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The view which people hold of themselves deeply conditions what they consider to be worth attempting in the present

Students should study a range of alternative futures both probable and preferable argues Richard Slaughter. This will help them to understand which scenarios are most likely to lead to a more just and less violent world.

THE SINGLE MOST important objective of futures study in schools is to help pupils develop a genuine sense of optimism and empowerment about their own life prospects. This follows from having adequate information about their society and the world, from an awareness of their own inner vocation or sense of purpose (which is very different to a narrow vocationalism), and the opportunity to develop skills of self-mastery. I suspect this can take place fully only where students are regarded as agents rather than spectators and are given the chance to develop autonomy through decision-making and choices. The imposition of knowledge structures in the form of stereotyped subjects works against optimism and empowerment because it confronts students with pre-givens which require accommodation and acceptance rather than reconceptualization and creativity.

Careful person-centred futures work encourages students to be more confident about their abilities. With this confidence, and with developing insights, they can be encouraged to refuse many of the artificial boundaries which our culture has imposed upon a seamless and interconnected world.

shared goals
A related attitude is the willingness to join with others in defining and working towards shared goals and purposes. It is all too easy to drift passively towards protest and rebellion. But behind both lies the essential task of defining in positive terms just what is wanted and needed. This has become difficult in a culture which has in so many ways broken with the past and yet sustains few compelling visions of liveable futures. Futures study deals with this situation directly by providing tools and contexts for developing views of futures worth living in.

Each pupil needs to develop an image of how he or she would like to be in the future. This ‘future-focused role image’, as it has been called, is not just a piece of wishful thinking, or need not be. The view which people hold of themselves deeply conditions what they consider to be worth attempting in the present. Many existing curricula tend to obscure this important process but it can be made explicit through stories, time-lines, values clarification, and many other futures exercises.

considered choice
It is important to note here that the purpose of futures in peace education is not to predict, not to say what will happen. That is the task of forecasters. Our major concern is to understand alternatives. By so doing we introduce into the present a wide range of choices. The exercise of considered choice is what eventually leads us toward one future and away from others. So the term possible futures covers a very wide range indeed. Many things are possible, not all of which we will want to support. Probable futures are those that will draw on forecasts, projections, scenarios, and stories to grasp something of the range of what is now considered likely. (Note that many important issues seem to rise and fall with media coverage, so the latter cannot be used as a guide to their real significance.) Preferable futures are those we positively hope for and work to create. Some of the criteria available for constructing images of preferable futures are related to commonalities of human experience: sustainability, health, peace, justice, and so on. With appropriate help and support students of all ages and abilities find it surprisingly easy to engage in this process. Any fears and worries which arise can be acknowledged, focused, and directed towards constructive and creative ends.

implicit message
All school curricula carry a range of implicit messages. The past is dominant, powerful, and authoritative, by contrast, futures may seem problematic and ‘speculative’ if, that is, they appear at all. Most curricula comment on futures merely by leaving them out of the ‘map’ of significant knowledge. However, few can be unaware that this ‘map’ of standard subjects has become severely dated. In order to understand how futures contributes to peace education (and vice versa) we need to focus briefly on some of the deficiencies of present maps.

In lacking a futures dimension, school curricula take on a repressive character. That is they elevate a concern for the maintenance of knowledge (and therefore power) structures over human concerns. To render the future invisible, not worthy of discussion or study, is to strip away much of human significance in the present. For teaching and learning do not take place simply as a result of the pressure of the past. Statements of aims and objectives usually refer to purposes, goals, and intentions which necessarily refer forward in time. So there is something of a contradiction involved in disregarding futures study since they are already present, already there in present-day teaching and learning.

Futures concerns are so deeply involved in creating the present that it is doubtful if we could act at all without them. Indeed the present is not a fixed span of time. It varies according to perception and need. With growing knowledge and insight we can venture out of the narrow ‘here and now’ into the wider spans of space and time which our technological culture already occupies. Furthermore, we can consciously choose not to use past and future simply as escape routes into reconstructed pasts and spurious ‘Star Wars’ type futures. By consciously engaging processes of interpretation and anticipation we may widen the boundaries of the present and discover quite new options.

The concept of future, or futures plural because there is no single-track path into a predetermined end point, is not an abstraction. Few teachers would undertake the rigours of training if it were not related to personal and professional goals. Few pupils would remain at their desks if they were not persuaded of the benefit. It is not really possible to begin to discuss careers, personal development, social change, or peace without reference to the world of the future in which all of this is supposed to happen. A futures approach ought not to suggest that we get rid of all our old maps but it does suggest some profound changes in, and additions to, them.

A second comment is that a curriculum for whole persons needs a futures dimension. For persons require a future to guide them in the present. But the implicit model of personhood which we have inherited from the industrial era overlooks this and much else besides. It recognizes some of the mental and physical attributes of persons but deals scantily, if at all, with their emotional and spiritual aspects. By ‘spiritual’ I do not mean religious. There is plenty of religiosity in schools. But, apart from some independents such as those following Steiner’s pattern, few recognize the inner person and its higher needs. That has not been a part of recent western culture in the past and it is therefore not seen as important now or in the future. Yet little can be more important than to have a developed view of human growth and human potential which includes notions of peacefulness, caring, and stewardship. This is part of the human basis for resisting the arrogance of technological overkill. It is therefore essential to incorporate a concern for human development into all peace work.

The industrial model needs replacing with one which gives due attendon to the layered quality of persons and the world in which they live; to the way in which not only are we all grounded in the physical world but also we range upwards through emotional and mental states to levels of functioning which can only be called spiritual. A world view based on Cartesian logic and Newtonian paradigms of enquiry simply cannot cope with that. But the fact of the matter is that as we proceed from the lower to the higher we discover emergent qualities. Just as a watch is more than the sum of its parts and a living cell is much more than the sum of its chemical constituents, so the highest levels of human consciousness do in fact reach the transcendent. A world view or curriculum which misses this is actually missing one of the most humanly significant features of our world. For higher levels of awareness tend to be inclusive rather than exclusive. They reach out to embrace broad spans of space and time and have therefore become essential in healing our planet, creating peace, and moving towards new stages of civilized life.

The third comment is that as they are presently constituted, school curricula tend not to offer a critical purchase on the underlying causes of the present world crisis. Schooling actually contributes to the problem when it unthinkingly reproduces an obsolete world view. For the sources of most world problems, including issues of peace and conflict, lie in the character of paradigms and systems of valuation and thought which support the western way of life. The practical power of our technology and organisational ability has been purchased at an enormous price: pollution, conflict, alienation, social decay, ecological breakdown, and nuclear stalemate. Those features of the world are often glossed over in schools. Yet any map which omits areas of danger is hardly worth having. So ways are needed of coming to grips with the underlying belief systems and approaches to knowledge which have brought our civilisation to this dangerous and unstable condition. While some groups find this essential and constructive work threatening or even ‘subversive’ (perhaps because of entrenched interests or dated knowledge) it cannot be overstressed that understanding the breakdown is an essential precursor to real cultural innovation and recovery.

Futures in education is most centrally concerned with negotiating and exploring new and renewed understandings about our present cultural transition beyond the industrial era. It therefore has a role to play in defining and creating a more just, peaceful, and sustainable world. Visions and views of desirable futures always come before their realisation. Futures study therefore contributes directly to the central project of all peace work. It explores and defines the wider context, providing concepts, methods, perspectives, and proposals which complement the peace worker’s more detailed attention to specific issues. Hence any curriculum which works towards a better and more peaceful world will have a strong and explicit futures component.

The above originally appeared in Education for Peace. Ed David Hicks.

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