I’ve just spent a couple of weeks in Arizona, a first-flight of the fully immunized, and a chance to warm up, eat incredible takeout and be somewhere other than home. A vacation, to see our first-born, in a city that has hundreds of gorgeous outdoor dining patios.
I took along a book—The Ministry for the Future— by Kim Stanley Robinson. I’ve been saving it for this vacation, when I could sit on a shaded patio, uninterrupted, and read. Friends recommended it. And it kind of rocked my world.
I don’t read lots of sci-fi, so Robinson’s name wasn’t familiar to me, but I can understand why he has plenty of fans. As dystopian/utopian fiction, the story was pretty good, but what made it unforgettable was the other stuff that Robinson tucks in around the narrative: Observations, testimonies, riddles and mini-lectures on an array of systems impacting the way the world operates, now and possibly in the next few decades.
It’s a series of enlightenments on practices that must become habit before we all think and act globally: economics, politics, health, equity, and above all, the imminent threat of climate catastrophe.
You would think living through a global pandemic would be the kind of event to jump-start that thinking.
We’ve all seen the Crisis = Opportunity meme, but far too many outright crises—dangerous inflection points—have come and gone in these United States without any positive long-term outcomes. In the war against complacency and intransigence, we are losing.
Back in the late 1970s, I took a graduate course in Futurism. If I took one thing away from the class as reliable truth, it was this: the point of studying the future is not prediction—it’s planning. Goal-setting. The textbook we used (remember using textbooks in every class?) included, as an appendix, predictions about alternative futures from famous prognosticators.
Reading through those now is amusing—we have far outstripped where the predictions say we would be in 2020 when it comes to technologies, with our Jetsons phones and carrying the Library of Congress in our pockets. Other changes, however, were just a blip on the horizon 45 years ago: climate collapse, social unrest, the dangerous and growing gap between haves and have-nots. Defunding the police? The student loan crisis? Nobody was talking about those in 1978.
It goes without saying that nobody expected to spend four years of their future living under (and I chose that preposition deliberately) Donald Trump. Preventing another disastrous waste of time, resources and international goodwill like the Trump administration ought to be one of our goals as educators.
We have been talking continuously over the past year about re-thinking the purpose and mission of public education, but most of that talk has been about peripheral things—Zoom classrooms, hybrid models, and the damned tests.
Here’s the question we should be asking: What skills and knowledge do children and teenagers need to make sense of this world and give them agency?
Every young child, for example, should have a thought or two about why sharing with other people makes both of us happier. Every teenager should have experience with service work, and understand the difference between a law and cultural norm. Every single person on the planet ought to be able to distinguish between verifiable truth and burnished opinion.
This pandemic period will linger in the memories on American citizens. What have we done to prepare our world for other, inevitable turning points? Have we trained our children to understand the impact of governance and policy creation? Or does that fall into the caption of ‘Social Studies’ and get swept aside in our eagerness to ‘get back to normal’ and pursue high scores in math and reading?
The Ministry for the Future begins with an unimaginably disastrous, climate-related event that kicks an international team of scientists, political leaders and thinkers, a remnant of the Paris Climate Accord, into action. Each well-considered step they take is designed to, literally, save the planet. Some things work well. Others fail. But all make obvious that we can’t just keep on keepin’ on. We have to change.
Change is scary. Preparing our students ought to address this fact. It’s worth the fight.
Ministry is one of those books that drops a lens in front of the reader. It goes like this: Knowing what I know about the health of the planet and well-being of my fellow citizens, what do I observe about daily life that makes me hopeful? And what do I observe that makes me cynical or afraid?
As it happens, we flew from a state where COVID is out of control and parents are jamming Board meetings to demand that their children go mask-less, to a state where infection rates are among the lowest in the nation. It’s hard to draw comparisons without living someplace, long-term, but Arizonians were mask-compliant everywhere we went. And that compliance was enforced by restaurants and museums, not state law.
Delta’s policies struck me as smart and in-control. Lots of annoying things—rude passengers, late flights, inefficient plane loading, and the drunken seatmate—were not in evidence. The airports were clean and quiet, and absolutely everyone was masked. Old white men doing the ‘not MY nose’ mask thing were publicly corrected. People who failed to check a big, heavy suitcase were corrected, too, when the flight attendant wouldn’t assist.
I could get used to flying masked, and touchless check-in, forever. Air travel is also hard on the environment. Maybe what we all need to get used to is staying home, until air travel is carbon-neutral.
I am mostly on the Cynical and Fearful team, and I put a great deal of the blame on my own nation. On the other hand, I believe there is still inherent in America an opportunity to lead globally. But it means tapping into the talents and resolve of young people. You know–education.
There are a thousand policy ideas about positive change in schooling leading to an engaged and productive citizenry. But first, we need to have a common vision. I have always liked what Neil Postman said about public schooling and the commons, back in 1995. He understood the future of education, a quarter century ago.
“The question is not, Does or doesn’t public schooling create a public?
The question is: What kind of public does it create?
-A conglomerate of self-indulgent consumers?
-Angry, soulless, directionless masses?
-Indifferent, confused citizens?
Or a public imbued with confidence, a sense of purpose, a respect for learning, and tolerance?
The answer to this question has nothing whatever to do with computers, with testing, with teacher accountability, with class size, and with the other details of managing schools.
The right answer depends on two things, and two things alone: the existence of shared narratives and the capacity of such narratives to provide an inspired reason for schooling.”
― Neil Postman, The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School (1995)
Pick up The Ministry for the Future. It will make you think.