Back in 2004, the National Council
of La Raza received grants to support the creation of Early College High
Schools across the U.S. and determined that some of them would be in Wisconsin.
A press conference was held at the Milwaukee Area Technical College to announce
the initiative. I was invited to attend.
When I arrived, crews from several
local television stations were setting up their cameras and microphones.
A group of young people enrolled in the alternative high schools that had
been selected to participate in the project were sitting in the back of
the room waiting for the dignitaries to show up and the press conference
I mingled with the students and
chatted with some of them. I got to know a young man named Ben who was seventeen.
After talking with him for a while, I made a prediction and a suggestion:
In a few minutes, you and your friends will be asked to stand behind the
podium and listen to the speakers. At some point, one of them will say something
like: “This is a great day for Milwaukee because our children are our future.”
When that happens, go over and grab the microphone away from whoever is
speaking and tell him: “I’m here right now.”
The press conference began. The
students were herded behind the podium. The president of the technical college
welcomed everyone and introduced a representative from the National Council
of La Raza who described the initiative. Then he invited the superintendent
of the Milwaukee Public Schools up to the microphones. The superintendent
said: “This is a great day for Milwaukee because our children are our future.”
Standing behind the cameras, I made
eye contact with Ben and gestured to him to do what I had suggested. He
smiled shyly, looked down at his shoes, and shook his head. The press conference
droned on to its conclusion. When it was over and the media people were
packing up their equipment, Ben found me in the crowd.
“How did you know someone would
say that?” he asked.
“Because,” I answered, “most of
the people in the adult world don’t believe you’re here. They think you
are somewhere else they call The Future.”
There are some practical reasons
why educators should abandon their “obsessive speculations about the future.”
My conversation with Ben points to one of them.
For too long, in modern, industrial
societies, adolescents have been given mixed and confusing messages. In
his award-winning history of American childhood, Steven Mintz tried to describe
The underlying contradiction in
youthful lives is the most disturbing. Young people mature physiologically
earlier than ever before. The media prey on children and adolescents with
wiles of persuasion and sexual innuendo once reserved for adult consumers.
The young have become more knowledgeable sexually and in many other ways.
They face adult-like choices earlier. Yet contemporary society isolates
and juvenilizes young people more than ever before. Contemporary society
provides the young with few positive ways to express their growing maturity
and gives them few opportunities to participate in socially valued activities.2
Young people are told over and over again in subtle, and sometimes in not
so subtle, ways that they cannot be expected to make real, useful contributions
to their communities until some nebulous “future.” No wonder so many of
them feel they are “growing up absurd.” 3
Contrast this absurdity with the
critical role young people play in the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement of
social reform in Sri Lanka.4 The Movement started in 1958 when
a group of sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds, inspired by their science teacher
A. T. Ariyaratna, began working with people in poor villages to help them
become more self-reliant. Within twenty-three years, the Movement had spread
to over four thousand villages.
Buddhist scholar and environmental
activist Joanna Macy visited Sri Lanka in 1979 to write a book about Sarvodaya
Shramadana. At first, like other Western observers, she tended to downplay
the role of youth in the Movement. As she stayed longer, however, her eyes
were opened. She writes:
Only after having participated
in Sarvodaya activities for a longer time did I begin to take seriously
its motivating philosophy – that one builds janashakti (people’s power)
not only from the grassroots up, but also from the infant up. I saw teenage
dropouts organize village shramadanas. I saw them conduct house-to-house
surveys which not only recruited people to participate, but offered the
first economic analysis of a village. I saw ten- and twelve-year old children
take responsibility for supplying tea and water to the work camp…and even
younger children performing skits and songs which transmitted, better than
any politician’s speeches, the old values of cooperation, discipline, and
self-reliance. In village after village I saw the commitment and idealism
of the children drawing adults into the Movement.5
Macy then goes on to make the following
This facet of Sarvodaya’s experience has obvious
relevance to other societies, and especially to industrialized countries
where youth suffer from unemployment and a sense of meaninglessness and
superfluity. They want to make an impact; and when channels for constructive,
responsible activity are not available to them, they make an impact in other
ways – through violence, vandalism, and a variety of cults.6
I think Macy is right. Young people like Ben growing
up in our society want to make a difference, but, as Steven Mintz noted,
they are afforded few opportunities to employ their energies and talents
in positive ways. Mintz concluded that our approach to secondary education
is a major part of the problem:
Society has continued to segregate teens in an
institution – the high school – which is supposed to cater to their psychological,
physiological, emotional, and intellectual needs, but which, in practice,
many find juvenilizing and lacking in intellectual stimulation. As the stage
of youth became increasingly prolonged, and adulthood more distant, the
high school and the culture that surrounded it seemed more and more outdated
in its strictures, athletic culture, regimentation, and lack of opportunity
for teens to demonstrate their growing competency and maturity.7
Imagine all they could accomplish
if young people used their energies and talents now, instead of waiting
until The Future. Are our young men and women really less capable than the
teenagers in Sri Lanka?
