Thoughts on teaching, technology, learning and life in an era of change.
Teach the past or teach the future?
November 17th, 2008

Presently watching a documentary on television entitled “Where’s My Robot?“. Will not go into too much detail. Essentially the presenter went on a quest around the world looking for the robot that he had wanted as a child. Robots of varying capabilities in laboratories around the world were investigated. Researchers still have a long way to go. I wonder if this area of research is useful. Robots that can function in hazardous environments will be practical. Yet I wonder, are we spending money in the right places?

Given the challenges that the human race face with global climate change, for example, I wonder if I should change tack and begin teaching students about the past, the present and also the future. As a child I was so looking forward to the future. Well, the future has arrived and it has not matched my youthful expectations.

Growing up I had an interest in astronomy, space exploration and the future. I enjoyed reading books that provided glimpses into the future. When I turned 10 my father gave me a book entitled “Our World In Space and Time“. It was published in 1959. I have scanned a couple of images from the book in order to illustrate my thoughts. The book was essentially an overview of the the planet earth, its place in the universe and mankind. It was anglo-centric and written with an “imperial” view of the globe and its residents.

The overall impression it gave of the future was optimistic. There was no real hint that the resources of the planet were finite. In fact one of the chapters was entitled, “Forests that cover a quarter of the earth”. The chapter mentions that although there is a timber shortage in Europe and that “western Europe still needs more timber than it can easily come by.” Timber could be easily sourced from elsewhere. The image below faced the chapter. As you can see it shows forest clearing. It is depicted as a manly and exciting adventure.

Cut them down boys. Plenty more elsewhere.

The United Nations reports that about half of the world’s forests had disappeared and that most of that loss occurred during the three decades leading up to 1997. Afforestation projects are reversing the trends in some areas but it is not enough. ”Deforestation, mainly due to conversion of forests to agricultural land, continues at an alarmingly high rate – some 13 million hectares per year.” [Global Forest Resources Assessment 2005].

I live in Australia. It has the world’s fifth highest ecological footprint in the world. We are one of the greediest nations on the planet per capita. Shame. We need to do something.

The same book provided an optimistic view of space exploration as well. That dream has certainly not come to pass. The book and myself envisioned the 21st century with significant orbiting space stations, regular manned trips to the moon, bases on the moon, explorers on Mars and manned journeys making their way to the outer reaches of the solar system. Admittedly the text book was published in 1959 and Yuri Gagarin had not made the first manned space flight. But the vision seemed so possible.

The world in 2000

In 1973 I bought a book entitled Challenge of the Stars. It was published in 1972. It set out a series of predictions regarding the exploration of space by mankind. One of them was the establishment of a base on the moon by the 1990s. The illustration below sets out their ideas for life on the moon about 1990. It all seemed so easy back in 1973.

Moonbase 1990

I watched Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey as well during the evening. It presented a magnificent view of space travel in 2001 with regular space flights by Pan American Airways, massive space stations (that resembled a five-star hotel within), a moon shuttle, large bases on the moon, inter-planetary travel and so on. It was a grand vision. In 1968 it all seemed to be within our grasp. It seemed that all of that could be achieved. [I am not advocating that the human race attempt to achieve these goals now. More important matters are pressing.]

What has happened? The Clavius moon base illustrated in 2001 A Space Odyssey could not even be built on the planet earth in 2008 let alone on the moon. This planet is too busy building massive shopping centres while others starve. Nothing shits me more than seeing news reports about food eating contests, world record hot-dog consumption attempts and the like. I think that is obscene, particularly when one is likely to see images of starving or poverty stricken children during the same news bulletin. What is wrong with the human race?

In recent weeks wealthy nations around the world have raised nearly $USD5,000 billion to fight the global financial crisis. I am not an economist but one wonders if the planet’s economy was better managed in the first place surely that $USD5,000 billion could have been put to use preventing some of the woes that face us in the 21st century? Where did that money come from?

Governments around the world are tightening their budgets and going into deficit as well. Will they also reduce their proposed budget allocations originally designed to combat global climate change? Where do all of those promises stand now?

Imagine if governments no longer had to include the military in their budgets? The money could be spent on cleaning up the planet and feeding people. Of course, if that was to happen there would be military coups on every continent. The military would not allow it to happen.

There are times when I feel guilty. I have this laptop, a digital camera, a TV, etc. What is my ecological footprint?

The optimistic vision of the 21st century that I grew up with as a child is not coming to pass. The 21st century is beset with famine, poverty, climate change and a growing chasm between the rich and the poor.

I feel that we should be teaching students a range of values where materialism is not paramount. Community, resilience, sharing and giving. Positive values for the future. [I hope I do not sound like a politician. It sounds like something Kevin Rudd would say.] Yes, we share by example in our schools yet I feel that a more substantial slice of the curriculum should be devoted to teaching our students and ourselves how to really live on this planet.

It is the only planet that we have and given that by 2050 mankind will require the resources of 2 or 3 similar planets to satisfy the needs of the human race one wonders what will be left for the children of our current crop of students? Presently it is taking the planet 1.2 years to regenerate what is taken by mankind in a single year.

We need a new subject. It’s focus should be on the future. Not sure what to name the subject. But we need it. Maths, English, Music, History, Art, Science, Geography, and… Life.

