Future? Learning? in the Anthropocene? Really?

[1073 words]

About a year and a half ago, I started of this blog, thinking of it as being about “the future of learning,” even if that is not the formal title. I hesitated and gave it a certain amount of thought before proceeding. I was not entirely certain that I truly wanted to write a blog. Ultimately, a large part of my motivation for doing so, as I have noted repeatedly in the blog entries themselves, is that certain MOOCs required me to write blog entries or required me to keep an online journal. Additionally, I convinced myself to take this plunge because I am a proponent of so-called “writing to learn.” That is, I recognized that pursuing research then writing it up was a good way to learn material. (This was something that I knew from my own self-directed learning and that I had learned and internalized from some of my better classes.) Indeed, as a teacher and as a learner, I know that by reading and reflecting, then writing (and doing this reading, reflecting, and writing with concrete, meaningful goals in mind), I am able to advance my intellectual development and commit material more completely and more securely to long-term memory. When you have, as is said colloquially, “skin in the game,” in the sense that you must commit your thoughts to legible form, stand behind your ideas, and defend them, or when you are compelled to articulate your perceptions and reasoning for sharing them with others so that they may closely examine and critique the results of your cogitation, it highly effective for learning. Certainly, it is more effective than, for example, reading alone or simply trying to memorize material by repeating it. When you submit your ideas to critique, it is more difficult and feels a bit more risky than keeping your thoughts to yourself and refusing to submit them to scrutiny, which allows you, with little risk, to proclaim yourself a genius in your own mind.

When I started the blog, I conceived of it as being about learning, rather than education. Why? Because I did not want to focus on institutions or institutional practices. The problem, now, is that I am not certain that I can speak effectively about the future of learning. I might be able to blog effectively about the probably bleak future of higher education. I might be able to talk about trends in education and learning practices in general. But it makes little sense to talk about the future of learning. Learning is an innate process, a cognitive emergence that is a part of any and every human’s fundamental character (or more precisely, the fundamental character of any and every sentient being endowed with neuroplasticity). It’s not specific. It’s not concrete.

So… one of the problems is that the word “learning” is an inaccurate representation of what this blog is about. It might be more proper to call this blog something like “the future of learning practices.” Except, of course, that label sound bloated and foolish.

The other major problem with the formulation behind this blog is the word “future.” There are a multitude of ways in which I think it improper and misleading. First, it is dishonest for me to claim to know the future of anything at all, much less to claim to predict or foresee something as complex as learning practices in the distant future, or even in the middle or near term. Indeed, I cannot be certain what I will be doing in an hour, nor do I know with certainty how I will be doing it. It is ludicrous, then, for me to pretend to talk about the “future of learning.”

Another dimension that leads me to be skeptical of my own formulation is my concern for the future of this planet. Not just education. Not just learning technologies of classroom practices or insights from cognitive science research. The future of everything on this planet. Well, of nearly all forms of life on this planet. How does one talk about learning in the Anthropocene — or the Anthropozoic — when the course of human history makes it abundantly clear that Homo sapiens, collectively, learns very little, acts irrationally, and repeats foolish, self-destructive errors on a massive, indeed, planetary scale. If one were to judge the species as we might judge an individual, we are a greedy, selfish, heedless, thrill-seeking fool. We are a danger to ourselves and to others.

I am afraid that the time for “learning” in the sense that I have been discussing it in blog entries has now passed. It’s time for something else. When the entire village is catching fire, hurting and killing nearly everyone in in the conflagration and destroying nearly all foodstuffs, tools and other materials needed for long-term- survival, does the village teacher spend time thinking about intellectual development, critical thinking, good practices for acquiring and processing knowledge, for solving problems, for reading and writing effectively and well? Probably not.

About the only value that I can see in thinking about “effective learning” is to focus on ways to impart to younger learners the strategies and tools that they will need to survive long-term — or the tools that they will need to radically alter the course of collective human action, so that we don’t fan the flames or spray not-yet-destroyed houses with kerosene. Granted, the fire burning down the village seems like a slow-motion one. At the same time, our response is in slow motion as well, and we are doing very little to fight the fire. Indeed, many of us are stoking flames and fiddling while the village burns.

So… it is very hard for me to see how I can persist in writing this blog. (Of course, I note the irony of my questioning the validity of persisting in this practice by continuing to write in the blog.)

Where do we go from here? What do I write about? Can I continue talking cogently and meaningfully about learning? Or ought I eliminate this project and focus on more important things, like making action-focused decisions about facing the Anthropocene as one of a relatively small group of deeply concerned thinkers who also happen to be teachers? How do we learn and develop new, proper, fitting learning practices in the face of the Anthropocene or the Anthropozoic?

Matière à réflexion. I will give it some thought and perhaps comment further, later.

[Heavy sigh.]

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