A second drawback of educators’
obsession with the future is that it is actually a hindrance to parental
involvement in the education of their children. Parents, of necessity, must
live in the present. They have mortgages to pay, homes to care for, neighbors
they are obliged to love as they love themselves, communities to which to
contribute. If children are being educated for The Future, then schools
are separating, in a fundamental way, children from their parents. And Wendell
Berry has pointed out this separation inevitably leads to the undermining
Neither teachers nor students feel themselves
answerable to the community, for the school does not exist to serve the
community. It exists to aid and abet the student’s escape from the community
into ‘tomorrow’s world,’ in which community standards, it goes without saying,
will not apply.8
This obsession with The Future is,
by definition, irresponsible. To be responsible is “to be able to respond”
to someone or something. Since the future has yet to happen, one cannot
possibly respond to it. The consequences of the obsession, both for individuals
and for communities, are almost entirely negative. Eclectic philosopher
and interpreter of Eastern religious traditions Alan Watts noted:
Since what we know of the future is made up of
purely abstract and logical elements – inferences, guesses, deductions –
it cannot be eaten, felt, smelled, seen, heard, or otherwise enjoyed. To
pursue it is to pursue a constantly retreating phantom, and the faster you
chase it, the faster it runs ahead. This is why all the affairs of civilization
are rushed, why hardly anyone enjoys what he has, and is forever seeking
more and more. Happiness, then, will consist, not of solid and substantial
realities, but of such abstract and superficial things as promises, hopes,
One of the reasons for the crisis
in education today is that our system of schooling, particularly our approach
to secondary schools, was designed to sort people for roles in the industrial
economy that emerged just after the Second World War.10 Policy
elites, including prominent educators, thought they could predict the jobs
of the future and sought a rational way to divide students into two groups:
one that would go on to college and into management and the professions;
another much larger group that would work on the farms and in the factories.
The future fooled them, however.
The economy changed. The jobs in
the future, for which students had been prepared, turned out to be a mirage
and, as a result, there is a growing class of underemployed or perhaps even
permanently unemployable people. British political philosopher John Gray
Bourgeois life was based on the institution of
the career – a lifelong pathway through working life. Today professions
and occupations are disappearing. Soon they will be as remote and archaic
as the ranks and estates of medieval times. Our only real religion is a
shallow faith in the future; and yet we have no idea what the future will
We might have known better. Dante
Alighieri (in Canto XX of The Inferno) warned us that fortune-tellers,
and diviners, condemned for fraud, would be cast for eternity into the fourth
ditch of the eighth circle of Hell with their heads screwed on backwards,
making it impossible for them to see ahead as they claimed to be able to
do while living.12
Jonathan Swift satirized the absurdity
of educating for the future in Gulliver’s Travels, published back
in 1726, in which he described the “Academy of PROJECTORS”:
In these Colleges, the Professors contrive new
Rules and Methods of Agriculture and Building, and new Instruments and Tools
for all Trades and Manufactures, whereby, as they undertake, one Man shall
do the Work of Ten; a Palace may be built in a Week, of Materials so durable
as to last for ever without repairing. All the Fruits of the Earth shall
come to Maturity at whatever Season we think fit to chuse, and increase
an Hundred Fold more than they do at present; with innumerable other happy
Proposals. The only Inconvenience is, that none of these Projects are yet
brought to Perfection; and in the mean time, the whole Country lies miserably
waste, the Houses in Ruins, and the People without Food or Cloaths. By all
which, instead of being discouraged, they are Fifty Times more violently
bent upon prosecuting their Schemes, driven equally on by Hope and Despair.13
I think our future-obsessed educators
misunderstand the true purpose of education. Education is the process by
which people become responsibly mature members of their communities. If
young people develop character, become familiar with their cultural inheritance
and the wisdom of the past, and acquire the habits of mind that will help
them think critically, they will find their way to honorable lives.
