We’re Preparing Students for a World That Exists Right Now

I’m sure you’ve heard it.

“We’re preparing students for a world that doesn’t exist yet.” “We’re preparing students for jobs that don’t exist yet.” “We need to focus on skills students will need for the economy of the future.”

These sorts of statements are pervasive in the conversations we have about teaching and learning individually and institutionally. They’re so often given voice that they’ve almost become a refrain. This is understandable. Students need to be able to apply their understanding to novel situations. Real, valuable learning requires uncertainty and ambiguity. Teaching mindsets and dispositions is a better bet than continuing to cling to content that will likely become obsolete. The world does change. The future will occur.

However, beyond the reality that education has a lot more value than just its neoliberal utility in the getting of jobs, that history has proven us to be comically bad at forecasting for the future and that much of this rhetoric reeks of Silicon Valley techno-futurism, an inordinate focus on the future misses something crucial: the increasingly urgent right now that needs to be prepared for.

In short, this happened not all that long ago. Remember? So, did this. And this. Oh, and let’s not forget this either.

People everywhere embrace the most outlandish and conspiratorial stances imaginable. Their political beliefs and voting behaviors are influenced by tribalism and fear. The very fact that large numbers of people all around the world still share that ridiculous at midnight Facebook will begin charging a user fee unless you copy this magical incantation status every two or three years tells us clearly that critical thinking and media literacy are in a moment of crisis.

Globally, we’re seeing a rise in nationalism and xenophobia. Leaders are inciting their citizens with rhetoric that doesn’t even make a halfway decent attempt at honesty. People are dividing themselves into warring ideological tribes, vilifying outsiders and spending little time interacting outside of their echo chambers. Online and in face-to-face conversations, we seem to have an aversion to any sort of complex, nuanced thinking and attack anyone who isn’t a vocal absolutist.

This is the world we need to be preparing students for by helping them understand issues from differing perspectives, by focusing on reason and evidence and by placing a higher premium on intellectualism and actual expertise. Of course, our students want to get into elite universities and then one day hold prestigious, high-paying jobs. That’s fine; good luck to them. Ultimately, though, it’s more important to give students the tools they’ll need for our current world of fake news, denial of scientific facts and cynical demagoguery than for some abstract technotopia that, as they say, doesn’t exist yet.

Of course, we can also have it both ways. We just need to make some space in our breathless rhetoric about learning for something other than science fiction conjectures about the future of the workplace.

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