Visions of the Future

I’m working towards teaching a renewed version of my History of the Future course. The new iteration in January will be a significant departure from the last time I taught it (2009 syllabus here). Once I have finalized the syllabus, I’ll be sure to share it.

In the meantime, however, I spent a lazy afternoon reading around the internet. In the space of a couple of hours, I stumbled across two rather competing ideas about the future and how society should prepare for them. Sort of. Let me back up: A new part of the day-to-day life of teaching in the humanities has been the perpetual siege mentality associated with the “decline of the humanities,” as students worry about jobs and migrate towards the sciences and engineering. I have some strong feelings about this and why the Humanities are more important now than ever, and why students should be migrating towards History, Philosophy, Languages, etc., but I should spare that rant for another day. But back to my Saturday afternoon (which also included some bike-wrenching, house-tidying, and Uno-playing). The first of two excerpts from pop icons when it comes to imagining the Humanities and the future:

Michio Kaku in the New York Times.

Kaku, a theoretical physicist and veritable celebrity futurist (find me a documentary or clip on futurism or physics that doesn’t include an interview with him), offers up some interesting ideas of what the future might look like. Very little is offered by means of suggesting how we will get there. Some seems plausible and some seems dubious. Kaku also makes an impassioned case for greater science training as necessary for the future. His conclusion:

How will we reach such a future? The key is to grasp the importance of science and science education. Science is the engine of prosperity.

Leaders in China and India realize that science and technology lead to success and wealth. But many countries in the West graduate students into the unemployment line by teaching skills that were necessary to live in 1950.

Years ago, pundits worried about a “digital divide.” It never happened, because access to computers became cheaper and cheaper. The real problem, however, is not access; it is jobs. Plenty of jobs are begging to be filled today, but those jobs require workers with a technical and scientific education.

If I was buying what he was selling before the conclusion (I wasn’t: “perfect capitalism“??), he lost me. Phrased somewhat differently, though, I suspect he and I might find some common ground in lamenting the dissolution of science literacy. I wish more people were scientifically literate, so that real discussion and debate could take place around a variety of important issues, from climate change to genetically modified foods and beyond. A broader grasp of science and science understanding throughout the populace would be a healthy thing. But this is different from Kaku’s desire to see more people trained in science—while he basically dismisses the Humanities as archaic pastimes that only serve as a one-way ticket to unemployment.

I need to articulate my reading on the contemporary and continuing importance of the Humanities (coming soon), but for now this George Lucas quotation provides a rather nice rebuttal (via Brain Pickings):

The sciences are the “how,” and the humanities are the “why” — why are we here, why do we believe in the things we believe in. I don’t think you can have the “how” without the “why.

Lucas clearly values the sciences, but offers a rather intelligent reading of science literacy—and, really, literacy in general. I spend a lot of time thinking about the advances we make in science, technology, and the marketplace, and worrying that we are moving more quickly than contemporary society can evaluate. The toxic century is a product of science and technology and their supporters acting hubristically with the conceit of believing that nature can be remade with synthetic materials. The health hazards associated with radioactive fallout was investigated after aboveground nuclear weapons testing had spread strontium-90, iodine-131, et al. throughout the environment.

I have on my office door a cartoon of two cavemen, holding spears, surrounded by stone wheels, fire, and other stone age accoutrements. One says to the other: “Let’s concentrate on science and technology for two thousand years—then we can develop a value system.” The point is plain. Kaku would see us reinvent the wheel and possibly lose sight of the forest for the trees in the meantime…

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