy of the future” will be is really just an arrogance born of fear:  we want to educate our children to face what is now, has always been, and will always be, an uncertain future.  All kinds of educational imperatives have been attempted in the name of just that.  The fact remains that we simply don’t know, and are not able to know, what will drive the economic engine of our children’s future.  If we belong to that section of society that believes that the purpose of education is largely economic, then we are pretty much out of luck.  It simply can’t play that role.

In Ontario, where there is little formal attention in the curriculum given to job-specific skill sets, this is less of a problem than elsewhere.  But we can still get sucked into the “education for the future” meme in other ways.  We often talk about education like it is “for” something, in a kind of pragmatic way.  I can’t disagree; I think so too.  I just think that I don’t know what it’s for.  I’ve had ex-students come visit me ten or more years after I taught them.  They always share their memories of the classes they had with me, and it’s a rare moment when their memories match mine.  They’ll sometimes tell me that something I said in class changed their lives – my response is often unspoken, but goes something like this:   I said that?  Huh.  I don’t remember that.  Sounds profound, though.  I’m glad it helped.  Many times the things they remember weren’t part of any official curriculum.  Just some off-the-cuff remark that stuck with them and meant something eventually.  Sometimes it isn’t even anything you say:  sometimes just the long-term effect of your character on a kid will turn things around for him.  I’m always surprised by what they say meant something to them.  It’s rarely something content-related.  That’s where a little humility goes a long way:  I don’t know what is meaningful to them, or what will become so in the future.  I don’t know what part of my experience and worldview will resonate with them.  At the time, it sometimes seems like none of it is making any impact, but they tell me different, years later.  So I teach what I think is interesting, and hope for the best.

Sometimes we answer the question of “what is education for” in a too-limited manner.  Aristotle thinks of the question like this:  Why do we do anything?  Can we follow the trail of motivation to a source?  Something we do for its own sake, and not as a step to something else?  We’re goal-oriented in the West; it seems like we’re often lost without them.  We go to school, we think, because we want to get into university or college.  Why?  So that we can earn a certificate or degree.  Why?  So that we can use it to get a job.  Why?  To earn money.  Why?  To buy things with.  Why?  (And here’s where the trail usually ends in a capitalist society)  Because we think they will make us happy.  But why do we want to be happy?  For no reason.  Happiness is its own end.  We think, though, in the goal-oriented rat race of the West, that happiness is an ‘end’ in a kind of a final sense:  we think that retirement is the time in your life when all this will eventually pay off.  And so many of us end up waiting until we’re 65 to be happy.  In fact, by that point, many of us are so used to setting goals and postponing happiness that we don’t know what to do with ourselves after we leave our professions.  That’s obviously no way to live your life either.

So the future doesn’t seem to be the way to go when we think about education.  In the next post, I’ll go into why the alternatives, i.e., living in the “golden age” past of education, or else turning education into nothing more than a reinforcement of existing biases, aren’t viable options either.


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