What We Are Currently Teaching
Education is in a difficult position, and most educators don't yet realize it.
The world as we have known it ever since humans started keeping records has been one where there was always newer sources of higher power energy discovered and exploited. To be sure, the rate of discovery and adoption was slow at first (fire and clothing), but picked up the pace considerably at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution (coal) and really took off about 100 years ago with the discovery of oil and electricity and all the wonderful machines that could use those energies to do our work for us, and at an ever increasing speed. Everyone who has lived over the last two hundred years or so could believe that the world their children would inherit would be at least as good (easy to live in) as they had and possibly even better.
For my entire life, parents have been telling their kids that the world is full of opportunity and the route to 'happiness', or at least wealth, was through good commercially desirable education. Our education system is geared to promote this myth. It is set up to teach children and young adults knowledge and skills that would have been appropriate in a world of continued growth and development. In the world that we have known through history we taught our children that they should expect more than what we had and provided them with educational pathways that would have presumably produced that result.
Now that is going to change. We haven't discovered any really substantial new sources of high powered energy, at least that didn't have very significant problems associated with them, since the advent of oil. We have not discovered new high energy return on energy invested technologies that might have been able to capitalize on abundant, but low grade solar energy. In short, it looks like we've come to the end of the line in terms of the growth of volume and power of energy to drive the growth and development of society. As things stand right now, the future does not look brighter than the past. We are headed for an energy decline which translates directly into an economic and, ultimately, a population decline unlike anything that humanity has ever experienced. Writers like James Howard Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency, and John Michael Greer, author of The Long Descent, both emphasize that the process of economic and cultural unwind will take perhaps several centuries (hence the word 'long' in both titles). I am not so sure myself. I imagine a number of scenarios that may hasten the process and in at least the worst case scenario lead to catastrophic collapse. Long or short, the collapse is underway and the capabilities of our future world look abysmally dim.
And how do we tell our children this?
The only message we have been trumpeting to our children is the one I mentioned above. The world of tomorrow will be better than the one today (in a material sense) and you need to be prepared to both make it that way (from your education) and take advantage of it through your lifestyle. Some of us have pointed proudly to our houses that are bigger than our parents had lived in, or the bigger, more powerful cars we drive, as evidence that our world beat their world. And the inference is simple. Your world will beat my world.
In this fog of materialistic value we have changed education from being about understanding how the world works, i.e. nature and mind, to how to cram enough facts and skills into those brains so that you become a much more useful cog in the wheels of wealth-creating commerce. Of course we tolerate the occasional do-gooder who goes to work for an NGO for a cause. But even they need to have the basic skills society deems worthy of someone who will be productive, for profit or not.
Educators Still Haven't Got the Big Picture
And so as things stand the whole process of education is preparing for a future that will not very likely come to pass. I know this at a very personal level. Every day I go to teach courses in computer science to eager young people who have every reason to believe that ten years from now, after proving themselves as worthy computer programmers and engineers, they will be making really big bucks as software designers and program managers. They expect technology to just go on getting faster and more pervasive. They expect job security. They come to class to learn what they need to know to be successful in this endeavor. A few, from time to time, come to class sincerely interested in understanding the theory of computation and to gain an appreciation for the beauty of algorithmic design. The rest are mostly interested in learning which button to push or which command code to use to get something to happen on the screen. This is because this is what we have taught them to believe they should want to know. It's all about the job and the prospects for money.
I often feel like a hypocrite for teaching the button pushing and coding. My gym friend Rudy (hi Rudy - told you I'd mention you one day!!!) is always chiding me for teaching my students stuff they won't need if I really believe the world is going down hill. But I do attempt in my meager way to try to get some ideas about learning computer science for the sake of grasping something fundamental about the world across to them. Mostly they politely pay attention, but when I ask a thoughtful question on an exam, I see the degree to which my poor attempts worked. I want them to get that computational science isn't just about programming computers to do nifty things that customers are willing to pay for, but that the principles underlying computation are universals and most can be applied to completely different lines of thinking. I'd like to believe that my own thinking, as represented in this blog for instance, demonstrates this. Computer science has both informed my understanding of so many things from how brains work to how organizations process information, and my CS has been informed by those subjects as well. Of course, the secret of seeing the breadth of application of computation to understanding other areas of knowledge is keyed by general systems theory (in one sense CS is a sub-field of GST). But nevertheless, the principle is true.
My hope is to impart just a seed of this idea to as many students as I can so that they might one day realize, when the Internet goes down for lack of power, or some similar contraction in the field of information technology takes away their identity as CS workers, that they can still use their knowledge to tackle other real-world problems, even in no keyboard is involved!