By placing the use of the energies
and talents of our youth in abeyance, by separating children from their
parents and thereby undermining communities, and by irresponsibly presuming
to know the future, educators participate in folly, the proportions of which
resemble a modern form of idolatry.
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
~Wendell Berry 14
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery any more.
C. Douglas Lummis, a former professor of International
and Cultural Studies who taught in Japan, once asked Ivan Illich in an interview
to speculate about a “possible future.” Illich responded sharply: “To hell
with the future! It’s a man-eating idol. Institutions have a future…but
people have no future. People have only hope.” 15
When the future is no longer a mystery,
it becomes a man-eating idol. The Marxist literary and cultural critic Terry
Eagleton has pointed out:
Foretelling the future…is not only pointless;
it can actually be destructive. To have power even over the future is a
way of giving ourselves a false sense of security. It is a tactic for shielding
ourselves from the open-ended nature of the present, with all its precariousness
and unpredictability. It is to use the future as a kind of fetish – as a
comforting idol to cling to like a toddler to its blanket.16
It has not always been this way.
In the past, in most cultures, people had the sense to know that the future
was in the hands of the gods. The classics scholar, Bernard Knox, wrote:
The early Greek imagination envisaged the past
and the present as in front of us – we can see them. The future, invisible,
is behind us. Only a few very wise men can see what is behind them; some
of these men, like the blind prophet Tiresias, have been given this privilege
by the gods. The rest of us, though we have our eyes, are walking blind,
backward into the future.17
The story of how human beings abandoned
this understanding and began to believe that the future was ours to design
and control is long and has been told a number of times.18 In
his seminal work, The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry delineated
the catastrophic ramifications of the assumption of unlimited human sovereignty
that led to the “displacement of the modern mind.” When he looked for an
explanation of how this “displacement” occurred, he concluded it was our
obsession with the future:
What has drawn the Modern World into being is
a strange, almost occult yearning for the future. The modern mind longs
for the future as the medieval mind longed for Heaven. The great aim of
modern life has been to improve the future – or even just to reach the future,
assuming that the future will inevitably be “better.” 19
The future is the time when science will have
solved all our problems, gratified all our desires; when we will all live
in perfect ease in an air-conditioned, fully automated womb; when all the
work will be done by machines so sophisticated that they will not only clothe,
house, and feed us, but think for us, play our games, paint our pictures,
write our poems.20
Obsessed with the future, our political
and economic elites and the educators and bureaucrats who serve their interests
have been leading us down a road that resembles the one imagined by the
professors at Swift’s Academy of PROJECTORS. And if we continue to follow
them down that road, the consequences for our communities and for our places
on the earth will beat least as dire as Swift anticipated.
