Updated: Nov 10, 2021
“We teach the future as we do the past.” That’s the vision of Teach the Future, a hope and a dream I have had for a long time. It seemed obvious to me that we should explicitly prepare students for the future just as we teach them about the past. It came as a surprise, therefore, when a participant in a training seminar last week asked me to explain (justify?) why teaching the future would be better than not. She understood the vision all right, but she didn’t see its value. “How will the world be better if we achieved that vision?” she said. Wow, I surely did not see that coming! So I’ve been noodling the Why’s of teaching the future since. I am going to take a stab at a few here, but I am also going to try to start the first widespread (I hope!) discussion of this question among the Teach the Future community—my first real foray into social media, outsourcing the issue if you will. But first a few ideas –
Human curiosity – I’m going to start this list with a humanistic reason for teaching the future rather than the more utilitarian reasons below. The future has been fascinating to most human cultures that we know of. Each culture had its own way of investigating and preparing for the future – the elders for tribal societies, the divinations and fortune tellers for imperial societies, prayers for religious societies, and now social science for modern society. I have no doubt that our approach to understanding the future will seem just as quaint as those do to us, but it is ours and we should teach it. So just as we study and teach many things for the sheer joy of knowing, things like astronomy, art, literature, music, and yes, history, so we should teach the future because it is better to know than not to know.
Anticipation – The inaugural speech for Teach the Future makes the point that the current rate of change sets the stage for the appearance of strategic foresight in our time. It was good enough for previous generations to wait for change because it arrived slowly in most cases. No longer. The 20th century experienced more global events that affected more people than any other century in human history. Each of those events required hundreds of millions of people to rethink their assumptions about life and society and to learn new skills that the new era demanded. That transition from the old era to the new will never be easy, but it will be easier if we can imagine and think about those changes beforehand. Anticipation is a critical human skill. We should cultivate and refine it so we can handle the unexpected when it occurs.
Decisions – Isaac Asimov said, “The only constant is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be.”
Teaching the future is not just about anticipating change; it is also about influencing it. What do we wish to see happen? And why? What are our values and preferences?How can we achieve the best for ourselves, our families, our communities and our world? The original purpose of public education was to create an informed citizenry that could participate in a democratic society. While career preparation has become more important today, a citizenry that understands what may happen and about the consequences of decisions and actions will make for a better society. Those societies will hopefully make better decisions, or least less bad ones. Could we have avoided the many blunders in the past with a better knowledge of the future? Not all, of course, but avoiding some would have made for a better society. So here are my three reasons for teaching the future as we do the past -- 1) Better to know than not. 2) Better to prepare than not. 3) Better to understand the consequences of decisions and actions than not. Up until now, people studied, anticipated and influenced the future in myriad ways. Our way today is to approach the subject systematically, to use what evidence we have to draw conclusions, to challenge the assumptions that narrow our exploration of the possible, and to take actions with the best possible understanding of the consequences. Not only should powerful and influential people know how to do this, but, every citizen should know how to handle the future in a society where the consumer and the voter are the ultimate authorities. That is a better society, IMO. I eagerly await your response, and particularly to see the reasons that you provide.