But what of the rest of the world of education? The biggest problem is that the field of human endeavor that should be leading the thought of society is, in reality, exceptionally conservative when it comes to recognizing that the world is changing in completely unpredicted ways and to do something about it. Most higher ed academics are buried deep in their disciplinary silos. Most interpret the events they see going on in the world in terms of those disciplines and thus miss the deeper implications and consequences. In truth, how many psychologists do you know who deeply grasp the Laws of Thermodynamics, or systems ecology? How many literature professors understand energy and work principles and how they apply to economic activity? Indeed, how many physics professors doing work in, say, materials science for semiconductors (for example as applications in solar photovoltaics) know much about how much energy it takes to gain one more unit of energy from oil?
This is the way we have evolved our system of education. Specialization and deep penetration (expertise) have been a winning strategy for the reductionist world of academia embedded in a world of growth. Competition for disciplinary niches literally forces professionals to ignore the bigger world, except perhaps for the bits and pieces they might catch on what we laughingly call the NEWS. Even the most intelligent scientists have great difficulty even seeing the dots let alone connecting them. And this, very unfortunately, translates into what gets taught to students. Every 'major' is a channel to further specialize and narrow the interests of students as they progress in their studies. After all, that is the route to financial success.
Educators may do a fantastic job of teaching that which they have greatest expertise in (though by the state of education in the US one wonders even about this claim). And that is the problem. They cannot address the big picture because they simply don't have it. And even though students from young ages up are actually capable of grasping more meaning than we give them credit for, they will never be exposed to it because the teachers don't have it. [I hate to speak in generalizations, but this description does cover the vast majority of cases. I personally and by reputation know many educators who face my same conundrum and are attempting to produce curriculum that addresses the big picture as best they can. It's just that we are in a tiny minority and we are working against the expectations of brain-washed students!]
In one sense it is true that maybe there really is nothing to teach students about a bleak future. If it is going to go to hell in a hand basket anyway, what is the point of teaching anything? Why not just go along with the delusion of endless growth and let the students have their dreams of a better life? Yet somehow that just doesn't feel right (it would probably make my job easier and get me better student evaluations though!) I guess my values dictate that understanding is the supreme human endeavor of the mind and even if what one is to understand is not wonderful it is still our human nature (you might almost say responsibility) to make the effort. I want my students to understand that the world is far more complex and subject to real physical laws that don't always go along with what you can make happen in a virtual world. I want them to be ready for the future. I want them to recognize that they will need to adapt and change to survive. Yes, I want them to get prepared to live in a world that may yet use their nominal expertise in computers while that is still needed. But I want them to be ready to abandon the belief that their identities as humans is defined by a machine.
But Don't Cause Depression
Here we have the real sticking point in teaching students that the world is contracting. What do you tell them about the whole process that won't be depressing or de-motivating? This is something I really struggle with. I'm perfectly open in telling my educator colleagues what I think is happening and what the consequences will be (various possible scenarios, that is). But what should I tell the students that won't devastate them?
Last quarter I taught a general audience course on Energy and Society. I had quite a mix of students from other majors, most of whom had not had any physics or chemistry, or much more than algebra for math. I would like to believe that in spite of that handicap I was able to teach them a great deal about the laws of thermodynamics, work, and energy's role in economics. But then we had to face the reality of peak oil and peak fossil fuels. This was sobering news for the majority (only one student, a more mature individual, had heard of peak oil). We went through all of the science, the data, the models, everything that drove home the fact that we are going to run out of a fixed, finite resource and the effects are already being felt in the economy. They got that.
But then I had to decide: do I paint a rosy but dishonest picture about alternative energy sources picking up the slack so that business as usual will just go on and they can proceed with their happy careers? Or do I lay out the realities of the obstacles to a sustainable future? For the first half of the course I tested their capacity to hear potentially disturbing news with little probes here and there. Mostly I asked them questions that relied on what they had learned about thermodynamics. I challenged them to analyze the claims about biofuels as a viable replacement for oil and in class discussions we worked out the fallacies and facts. They, themselves (or rather the majority) realized that biofuels as advertised was a boondoggle and so in the end I decided to lay out the whole picture for them toward the end of the quarter. They were sober but I couldn't detect any depression. I hope I'm right.
My friend Rudy is also always chiding me that after you tell people bad news you have to leave them with hope. He is right of course, but hope for what? Certainly not a false hope that some miracle will put things back to the way they were and we can all get on with life as we have known it. Here is what I tried. No matter how long or short one lives on this Earth, the purpose of life is to learn and understand. That is the basis for adaptation and if the world is going to change in radical ways, knowledge of what might be happening can only strengthen one's propensity to survive and, maybe even thrive, in spite of the coming decline. It is those people who have ignored what is happening and failed to try to learn what might be the causes even if they see things as going wrong (the Tea Party comes to mind, but then so do economists and politicians!) that will fail to adapt and thus succumb. So even though one might bear a heavy burden of knowledge of a coming long or short emergency, one is always better off for dealing with the future.
I will continue to think about this conundrum. Our children should be told the truth and be prepared for what the world will really be like. We cannot go on teaching them to be bricks in the wall (Pink Floyd) when the wall is about to crumble. But how to go about it in a positive way, that remains an open question.