People are beginning to question,
however, the wisdom of living for “tomorrow’s world.” Before the end of
the last century, Ivan Illich detected the changing mindset:
There is a generalized sense now that the future
we expected does not work and that we are in front of what Michel Foucault
called an “epistemic break”: a sudden image-shift in consciousness in which
the once unthinkable becomes thinkable… It is no longer tolerable to the
common sense to think of nuclear bombs as weapons, or of pollution as the
price of development. The disintegrating ozone layer and warming atmosphere
are making it intolerable to think of more development and industrial growth
as progress, but rather as aggression against the human condition… What
is new is not the magnitude, nor even the quality, but the very essence
of the coming shift in consciousness. It is not a break in the line of progress
to a new stage; it is not even the passage from one dimension to another…we
can only describe it as a catastrophic break with industrial man’s image
I think there is growing evidence
that Illich was right. More and more people all over the world are acknowledging
the hubris of our obsession with The Future, with what Illich once called
“the Promethean fallacy.” 22 This shift in consciousness is a
sign that we are abandoning our Promethean expectations and rediscovering
the possibility of Epimethean hope. We are beginning to recognize (again)
the limits of human competence and have begun hedging our bets.23
Instead of placing all of our faith
in the industrial food production system, for example, more and more people
are supporting local farmers and are even growing some of their own food.
Instead of subjecting their children to the industrial system of schooling,
a growing number of people are educating them at home. Instead of looking
to experts and to The Future, people are rediscovering the gifts present
within their own communities.24 And we are beginning to recognize
again that young people in “advanced” industrial societies are just as gifted
as the teenagers in the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement.25
Historian Howard Zinn reminded us:
And if we do act, in however small a way, we
don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite
succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should
live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.26
As we seek to discover (recover)
ways of living that are in harmony with the natural world in its diverse
landscapes and watersheds, perhaps educators will come back from the future
and contribute to the long, difficult labor of living well today.
The future will always be a mystery.
If I ran into Ben again today, I
wonder if I would recognize him. He would be twenty-four or twenty-five
now. A lot has changed in the last seven years. I hope he found his way
to a life worth living and work worth doing. I hope he has been contributing
in some way to the “common sense” that has begun “searching for a language
to speak about the shadow which the future throws.” 27
If he asked for my advice, I think
I would share with him what a woman who appeared to me in a dream once told
Don’t worry about the future. If
you live well today, the future will take care of itself. If you live poorly
today, the future will be bleak no matter what gadgets the scientists invent,
no matter what systems the experts design. Seek understanding and be compassionate.
That’s most important of all.
* * *
This essay is the third part of a trilogy that includes “The
Educator’s Dilemma and the Two Big Lies” and “The
Educator’s Secret and Modern Stupidity,” both of which were published
in Life Learning Magazine. I wrote the first draft
of this essay in the winter of 2009-2010 and then set it aside. I was inspired
to finish it after hearing Peter Dawson Buckland read “Education and the
Problem of ‘the Future’” at the AERA annual meeting in Denver in May, 2010.
I want to thank Peter for the nudge. I would also like to thank Pat Farenga,
Gene Walz, and Dick Westheimer for their helpful criticism.
Daniel Grego is Executive Director of TransCenter for Youth, Inc.,
a nonprofit agency that operates four high schools in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Dr. Grego has been a guest speaker for many organizations like the Centre
for British Teachers and the Children’s Defense Fund, and at numerous forums
focusing on education issues. He has taught in the Education Department
at Alverno College and the Philosophy Department at the University of Wisconsin
Milwaukee and been a consultant for the Institute for the Transformation
of Learning, the Helen Bader Foundation and to Wisconsin’s Governor and
Legislature in the drafting and revision of Wisconsin’s Children At Risk
statute. He is a founding member of the Alliance for Choices in Education
(ACE) in Milwaukee. His writings have appeared in Encounter, the CYD Journal,
Out of the Box, the Milwaukee Journal/Sentinel, America, the George Wright
Forum, Life Learning Magazine, Education Revolution, Vitae Scholasticae
and other periodicals and anthologies, including the book Life Learning:
Lessons from the Educational Frontier. One of his main interests is exploring
the confluence of the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi, Ivan Illich, and Wendell
Berry. He lives with his wife, choreographer Debra Loewen, and their daughter,
Caitlin Grego, on a small farm in the Rock River watershed in Dodge County,
1. Ivan Illich. 1992. In the Mirror
of the Past. New York, NY: Marion Boyars Publishers, p. 35.