Addedndum. I was exploring the ABC web site and discovered this interesting clip on their new Fora site. I am yet to watch all of it however it fits in with my thoughts here to some extent. The video consists of a debate between Harvard historian Niall Ferguson and futurist Peter Schwartz about which of the two disciplines is the better: Historian or Futurist?


5 Responses to “Teach the past or teach the future?”

  1. Annabel Says:

    Hi John, Thank you for this post – yes, when I was watching 2001: A Space Odyssey, I was thinking some of the same things you were.

    Yet, I would argue that in your everyday teaching of history, you do teach this thing called \’Life\’ (or whatever you would like to call it), the same way that a great maths teacher will embed those sorts of admirable qualities into his or her teaching.

    In your blog, I see a passionate, intelligent History teacher who, with such passion and intellect, is able to instill into his students a love of the subject and all that it has to offer. But don;t ask the historians this … we would have History at the base of the curriculum and take over the system … opps sorry, did I just say that?;)Thanks again, Annabel.

  2. Paul C Says:

    Hi John,
    Excellent post. I hope you are gathering your best posts for an anthology some day. The art work of men sending the virgin growth logs down the river is so heart rending. The biggest trees grew along the river banks and valleys and they were cut down first, never to be replaced.

  3. Ken Allan Says:

    Kia ora John

    I hate to say this, but the real problems on this planet go back to the bible (I’m not religious by the way).

    But capitalism (I’m not a socialist either) is fed by greed.

    Contentment is a wonderful goal. But greed distorts the vision of this goal for some and turns it into a nightmare for others.

    When the oil companies genuinely want to find alternative sources of energy, we may see a genuine turning point in world economy. They will have to give up their greed first though. They will have to give up their quest for oil to feed their quest for profit that is driven by their greed.

    I am a firm believer in the power of setting example. The biggest business magnates serve to set examples for smaller business companies that set examples for small businesses. Their ethics is shot, right from the top down.

    What hope do we have if the largest businesses (oil) in the world continue to call the shots. And the little people buy into it all, waiting for a drop in oil prices so that they can fill their gas tank when the price drop hits the petrol pump.

    Yes, I too was inspired by the talent of the creators of the books and films you mentioned (and more). The vision was powerful in the late 60s early 70s.

    We need to navel gaze now.

    ka kite
    from Middle-earth

  4. John Larkin Says:

    Annabel, thank you for your kind words. Yes, life is often a topic in history. History lends itself to storytelling and the sharing of experience from life. The present and the future often enter the equation.

    Paul, thank you. Some fair to middling posts in there. Yes, that book is full of images of mankind in the midst of “progress”. It all seemed to positive, sustainable and never-ending. Mankind would continue on and conquer the stars. I really doubt that now. The immediate future looks rather bleak. Feel free to contradict me.

    Ken, greed is a serious problem. Religion has its problems. I do not mind religion per se. I wish people would not take it so seriously. The division between the haves and have-nots is a serious problem. What is going to happen to this world? More banks collapsing. World leaders seemingly applying multi-billion dollar band-aid solutions. Money drying up. As the IMF leader said the other day the inequities of the situation will lead to frustration, anger, hostility and one wonders. Some commentators have predicted nuclear exchanges. Now, that would be something.

    Sometimes I ask the question in the class where would we be now if the Roman Empire had not fallen? Would we be orbiting the planet Saturn and attending an interplanetary educational facility while we wait for the parents of the students to return from their light-jump to Sirius?

    What if the Dark Ages and Middle Ages had not taken place in Europe? What if Greece had not halted the march of the Persian Empire? What if the American War of Independence had not taken place?

    Cheers, John

  5. Tomaz Lasic Says:

    My second ‘footprint’ of the night…

    It was today Jenny Cole reminded me (see e-chalk) of a great line by Socrates on equity: Equity doesn’t mean everyone gets the same, equity means that everyone gets what they need.

    Now, Socrates is not your primary communist (he would not approve of the communism or at least its debilitating realisation around the place) but he I think he got that one spot on, like many other things.

    Scientifically rational and oft quoted ‘Homo economicus’ may have its roots in the biblical gardens, maximising opportunity cost of enjoying the fruits of the land ;-) But science and religion are the two of such same tools Einstein warned us of not using to solve problems they have created in the first place.

    Ethics of living, or as the old foxy Greek referred to earlier liked to say, “living an examined life” is something I reckon worthy of striving for. Always imperfect, always biased in some ways and content with that and always questioning is a helluva better way to go than constant guilt/blame/credit game, promises of virgins in heaven or promises of solving all mysteries. With the world ‘getting smaller’, let us not waste those tonnes of gasses powering our computers on crap but on connecting people with real questions (and consequences) to boot.

    Because when you talk in person to some poor Bangladeshi bugger getting flodded more and more every year, or kids of an Australian farmer who are 5 years old and have never seen rain before, or a mum of three in Indonesia who has a son dying of respiratory problems because of forrest burning or … you know…then the questions (not the answers) will cause a few (more) pennies to drop with people asking: “What do I really need?”

    Not a revolution with some sort of panacea I say, but a change – one life at a time. You can try shoving a message down people’s throats (yeah right), go all softly, softly and hope for a change of heart (“yeah, right, why should I?”) or you can teach them how walk around like Socrates, ask questions and learn from the answers given. And wouldn’t that thing called school be a wonderful place to learn how to do that?

    Hear that? That’s my bed calling me.

    Best wishes


    PS Loved the cosmic smiley tonight, thx for the tip.