Sunday, November 22, 2009

Education for the 21st Century: a bad case of presentism

by Paul Doolan

I continually hear calls from education experts who repeat the mantras that good teachers are “teaching for the future” and preparing students “for the 21st century”, (which by and by, started nearly a decade ago). I am amazed at the confidence that is projected when they speak about the future. I was under the impression that a characteristic of the future is, and always will be, that its nature is hidden from us mortals. A future that is known is located already in the present, in the mind of the knower, and, paradoxically therefore, cannot be the future. Educating for the future, it seems to me, would mean educating for the unknown.

But instead, I find those who are already preparing students for the rigors and challenges of the 21st century, to be supremely confident regarding what the future will look like. And it looks suspiciously like the present, just a lot more of it – more sexy technology, more electronic instant communication, more miniaturization, more multitasking, more mobility. But this type of future oriented thinking simply betrays an obsession with the present – what I call “presentism”. I doubt very much if the future will be the present writ large.

The past record would indicate that futures generally spring one or two surprises, some of them benign and some of them nasty. Futurologists of the 2nd century AD might have shared a concern for the increasing costs of defending the frontiers of the mighty Roman Empire, but none could have predicted that within a century a small Jewish sect called Christians will have taken over the empire from within; a century ago no one was predicting the collapse of the Chinese, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, German, or Russian Empires and the birth of fascist and communist states, yet this all happened within a decade. And more recently, as a friend of mine pointed out, it was investments - or misadventures - in "futures" that led to the recent Credit Crunch.

We should avoid the pretense that we are equipping students with the skills that they will need for the 21st century. We have no idea what they will need. Perhaps a dexterous thumb for using their iPhone while they scan reams of electronic text is what will be needed. Or perhaps the ability to build a raft and use an AK-47? We don’t know, and we should stop pretending that we do.


  1. I saw an excellent video a while back - snapshots of statistics on "education". I wish I could remember the numbers but one of them was this: something like 70% of the tech-related jobs people hold now did not even exist when they were in high school. Just how in the hell do you prepare high-schoolers for jobs that don't even exist?

  2. You teach them to teach themselves. You listen to people whose job it is to manufacture the future.

    I am sorry. This post is an extremely limited in its scope. It assumes one idea and then builds upon the assumption. Spend some time googling some of your 'unknowns'.

  3. "You listen to people whose job it is to manufacture the future". Such hubris - that anyone still has the audacity to think that it is their job to "manafacture" the future. Interesting, almost industrial, choice of word - you can manafacture coca-cola, cluster bombs, christmas cards, but surely not the future. Seriously though, the idea that there are people who are attempting to manafacture the future is a totalitarian idea, worthy of Stalin.

  4. Still, there are situation-independent skills that nowadays have been proven to be worth having.

    I know you're just trying to make a point here, how senseless futuristic babbling is, but what does the last paragraph have to do with skills? You merely describe tools to make use of.

    Acquiring new skills is one of those skills, as are general problem solving, logic, critical thinking, self-management and self-improvement techniques, autodidacticism... and focussing on teaching these actually prepares one quite a bit. More so methodically and not psychologically, if students of today have to fight a third worldwar or whatever you were implying in the last paragraph.

  5. From: KillyourTV
    My answer is that students should know how to recognize what's going on around them and how to react accordingly. Meta-cognition (knowing how to learn) is a big part of this, since I believe knowing how to educate yourself is a huge component of what I'm talking about.

    Completely different from the idiotic methods we're using with NCLB's testing.

  6. Actually the concept of "presentism" was introduced by Dan Lortie in his classic book Schoolteacher first published in 1975.

    1. Actually the word is a lot older than that. The term 'presentism' is used in historigraphy to refer to the study of the past (i.e. history)which uses values from the present day. It has been in use since around the beginiing of the 20th century. (It is also a philosophical term - denying the existence of any past or future realities). I simply took the term as it is used in historical studies and turned it towards to future - same fallacy. Thanks a lot for pointing out Lortie's use of the term.