The future of our planet depends on imagination, not academics

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.—Karl Marx, XIth Thesis on Feuerbach.

I was surprised by how many people failed to seize the satire in my last blog If academics are what matter, let’s just replace teachers with androids. In that article, I proposed that “in the very near future, AI will not only hold student data, but be equipped with the algorithms to provide material and content that are personalized to each student’s individual level of challenge, language proficiency, and pace of learning. AI will be able to collect data in real time and make adjustments based on what piques each student’s curiosity: by tracking (eye) pupil dilation, heart rate, and levels of oxytocin, AI will know how to capture students’ attention.” I really do believe this will be possible and that if classroom practice follows the algorithm of 1) the teacher delivers content, 2) the students assimilate it, 3) the exam poses a question that has students analyze a situation using said content, and 4) all of which result in a quantitative value representing a externally-determined achievement of learning, then there will certainly be better ways of delivering on this system.

An android probably can run this algorithm better than a human, though really, that doesn’t matter. It could be something else. What we do know is that so long as this is the recipe we choose to follow and that someone can make profit (or get re-elected) doing so, we will keep looking for ways to achieve greater efficiencies and accountability. What does matter is envisaging possibilities and making choices today for the world we want and need tomorrow. That’s how we decide whether to keep going on our trajectory or change it.

Let me start by making it clear that I do not advocate replacing humans with androids. Anyone who has read any of my articles or spoken with me for two minutes knows that my values are elsewhere. I won’t expand on this because it’s ludicrous.

Those who don’t believe AI has the capacity to deliver content and experiences tailored to desires (and needs of students) have not paid much attention to Amazon (since their integration of a recommendation engine in 1997), to advances in camera recognition (cameras can already track your eye movements to determine how engaged you are with the TV show you’re watching), or advances in neuroscience (computers can read your brain and know when you’ll decide to raise your left hand or right hand before your consciousness even makes that decision, based on brain activity). What passes as AI in EdTech today is often nothing more than “innovative content delivery” (in the very words of the strategist of one highly visible EdTech company) and just an efficient system of automated worksheet delivery. Going over content and deciding to move on to the next prescribed unit depending on whether a student achieved a certain score on a multiple choice assessment has been around for years. Doing the exact same thing but now isolating students behind screens and having the power to generate colorful reports full of data such as “time spent solving problem number 5” are hardly innovative or informative.

The experiences that facilitate learning cannot escape the real biotech and infotech advances that drive the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The processes, collaborations, and tools with which ideas are created, consumed, and deployed will be unrecognizable in a few years, never mind how we use content, which already has little to no value in itself (freely available anytime, anywhere). There will be androids, cyborgs, synaptic accelerators, and parallel digital worlds in school. What form and function these will take and when this will all happen, no one knows, but we need to tap into our imaginations to consider possibilities and probabilities. Denial is neither useful nor informed*. 

The future only exists in our imaginations, just like our past exists only in our memories. (I would even argue that the past is also a figment of our imagination, and I am in good company holding this position.) Predictions are imaginary statements based on our evaluations of probabilities. Predicting the future is a game we play with ourselves and has no value in itself. No one can predict the future, but we can work with probabilities to decide whether we wish to make choice A or choice B, based on whether we wish to increase or decrease the probability we assign to a certain outcome.

That’s why we study history, to understand the past in order to conceive and act upon the choices we have today that will impact the future. This might also be liberating as we break away from determinism. Just because things happened back then doesn’t mean history will repeat itself. When we discuss AI, we use our imaginations to contemplate possibilities that allow us to consider our values and make choices in our actions. It’s the same with everything that has to do with what lies ahead. When we talk about the future, we are really talking about the now.

We make choices based on the future we want to create. For instance, many of us consider achieving happiness to be one of life’s foremost goals. So would it not make sense to live in a Huxley-esque world where processors implanted in our brains control doses of serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin pumped in your body? We would always have the right amount of biochemicals flowing through and never be sad again! Think that’s crazy? Given the prevalence of recreational drugs across the world and the increased use of antidepressants not just to re-balance moods but to provide them with a lift, how much of a jump is a processor in your brain? What is the probability that this will happen? Do we want to make decisions to increase or decrease these probabilities?

So what choices should we make in school now to prepare for the future that will ensure the welfare of all living things?

I am not anti-academic. I have found my years in tertiary education to be some of the most exciting and meaningful periods of my life. I love academics. If I won the lottery, I’d become a full time student. I may go back to school when I retire, though Charlotte would rather join me in rustic mountainside village than see me off to the archives. The reason I used the expression “pure academics” in the blog is to stress the article’s satirical nature. There is no such thing as pure academics since any interaction between the student and the outside world cannot be pure and must exist within a dynamic. There is no isolation. The absurdity of my construct underscores the satire, given that I reject empiricism in favor of perspectivism. Generalizations, when contextualized, could be considered roadmaps to deeper and more nuanced thinking.

