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Educating for Democracy: Japan and Teaching for the Future

Future generations of young learners must be educated not just for the present, but the inevitabilities of that future.
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The recent multi-catastrophe in Japan, beginning with the massive earthquake, then the tsunami, capped by the dangerous situation with nuclear reactors should not only remind us of how powerful nature can be in its destructiveness, but how frail the human race really is in the face of such power. But the experience of the Japanese can be a valuable teaching tool if recognized for what it really is: we can't always control nature but we can learn to accommodate ourselves to it. And in order to do so, future generations of young learners must be educated not just for the present, but the inevitabilities of that future.

No one, of course, can know exactly what the future has in store for us; some cosmic calamity could wipe out the planet in a moment, or some marvelous scientific breakthrough might provide humanity with an infinitely renewable resource. But we certainly should know that despite our most optimistic predictions, at the rate at which we are using our non-renewable resources, the earth is going to run out of "stuff" to provide us with the consumer-focused assumptions of what constitutes "the good life" as a greater proportion of both our young and old are falling into "the bad life."

There are many conferences being held that concern themselves with this issue, and although some are much praised, they have little if any effect on national or global policies so far. But we can be certain of one thing: We can try to compromise with nature, but nature will not compromise with us. What happened in Japan certainly illustrates that very obvious warning. So how do we prepare and educate future generations to acknowledge, accept and adapt to what will be a way of life in the future -- whether in fifty years or five hundred years -- that might well determine the fate of the human race? I would say that we must begin to educate now for "Human Scale."

By "Human Scale" I mean moving toward a world in which we increasingly rely less on what others can produce for us and more on what we can produce locally and as best we can for ourselves. The technical complexities of the cyber-centered innovations that many young learners, particularly in the industrialized countries, are becoming more and more dependent upon are, in my estimation, far beyond the human scale of emotional and intellectual sustainability. Our brains, which are still in some respect what they were like in a far more primitive society, cannot readily adjust to the rate of constant change that goes on in the technocracy of instant gratification. Some studies have shown that the behavior of the addicted text-messager is not much different in its source of brain stimulation than the addictive behavior of a cocaine addict.

Of course, there have been many wonders in medicine, helpful technologies, and discoveries in agriculture that can improve the planet's chances for survival if used in a balanced way and not merely for the sake of the "bottom line." But seeing my students and other young people narcotized with iPads and cell phones in a state in which they are oblivious to the human beings around them, makes me realize how lonely they are, trying to find a way in texting and phoning to substitute remote communication for intimacy. The increase in clinical depression, an unacknowledged epidemic in this country, with almost 30 million adult sufferers is a sign that there is only so much that can be absorbed by human beings in the seemingly ordered chaos of a consumptive society of uncontrolled growth before people are no longer able to cope and "shut down." So what would a curriculum look like of "Human Scale" as a way for young learners to accommodate themselves to a future which will certainly not accommodate itself to them unless they learn to use technological advances as ways of sustaining the planet, not destroying it?

1. Respect for the earth. This would mean that the young learner understands how the various systems of the planet function with each other: how climate affects food production and weather patterns, how the sea currents are vital in distributing needed water for crops, how cyclical patterns of seasonal change and global change result in major environmental changes, how our planet fits in to the greater systems in which we play a small part. More important, however, would be in educating young learners to understand that they each have a role to play in the continued development of the human species on this planet, not just for themselves but for future generations. This would mean discussing the consequences of continuing on the present course of exhausting the earth's resources or developing "sustainable life-styles" that would involve less degradation of the planet. Alternative forms of entertainment with active roles in the arts, story-telling, and in the enjoyment of nature as well as in its cultivation would be a major part of the curriculum.

2. Respect for one another. Nationalism, tribalism and sectarianism are three of the virulent ideologies that are creating more human misery than at any time since the World Wars of the previous century. And yet, if young learners were taught to respect one another's beliefs, practices and views of their world, they might recognize the common humanity that could unite them far more than divide them. This would mean that young learners need to be taught universal citizenship; that we -- including the animal and plant kingdom -- are all living on the same planet, and that what happens in one part can have an impact on another. This also means that young learners have to be taught that not only is war an unacceptable solution to any national or sectarian dispute, but that it could lead to the destruction of the human race and that there are more humane ways of settling disputes.

3. Respect for one self. The hedonistic culture that has become a dominant stimulus for economic growth should be recognized for what it is: a form of systematic self-destruction, not only in the kind of unhealthy food that is eaten, but in that anti-social life-style that is not only addictive but ultimately leads to emotional isolation and despair. By developing a way of life that respects both the planet and its other inhabitants, one can truly achieve a respect for who one is by what one does.

I still have some hope that the human race will have a long-term future on this sadly and criminally abused planet. But unless we educate the young that the tenets I, and many like-minded educators have suggested are not merely Utopian but as necessary as knowing how to breathe, our time as the "Lords of Earth" will soon disappear and instead of becoming its helpers we will become its slaves.

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