Opinion

Choosing Alternate Futures for Public Education

The trick isn’t to anticipate an inevitable fate, but to prepare students for a totally surprising one.

By Crawford Kilian 6 Sep 2016 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

The Tyee’s upcoming October event on the future of public education is very timely. I’ve been thinking about the same thing for so long, I’ve actually lived through a couple of those futures. More futures are coming, and we’ll have to be careful to choose the best possible future.

In 1995, I published 2020 Visions: The Futures of Canadian Education. I was trying to offer some alternatives to business as usual in Canadian schools and post-secondaries. Still madly in love with computers in education, I imagined something like the iPad in use by 2005 (the first iPad wasn’t released until 2010). And I imagined computers as the key to breaking students out of old-fashioned education practices.

Well, we got the iPad, but students are still locked into the practices, most of them designed to prepare students for jobs, not for lives. Yet the employers we subsidize with such schooling still complain that our graduates are unready. Evidently their business plans depend on cheap plug-and-play employees needing no training except for directions to their cubicles.

As a science fiction novelist, I’m keenly aware of how badly my colleagues and I predict the future. Business executives, alas, are even worse. They once told us to train lots of keypunch operators to prepare for an inevitable future, and to build our careers around teaching some lump of now-forgotten technology. And they wanted us to imitate the Japanese, whose economy seemed to be booming.

In a way, the executives’ attitude is strikingly Marxist-Leninist: history evolves impersonally, regardless of what individuals do, and freedom consists in being on history’s side. The CEOs see the present, think it’s the future, and now we must educate our children accordingly.

Like the Marxist-Leninists, the CEOs have shown themselves both clueless and sadly archaic. Thirty years ago, obnoxious young college dropouts like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates overthrew the old business world more completely than Lenin and Stalin ever dreamed of doing. Even so, today’s CEOs are no smarter about the future than the geniuses at Xerox who sold the graphic user interface to Steve Jobs because they couldn’t think of anything profitable to do with it.

Expecting the unexpected

The trick for education won’t be to anticipate an inevitable future, but to prepare students for a totally surprising one.

Our most predictable future is one where schools act not as vehicles for social mobility, but as ways of compartmentalizing social classes until we approach a caste system. Aldous Huxley foresaw this over 80 years ago in his novel Brave New World, where children are designed to be brilliant or stupid.

Even working people think of schools as a way out, not a way forward to a new kind of society. This ingrained attitude is very tough to change. If anything, the more degrees earned by middle-class and working-class kids, the less valuable the jobs they acquire with them.

We can accept this status quo and agitate (as we have for 50 years) to create “equal” opportunities for less affluent students. This is the meritocratic attitude, but it still assumes students with merit are a trace element in masses of dross. At best, most will still fail but a handful might succeed. Too bad about the failures.

Meritocracy also assumes that what’s valued by today’s meritocrats is what we should all be striving for. Yet the history that’s taught even in the most meritocratic universities is an account of the success of one subversive malcontent after another, each imposing a new value system that redefines “merit.” And each successful subversive has created a new meritocracy that is sweetly oblivious of how it got there. It simply assumes the new status quo will endure forever.

But imagine subversives who don’t want to impose a self-serving new definition of merit, who don’t want to set the agenda for future generations. Imagine subversives who want those generations to set their own agendas, building on human experience but free to accept or ignore it as they face unpredicted challenges.

The Finns seem to be groping toward such an outcome, by accident: They wanted a more equal society, starting with giving each kid a solid, equal education. They surprised themselves with a school system that beat the world.

It’s no guarantee of Utopia: it didn’t protect Finland from the fall of Nokia and the rise of a neoliberal government. But it produced a generation of educators – themselves survivors of a brutally meritocratic teacher-training system – who are perennially restless, unhappy with the status quo and looking for something better.

As the twig is bent

Our own attitude is far more paternalistic; we assume children can’t think for themselves, and must be bent in some desirable direction before we let them go. As the Jesuits used to say, “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” We define happiness for them. They succeed or fail on our terms, not theirs. Then we wonder why they never phone us.

So an alternate future for education might be based on a change of attitude. Assume every child, of any background, is educable. Educate the child on his or her terms, not ours, to understand the past and present as we understand them, but also to think truly critically about what we teach. (That comes naturally to most kids; they define it as “all the crap I learned in high school.”)

Such an attitude might leave our children free to define their own future, however horrifying it might seem to some of us.

But why should we be horrified? Most of us with grown children now find our toddlers have turned into highly competent adults, with skills far beyond ours. Whether intentionally or not, we’ve been pretty successful teachers and parents.

And I wouldn’t be surprised if, once we old folks are safely out of the way, our children went right ahead and educated their children for greater freedom.  [Tyee]

Read more: Education

Join Us for ‘The Future of Public Education: Beyond the Headlines’

What: An evening event exploring innovations and challenges in B.C. classrooms


When: Wednesday, Oct. 5, 7 p.m. Reception at 9 p.m.


Where: Segal Building, 500 Granville St., Vancouver


Cost: $10/$15 general admission, $5/$7.50 student/senior


The event will be recorded, and the video posted on The Tyee following the event.


Get your tickets now.

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