But that’s just me. I won’t insult you with links to articles and studies about the devastation to mental health that pressures to achieve high academic outcomes cause teens, or to the dishonesty, treachery, or bribery engendered by the need to get top marks. You are already well aware. Most of those articles don’t even address the death of curiosity that often follows forcing students to learn [sic] about things that aren’t and never will be relevant to their lives. Surely we can open channels for learners of all ages to thrive without forcing academics on them.

Therein lies the irony. Academics should be all about discovery, curiosity and personal rigor**. But so is everything else we learn about when driven by self-motivation and interest, and the learning doesn’t have to be wrapped in academics. Does knowing how to rewire the electrical circuits of a house not require significant problem-solving and creativity, alongside a capacity to understand systems? What about riding a skateboard? Finding out what makes a new partner tick, happy, or loved? Discovery, curiosity, and personal rigor are at the hearts of many professions that are deemed non-academic, or dare I use that foul word “vocational”: chefs, plumbers, firemen, mechanics, salespersons, etc. AI will probably replace these jobs in the future, but then again it will probably replace lawyers, surgeons, engineers, and even perhaps artists (imagine an algorithm that creates music based on the probability that certain patterns of notes will trigger neurological responses that create intense sensations of pleasure in enough people to have the next hit on the charts—I’m not sure pop hits aren’t already composed by humans based on this principle). 

There are too many educated people with too few skills. That’s part of why graduates have such a tough time finding the jobs they imagined before they started university. Employers want work-ready hires and school doesn’t always prepare graduate with the skills they need at work. It doesn’t always prepare them for navigating complex personal relationships either, or relationships with the planet. Every year, the world churns out more people with advanced degrees, supposedly more educated and masters of academics, yet humans continue to march the planet on an ecological path that will lead to catastrophe for hundreds of billions of life forms.

Here is the thing, academics in themselves are without value if they do not serve a purpose. If we conceive of academics as ends in themselves, we risk falling into traps of narcissism and self-indulgence. What is the point of reading, studying, writing, and discussing if it stops there? Academic mastery needs to lead to actions that have impact. All the fancy words and philosopher-name-dropping won’t make the slightest difference if there is no impact, if no one is listening (Orwell called this out). Knowledge that remains in your head is just potential energy†. Action turns that knowledge into kinetic energy.

Academics, like technology, should be one tool within a big box that allows us to make a positive difference in the world, and the decisions we make are based on our evaluation of the probabilities of certain outcome††. Academics are not ends in themselves, just one of the possibilities at our disposal. Some will prefer to use alternate tools to improve the plight of all living things. There are infinite ways in which we can make a difference. The importance is the end result. The is the positive impact we have on the planet, other life forms, and ourselves. COVID has shown that essential workers seldom hold “academic professions,” yet they are the ones holding us together. 

We need to end the elitism that places academics at the pinnacle of human achievement. This humanist worldview is no longer useful in the age of the Anthropocene, since humans are the very cause of the new geological era that is threatening existence. Four hundred years of valuing humanity’s ability to reason above all else are not going to end well unless we move beyond, adopting a post-humanist approaches to relationships with the planet and all life forms, the bio-collective. We need to stop putting humans at the center and see all life as having equal value. Yes, this also means that we need to treat each other with greater kindness, no matter who we are.

There is no separating the I from the us. There is no dualism between the cognitive and the affective, the mind and the body. There are no distinctions within the interconnectedness of all life. This is backed up by science and this realization should be the basis of new stories we tell, of new intersubjective meanings we create. Simply put, we need to make choices for the future we wish to write. Academics are one of the ways we can determine probabilities, but they aren’t the sole basis from which we will write the story of our future. 

What does this mean for school? Valerie Hannon proposes four interdependent circles within which we need to have healthy relationships every day, everywhere in order to thrive: the planet, the community, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. I would push this to the edge by opening up the community as comprising all forms of life. If school does not provide the space to promote these relationships and stimulate thinking and action that contribute to the maximal thriving of each circle, then what is the point of school? 

We need to re-think the narrative of school within the bigger story of the planet. We need to re-value school’s purpose. Rather than having the mastery of academics as the end, school should be a place where learners of all ages come together to create and strengthen the bonds that will allow all to thrive socially, affectively, and intellectually. School should be about opening channels toward the future’s infinite possibilities. It is our imagination and ability to navigate probabilities that will prepare us for this adventure. It’s not about what will or won’t happen, it’s about what can happen. More importantly, it’s about how our imagination makes us adaptable for when the unimaginable and unforeseeable happen. School plays a role in this preparation and within it academics are one tool in our box, but not the only one. 

And when the androids come, we will be ready. (Kidding! Sorta.)

* Robots are already carrying out reading diagnostic tests. Just ask Dwayne Matthews

** Note I didn’t write academic rigor. There is no such thing. Classes can’t be rigorous in themselves. They can only create the conditions for students to be personally rigorous, that is, want to achieve their personal best and push through challenges in order to achieve a goal. A class can have (and should!) have high standards, but students will only meet these standards if there is space for them to want to develop personal rigor.

† In fact, knowledge is really just the process of encoding the brains reactions to sensory stimulations that are encoded as memory, memory that has the potential to be retrieved.

†† Let’s think of a set of pencils and pens as tools we use to write the story of our future.

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