2. Steven Mintz. 2004. Huck’s Raft:
A History of American Childhood. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard
University Press, p. 381.
3. Paul Goodman. 1960. Growing Up
Absurd. New York, NY: Random House.
4. Sarvodaya means “the awakening
or welfare of all.” Shramadana means “to give labor or human energy.”
5. Joanna Macy. 1985. Dharma and
Development: Religion as Resource in the Sarvodaya Self-Help Movement. West
Hartford, CT: Kumarian Press, p. 96.
6. Ibid, p. 97. In the urban areas
of the United States, we call these cults “gangs.”
7. Steven Mintz. Ibid, p. 253.
8. Wendell Berry. 2002. The Art
of the Commonplace. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, p. 63.
9. Alan Watts. 1951, 1979. The Wisdom
of Insecurity. New York, NY: Vintage Books, pp. 60-61.
10. Joel Spring. 1976. The Sorting
Machine: National Education Policy Since 1945. New York, NY: David McKay.
11. John Gray. 2003. Straw Dogs.
New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, p. 161.
12. See Canto XX of the Inferno.
13. Jonathan Swift. 1977. Gulliver’s
Travels. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, p. 174.
14. Wendell Berry. 1998. “Manifesto:
the Mad Farmer Liberation Front” in The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry.
Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, p. 87.
15. Ivan Illich and David Cayley.
2005. The Rivers North of the Future.Toronto: House of Anansi Press, p.
xix. Illich earlier made this distinction between expectations for the future
and hope in his essay “Rebirth of Epimethean Man.” There he wrote: “Hope,
in its strong sense, means trusting faith in the goodness of nature, while
expectation, as I will use it here, means reliance on results which are
planned and controlled by man. Hope centers desire on a person from whom
we await a gift. Expectation looks forward to satisfaction from a predictable
process which will produce what we have the right to claim.” Ivan Illich.
1971. Deschooling Society. New York, NY: Harper & Row, p. 105.
16. Terry Eagleton. 2011. Why Marx
was Right. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, p. 66.
17. Bernard Knox. 1994. Backing
into the Future. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, pp. 11-12.
18. See, for example: Robert Nisbet.
1980. History of the Idea of Progress. New York, NY: Basic Books; Morris
Berman. 1981. The Reenchantment of the World. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University
Press; Christopher Lasch. 1991. The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its
Critics. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company. The story was also the
theme of a novel that won (ironically?) the Turner Tomorrow Fellowship.
Daniel Quinn. 1992. Ishmael. New York, NY: Bantam Books.
19. Wendell Berry. 1977. The Unsettling
of America. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, p. 56.
20. Ibid, p. 57.
21. Ivan Illich. 1989. The Shadow
that the Future Throws. Unpublished manuscript of a conversation with Nathan
Gardels, p. 2. An edited version of the conversation was published in Nathan
P. Gardels, editor. 1995. At Century’s End: Great Minds Reflect on Our Times.
La Jolla, CA: ALTI Publishing, pp. 68-79.
22. Ivan Illich. 1971, p. 114.
23. See, for example, Bill Vitek
and Wes Jackson, editors. 2008. The Virtues of Ignorance. Lexington, KY:
The University Press of Kentucky.
24. John McKnight and Peter Block.
2010. The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods.
San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
25. See, for example, Joseph Allen
and Claudia Worrell Allen. 2009. Escaping the Endless Adolescence. New York,
NY: Ballantine Books; William Damon. 2008. The Path to Purpose: Helping
Our Children Find Their Calling
in Life. New York, NY: Free Press;
Robert Epstein. 2007. The Case against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult
in Every Teen. Fresno, CA: Quill Driver Books/ Word Dancer Press; and Alex
Harris and Brett Harris. 2008. Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion against
Low Expectations. Colorado Springs, CO: Multinomah Books.
26. Howard Zinn. “The Optimism of
Uncertainty” in Martin Keogh, editor. 2010. Hope Beneath Our Feet. Berkeley,
CA: North Atlantic Books, pp. 279-280.
27. Ivan Illich. 1989. Ibid.