This week I am in Florence having spent two days at “The Future of Education” conference. Visiting this city, which has played such a significant role in western history, is inspiring. It encourages one to not only look back at what was, but also to look ahead at what might be, especially when the topic of conversation has been as illustrious as the future of education.
You cannot ignore the impact that the Renaissance had on Florence and nor can you overlook the role that this period of western history played in shaping the mindset of the modern world. So much of our artistic and cultural heritage has its roots in this time and in this particular place. The artists, inventors, scientists and philosophers of Firenze left a legacy far greater than that which is on display to the eager tourist exploring the art and architecture of this beautiful city.
After the long dark years of Medieval times, the Renaissance signified a new awakening of interest in our capacities for thought. Creativity and critical thinking exploded in these times of fervent collaboration and competition between thinkers. Philanthropists and patrons understood that the greatness of their growing cities would be measured by the quality of the creative works produced by the minds of their citizenry. This combination of inventive potentialities and belief in the economic value of creative works produced the perfect circumstances for a revolution whose impact continues to be felt today.
In the times prior to the realisation of the Renaissance as something more than a few isolated works but as a revolutionary time, there must have been a period where the norms of Medieval life seems to no longer work. These in-between times are intriguing periods in human history although we often want to skip ahead to the excitingly new times which emerge out of them. In some ways, we are living in such times now. Sardar refers to these as post-normal times. “. . . we have entered postnormal times, the in-between period where old orthodoxies are dying, new ones have not yet emerged, and nothing really makes sense.” Surely the period between times clearly marked by the mindset of Medieval man and those of Da Vinci, Michelangelo or Brunelleschi as the quintessential Renaissance man were like this.
What then comes next for humanity as we head into the second decade of the twenty-first century?
It is increasingly difficult to turn away from the challenges collectively confronting us. This week has seen large parts of Europe reach record-breaking temperatures, a pattern that is global and so much the norm that it barely makes headlines; we expect each summer to be hotter than the one before. In India, cities wait desperately for rain as their water supplies run drastically low. Some 600 million people in India are living with high to extreme water stress.
Despite the clear evidence and broad consensus that these weather patterns are driven by climate change resulting from our dependence upon carbon, politicians and large parts of the media enthusiastically spread misinformation. Truth and scientific reason are dismissed easily and readily by those with alternate agendas and reputation trumps all. This is the reality of a post-truth era defined by Matthew d’Ancona as “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. Our debasing of truth, reason and science in this way appears as a slap in the face to the great thinkers of the Renaissance who searched for these things in all that they did.
While in some areas of human endeavour, any form of thinking seems to be on hiatus, in others we rush headlong towards the unknown inventing new technologies and opportunities even while paying little heed to the consequences. Artificial intelligence is either our saviour or damnation. It has the potential to provide us with new opportunities to understand our world. It might bring with it new ways of working and collaborations between humans and machines which give birth to a new era of prosperity. It may also remove many of the employment opportunities which we relied on and create a new underclass reliant on charity. In other realms of science we meddle with the genetic structures which define life, and yet we have not fully considered the implications. While a technology like CRISPR may allow us to engineer life and by design eradicate many diseases and disabilities, it is a technology which is unlikely to be made equitably available. Will we see a future world where humanity is bifurcated into those who have the capacity to edit their genes and those who are left with the inferior code provided by nature?
We need a new Renaissance.
To move forward and out of these post-normal times requires a rebirth of our passion for thinking and creativity. A new desire to seek out true understanding and to dig deep into the marrow of life. We need to value creativity, critical thinking, inventiveness and reason. We need philosophers and scientists and artists and inventors who engage in fruitful dialogue about what the world might be.
We need to love learning.
The Renaissance we need today must begin with education. It requires that we value education as a life-long endeavour in which learning becomes the constant thread weaving its way through our lives. Only by becoming self-navigating life-long learners will we overcome the epistemological threat posed by the post-truth brigade. Our continuous engagement in learning will allow us to rise up to whatever new challenges confront us and transform each into new opportunities.
But we need a new model of education. Traditional schooling served purposes now extinct. Transfer of the essential knowledge required by citizens of the industrial era is a goal that education must no longer serve. Education for the new Renaissance must enrich our capacities for creativity, critical thinking, analysis, experimentation, exploration and discovery. In an era where information is ubiquitous, the last thing a learner needs from their teacher is more information. Rather we need to learn to manage this flood of data and understand how it may be transformed into wisdom. We need to become problem finders who are imbued with empathy such that we see the wrongs in the world and through our awareness of our agentic capacities take action to make amends.
A new Renaissance built upon a revitalised education system is full of hope for humanity. The Future of Education, should we choose a path towards a new Renaissance, is bright and allows learning to take its rightful place as the most empowering of all our capacities.
By Nigel Coutts