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Education Forecast for the 21st Century: Change
By Tiffani Razavi, TIE Staff Writer 03-Dec-19
As educators, we are naturally very future-conscious. After all, we are preparing the next generation to face all manner of challenges flashing up on our TV screens, our phones, and Twitter feeds: climate change, mass forced migration, extremism, digitalization and automation, fake news and post -truth opinion… How are we to understand these challenges, let alone adequately respond? Historian Yuval Noah Harari’s book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century is a thought-provoking contribution to what is often a fragmented and sometimes frenetic discourse on these themes. Harari aims to “zoom in on the here and now, but without losing the long-term perspective” and to “take insights from the distant past and the distant future to help us make sense” of current issues, “to stimulate further thinking and help readers participate in the major conversations of our time.” Starting with a survey of the challenges humanity in the collective faces, Harari sounds alarm bells. He highlights the dangers of technology and biotechnology as threats to the very notion of what it means to be human, and the string of political and ideological crises that have left us without a narrative, without a way to understand the human story as we contemplate the future. The agenda is explicitly global, looking at the major forces that shape societies all over the world, but with an emphasis on the implications for the internal lives of the individual, including the “unprecedented pressure” placed by a global world on personal conduct and morality. We live in a spiderweb of spiderwebs, making it more imperative than ever to uncover the biases and barriers that unwittingly keep gloomy forecasts on track. Nineteen lessons in, heading up the final part titled Resilience, alongside Meaning and Meditation Harari cites Education. The premise of the conversation the author initiates is that “change is the only constant,” that we are more uncertain today about the future than ever before. Compared to adults in the past who prepared the next generation within the framework of some basic assumptions about what the world would look like 30 years on, the rate of change in the world is so rapid now that we know we don’t know what 2050 will actually look like. No better than we know how long people will live, what they will do for a living, what gender relations will be like… We’re trying, of course—just look at the increase in reports and articles about the future, here included—but it is bewildering and frustrating to think that much of what we teach in schools today might well be irrelevant by 2050. We are still grappling with the fact that information is no longer scarce, and schools are neither the only nor even the first place children obtain it. Instead, we are flooded with both information and misinformation, as well as distraction, tempting us to abandon complicated things like science and politics in favor of funny cat videos. It is not a new idea that education needs to build the ability to make sense of information—that is, to analyze, synthesize and evaluate. Harari acknowledges the importance of these skills but observes that the aversion to “grand narratives” and the emphasis on giving students freedom to generate their own picture of the world is an approach that assumes plenty of time for the world to eventually get things right. We no longer have that luxury, he warns: we have now run out of time. Things are moving so fast today that most important is the ability to deal with change, to learn new things, and to preserve mental balance in unfamiliar situations. To keep up, people will not only need to invent new ideas and products, but above all to reinvent themselves over and over again. Harari asserts that as the pace of change increases, the very meaning of “being human” is likely to change. Under these conditions, past experience, whether individual or collective, becomes a less reliable guide. We are dealing with completely new things: “super-intelligent machines, engineered bodies, algorithms that can manipulate your emotions with uncanny precision, rapid man-made climate cataclysms, and the need to change your profession every decade.” Navigating such an environment requires mental flexibility and emotional balance, the ability to let go of the feeling of mastery, and to feel at home with the unknown. These are not easy things to teach, especially because as adults we are mostly the product of educational systems that did not emphasize these abilities. So, Harari flips it over to the next generation and advises them not to rely too much on adults, as there is no way of knowing if what adults say is “timeless wisdom or outdated bias.” But he warns them also that being able to rely on themselves is a daunting task, because 21st-century selves are easily manipulated. Corporations and governments are racing to hack humans. If they want to win, they have to run fast, and leave all illusions behind. As far as what all this means for educators, the ball is (as usual) in our court. It might not be easy, as Harari concedes, but we are still involved, from the sidelines or in the thick of it, doing things and learning things. There is more. 21 Lessons is part of a conversation. Let’s keep having it. Over to you.
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