Friday, October 22, 2021

Is It Ethical To Prepare Children For The Future?

More than twenty years ago, while touring kindergartens for our preschool-aged daughter, the head of one private school told the assembled parents, "Our community doesn't reflect how the world is, but rather how it ought to be." Specifically, he was referring to the racial and socio-economic make-up of their enrollment and teaching staff, but he could have been talking about their emergent, project-based curriculum as well.

I wasn't yet a teacher, although I believe I'd begun toying with the idea. I liked what I saw of the place, but this idea of creating a school around how we want the world to be rather than how it is intrigued me. After all, the calling card of most schools is that they prepare children for the real world or, sometimes, the future. At the same time, having spent most of my educational life in American public schools, I was aware that a great deal of what I was taught, perhaps most of it, turned out to have nothing to do with the real world I'd been living in since graduation.

Fran Leibowitz once quipped, "I assure you, in real life there is no such thing as algebra," something that has been true in my life. The only algebraic equations I've ever solved were in math classes, whereas cooking, a skill I use every day in real life, was only offered to me as a high school elective for a single quarter. If my school had been interested in preparing me for the real world, cooking would have been on the front burner. Was 15 years of math really necessary to prepare me to for the things I use math for today like managing my money, which really is just basic addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division? 

Or were they preparing me for how "they" want the world to be? I doubt it. Has anyone has ever sat down and envisioned a world in which we spent our days solving for x? The best rationale I've ever heard for requiring all that mathematics education is that it teaches "hard logic," something that can be useful, of course, but if that's the goal, I can think of far more efficient and direct ways to expose children to it. Indeed, as I watch preschoolers at play, I see them practicing the habits of logical thought as they go about their block building and risk assessments.

I've singled out mathematics here, but when passed through the filter of preparing children for the real world, be it for the concrete now or some idealized future, much of what gets explicitly taught in school fails to do either. I've written before about how a truly useful curriculum, one that gives children the opportunity to learn things they will definitely use in their lives would be one centered around cooking, personal finance, basic household maintenance and repairs, auto maintenance, personal relationships, health (including mental health), grooming, social skills, psychology, and philosophy. I'm sure there are other things that could be added to the list, but these are the things I've found to be necessary in the real world and in each of them I am largely self-taught. Certainly, there were adults who pointed me in certain directions, but the learning, the acquiring of the skills was all mine.

What if we, as a society, decided to prepare children for the world as we want it to be? In the case of that one, individual private school, I imagine the head of school, in consultation with his staff, determined what that would mean. But since this approach is one designed to engineer a new and better future through what and how we teach children, the stumbling block will always be the exact definition of "new and better." In a democratic society, this is meant to be the responsibility of all of us, not just the curriculum makers. Would public schools have leave our curricula up to a popular vote of the local community? What about educators who have different ideas about the way the world ought to be? And, at bottom, this approach is about "shaping" children into a particular form, one required for a future determined not by the children themselves, who will live in that future, but rather by adults, who won't. 

I know there is a lot of gray area here, but I can't help but be repelled by either approach. It seems to me that preparing children for the future, which is at bottom what we are attempting to do whatever our approach, is fundamentally unethical, perhaps even immoral. From where I sit, the only ethical approach to education is to support children as they prepare them for their future, and what that means can only be determined by the children themselves.

What if we adults spent less effort trying to manufacture the citizens of tomorrow based upon either the imperfect present or how we would fix it, and more on helping children in front of us learn and achieve what they themselves want to learn and achieve right now? After all, they are the ones responsible for creating the future. They are the ones who will be living in it. Who are we to tell them what will be useful? Who are we to tell them what is a waste of time? This is why I am on the side of self-directed learning, or what we in preschool call play-based learning. 

I assure you, in real life there is no such thing as the future. There is only a single, constantly emerging now, one that we are all creating together. If we are to be ethical educators, the only approach, to my mind, is one in which we stand beside our children as they are right now, leaving the future out of it and supporting our future elders as they make the most of right now.


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