Things Our Grandparents Got Right #4: They Didn’t Try to Educate Us for the “Future”

Part Two

 In the last post, I outlined the basic futility of trying to educate our children (“train” them, I suppose would be a better word) for a specific set of skills that would be useful under specific economic circumstances in the future.  I entered the job market, in my mid-twenties, at the very tail end of the 20th century.  My elementary school education, during the 1970s and 80s, could not possibly have prepared me for a job market within the context of a recession that nobody had predicted, and in which the major emphasis was on jobs in fields that had not yet been invented when I was going to school.  On top of that, several years later, the I.T. bubble burst, and all the jobs that were supposedly available to those with a very specific skill set suddenly disappeared.  Nobody really predicted that one, either.  In fact, there is good reason to believe that nobody will ever predict economic futures.

Employers, for their part, have been making it plain for years that it’s less important what specific software skills prospective employees come to them with than what skills in areas like problem solving, creativity, social adaptation, and communication they bring.  Training can always be done (and in my opinion, should be done, at the expense of employers, not the public) in situ for whatever tasks employees will be asked to perform.  The ability to learn quickly and efficiently from that training, by being punctual, polite, open-minded, critical, creative, and proactive is what makes prospective employers drool.  I’m not somebody who believes that the purpose of education is to provide employers with workers, but if you are, then it should matter to you that by all accounts, employers aren’t happy with the quality of worker they’re being given.    It seems that most of them would trade ten technically skilled applicants for a single well-spoken, well-socialised, clear-thinking applicant who can adapt and learn quickly.

 The problem with the future, as I’ve said, is that nobody knows what it will look like.  Its inevitability, though, makes us fill the yawning blankness in front of us with all kinds of hopes and fears – all of which come from our own past experiences, projected upon the future in a kind of collective psychological paroxysm of denial.  The future becomes a canvas upon which all of our present anxieties work themselves out in public.  There are some problems that attend the belief that we actually can educate kids for the future, though, and some of them aren’t as obvious as they should be.

First, there’s the danger of disregarding good ideas based on their novelty in favour of something that is comfortable, but has no good evidence to support its use.  The unconscionable resistance of schools to listen to the increasingly large body of evidence to suggest that grading not only does not assist in the process of learning, but is actively detrimental to it, has been going on far too long.  This is an enormous subject that really deserves a whole post to itself, which I will be glad to provide sometime later.  It is certainly possible to view the past with rose-coloured glasses, and ignore real harms done by practices which have the force of habit, but not of reason.  Often, the desirability of the practice in question is questioned even by its proponents, but urged anyway on the assumption that if it was bad enough for one generation, it ought to be bad enough for the next.  Sometimes this is accompanied by what Alfie Kohn has called the “BGUTI” clause, or “Better Get Used To It”, wherein the future is assumed to be filled with horrible arbitrary uses of power, for which we must train our children to submit.  This does not seem to me to be a noble ambition for our children.

Second, there is the danger of using this “Golden Age” of education disingenuously, as a way to discourage real progress.  Educational reformers, especially those who are advocating changes based on conserving parts of systems of education that have been proven to work well, are accused of “living in the past” and stifling innovation through their delusion.  Again, Alfie Kohn provides us with examples of the kind of “educational reform” sweeping through his nation, the United States, detailing how they are often merely disguised conservative movements, based in ideology rather than facts, and too often designed to line the pockets of those who put them forward.

Third, there is the danger of defining the ‘future’ in terms that are too narrow by far.  Too many educators see the “big picture” of the future of high school students to be the end of their four-year stint with us, and the awarding of the diploma.  After all, “studies have shown” that kids without a high school diploma are more likely to be economically and socially disadvantaged later on, right?  This is often seen to be the legitimate outcome of being deprived of the benefits of the type of education we offer, and not the result of rampant credentialism.   I always try to educate with the long-term goal of producing a thoughtful and mature human being who will continue to think and learn as long as their brains hold out.  And there seems to be good evidence that Alzheimer’s Disease can be mitigated by strong habits of thought, so I’m happy to consider the long term to be roughly “the rest of their natural lives”.  And maybe longer, if they teach their kids healthy habits of mind.

 Fourth, there’s the danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  All of the posts about our grandparents’ “outdated” methods and ideas address this issue.  Certainly, they did a lot of backward, even harmful things in the name of education (many of which I abhor, and will address in later posts), but that does not mean that they had not found certain practices that actually worked.  Their nearly obsessive interest in penmanship, for example, though perhaps emphasised to the point of detriment to other aspects of learning, did have benefits that we miss, now that it’s gone from the curriculum.  Everybody has been through some sort of schooling, and everyone has had bad experiences, bad memories, and bad teaching at one point or another, all of which people insist on telling me about in detail the instant they learn that I am a teacher.  Learning has always been hard work, and ever since Shakespeare wrote about the “whining school-boy, with his satchel /  And shining morning face, creeping like snail /  Unwillingly to school” (As You Like It, II.vii.145-47), we’ve had to bear the brunt of everyone’s residual educational and social angst from high school.  The past, no matter how awkward, stressful, or frustrating, was not all bad, and it is worth preserving the better parts of what our ancestors came up with over many centuries of research and development.  This definition of conservatism in education I am all for.  But how, one asks, can we determine which parts to preserve and which parts to discard?  I would answer that anything that has been demonstrated to be harmful or detrimental in any way to the process of learning ought to be done away with as quickly as possible.  Anything that can be shown to reduce or kill hope outright, or poison students’ innate curiosity and desire to learn, ought to go.  Anything that develops humane perspective, curiosity, and habits of mind that allow learning to be indulged in as a pleasurable (though not effortless) activity for the rest of one’s life ought to be encouraged at all costs.  Encourage flexibility, and discourage rigidity of thought and ideology; otherwise, that great unknown future will wallop our kids when it finally shows up in a form that nobody anticipated.

 Fifth, there’s the concomitant danger of bandwagoning; of jumping onto every new idea or educational movement uncritically and for the sake of novelty itself.  Talk to any teacher who’s been teaching more than a few years, and they’ll tell you some stories about this one.  Our profession is awash in buzz-words, and though the words themselves sometimes show up in different forms, the range of ideas they represent is surprisingly limited.  Often, they’ll come back in roughly ten-year cycles, re-branded and as fresh as a bad penny (to mix a metaphor).  For a period of time in the late 1990s and up until a few years ago, one of the buzz-words you’d hear everywhere, presented as a strange hybrid of Policy, Gospel, and “Best Practice” (the latest euphemism for “toe the line”) by administrators everywhere, was the astonishingly silly phrase, “Brain-Based Learning” (is there an alternative organ that could be substituted?  It’s only a matter of time before “spleen-based learning” is all the rage).  Here’s a quick video detailing the level of skepticism we need to approach this concept with:

All of which brings me to the last point:

Finally, sixth, there’s the danger of treating the future (or your limited understanding of it) as inevitable, based on physiology.  This is an important enough topic that it deserves its own entry.  To be continued . . .


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