Look forward to seeing it;Books

26th June 1998 at 01:00
PREDICTIONS SERIES. Phoenix pound;2 each

Aleks Sierz finds education is the only subject futurologists can throw no light on

Prediction is a risky business, unless you're woolly and apocalyptic like Nostradamus. Look what happened to Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four and Arthur C Clarke's 2001. Undeterred, Phoenix has gambled on what the advance publicity called an "attempt to forecast the future, over the next 50 years" in a "series of 24 short books" by a variety of boffins.

Predictably enough, the plan has already been modified with the final eight titles just out. The series will be four short of the 24. With futurology, always expect the unexpected.

The latest batch (numbers 13-20) shares the hallmarks of the series - pocket size, brevity (about 60 pages) and low price - and are well-written and, occasionally, provocative. For example, philosopher A C Grayling's opening sentence in The Future of Moral Values, "Prediction is a mug's game", casts doubt on the whole enterprise. That said, he goes on to grapple robustly with his topic.

His "liberal polemic" attacks the myths about morality that inspire tabloid headlines but concludes that the "age-old conflict between the liberal and conservative impulses will continue". Agreeably, if uncontroversially, he comes out in favour of more moral education.

In The Future of the Family, Christina Hardyment points out that despite the apparent decline of the family, opinion polls record that 90 per cent of people still rate it as "very important". Readers may raise an eyebrow at her idea that schools take "a morally neutral stance", which leaves "discipline in a vacuum", while applauding her plea for higher status to enable teachers to "fulfil their role as educators".

Although The Future of Media is misnamed - it's actually about digital technologies - its opening vision of a time when your personal robot will select your news and groceries and help your children with their homework is highly attractive. But some of the other predictions by Patrick Barwise and Kathy Hammond are cautious: "Electronic media will do little to equalise children's education."

Despite the explosion of digital entertainment, theatre critic Benedict Nightingale dares hope for exciting things for live theatre (The Future of Theatre). After a spirited defence of its "physical immediacy", he gives a generous welcome to the Government's plans to use Lottery money for funding but stresses how new audiences depend on "what happens to our education system".

For those teachers who hoped one day for a robot assistant to help with the marking, Richard Gregory has some bad news in The Future of Mind-Makers. our brains are fundamentally so different from computer microchips that we'll still be waiting for robot colleagues in 2050. By then, our civil liberties may be under threat - as Thomas Gauly argues in his provocative book.

Since each slim volume is highly individual, one of the pleasures of this series is seeing how they echo and complement each other, as moments of Brave New World optimism clash with millennial anxiety. Taken together, the imaginative scope of Francois Heisbourg's Warfare (no 2) and Matt Ridley's Disease (no 9) provide an exciting and imaginative read which chills and thrills in equal measure.

While Dave Hill examines the crisis of masculinity in The Future of Men (no 7), Stephen Tumin shows how society deals with young men who have gone astray in Crime and Punishment (no 6). Hearteningly, he suggests a future which may be less punitive. The volumes on cosmology, climate and genetic manipulation (nos 1, 5 and 10) all offer accessible accounts of difficult subjects.

It's a shame that - since so many authors mention the subject - there is no book on the future of education. Still, with books of such a high standard, it's easy to predict that they'll be enjoyed by many people.

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