It is now pretty much a mantra that we are preparing young people for a world which is uncertain and subject to accelerating change. The viral video Shift Happens captures powerfully the dizzying speed of change: “We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist…using technologies that haven’t been invented… in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet."
The implied contrast is with an education system calibrated to an analogue world of stability and predictability. We might take comfort from the contention that liberal education is intended to equip students with timeless dispositions and values – after all, they might need different skills to survive in the new world, but they’ll surely benefit from a time-honoured attitudinal compass.
But, if anything, portraying the future as one of exponential change understates the gravity of the challenge we face. The future will be challenging not because of its mutability, but because it is going to be so very different. The problem is not how we prepare students, but whether we can credibly continue to claim the moral authority to prepare them at all.
Post-war generations involved in educating young people for the new world themselves grew up, and for the most part prospered, in radically different surroundings. Young people are even now entering a world in which jobs are not only different, but much less secure. They face a housing market in which home ownership is out of the reach of many, if not most. They can no longer reasonably expect to improve on their parents’ standards of living. Their world may well become warmer and less secure in a great many ways.
'Huge burden on the young'
Fast-forward a bit and these young adults will be expected to shoulder a tax bill loaded to cover the cost of supporting the bulge of retirees on relatively comfortable pensions.
We may be facing what the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas describes as a "legitimation crisis" – a debilitating loss of confidence in administrations, institutions and leadership. Baldly stated, we glimpse the spectre of one generation presuming to prepare another to live in a world that has already been compromised.
We have not just to educate students for change. We have to prepare them for a tectonic shift. Yet it is striking that the recent Education White Paper focused entirely on the mechanics of the school system, and had nothing at all to say about how the legitimacy of schooling is to be maintained through a period of unprecedented uncertainty and change.
To be fair, the problem is societal. If we treat it as narrowly educational, we end up mistaking symptom for cause. By way of example, we are statutorily obliged to actively promote "fundamental British values" in schools. But is it good faith to insist that the young imbibe the values defining a polity which is in danger of being dissolved almost by accident?
Inculcating appropriate values is one of the roles of a school. Keeping the state together is not.
Dr Kevin Stannard is the director of innovation and learning at the Girls' Day School Trust. He tweets as @KevinStannard1