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The Educator's Folly and the Shadow of the Future

The Educator’s Folly and the Shadow of the Future
By Daniel Grego

“I study history as an antidote to obsessive speculations about the future.” ~Ivan Illich 1


Back in 2004, the National Council of La Raza received grants to support the creation of Early College High Schools across the U.S. and determined that some of them would be in Wisconsin. A press conference was held at the Milwaukee Area Technical College to announce the initiative. I was invited to attend.

When I arrived, crews from several local television stations were setting up their cameras and microphones. A group of young people enrolled in the alternative high schools that had been selected to participate in the project were sitting in the back of the room waiting for the dignitaries to show up and the press conference to begin.

I mingled with the students and chatted with some of them. I got to know a young man named Ben who was seventeen. After talking with him for a while, I made a prediction and a suggestion: In a few minutes, you and your friends will be asked to stand behind the podium and listen to the speakers. At some point, one of them will say something like: “This is a great day for Milwaukee because our children are our future.” When that happens, go over and grab the microphone away from whoever is speaking and tell him: “I’m here right now.”

The press conference began. The students were herded behind the podium. The president of the technical college welcomed everyone and introduced a representative from the National Council of La Raza who described the initiative. Then he invited the superintendent of the Milwaukee Public Schools up to the microphones. The superintendent said: “This is a great day for Milwaukee because our children are our future.”

Standing behind the cameras, I made eye contact with Ben and gestured to him to do what I had suggested. He smiled shyly, looked down at his shoes, and shook his head. The press conference droned on to its conclusion. When it was over and the media people were packing up their equipment, Ben found me in the crowd.

“How did you know someone would say that?” he asked.

“Because,” I answered, “most of the people in the adult world don’t believe you’re here. They think you are somewhere else they call The Future.”


There are some practical reasons why educators should abandon their “obsessive speculations about the future.” My conversation with Ben points to one of them.

For too long, in modern, industrial societies, adolescents have been given mixed and confusing messages. In his award-winning history of American childhood, Steven Mintz tried to describe this muddle:

The underlying contradiction in youthful lives is the most disturbing. Young people mature physiologically earlier than ever before. The media prey on children and adolescents with wiles of persuasion and sexual innuendo once reserved for adult consumers. The young have become more knowledgeable sexually and in many other ways. They face adult-like choices earlier. Yet contemporary society isolates and juvenilizes young people more than ever before. Contemporary society provides the young with few positive ways to express their growing maturity and gives them few opportunities to participate in socially valued activities.2 Young people are told over and over again in subtle, and sometimes in not so subtle, ways that they cannot be expected to make real, useful contributions to their communities until some nebulous “future.” No wonder so many of them feel they are “growing up absurd.” 3

Contrast this absurdity with the critical role young people play in the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement of social reform in Sri Lanka.4 The Movement started in 1958 when a group of sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds, inspired by their science teacher A. T. Ariyaratna, began working with people in poor villages to help them become more self-reliant. Within twenty-three years, the Movement had spread to over four thousand villages.

Buddhist scholar and environmental activist Joanna Macy visited Sri Lanka in 1979 to write a book about Sarvodaya Shramadana. At first, like other Western observers, she tended to downplay the role of youth in the Movement. As she stayed longer, however, her eyes were opened. She writes:

Only after having participated in Sarvodaya activities for a longer time did I begin to take seriously its motivating philosophy – that one builds janashakti (people’s power) not only from the grassroots up, but also from the infant up. I saw teenage dropouts organize village shramadanas. I saw them conduct house-to-house surveys which not only recruited people to participate, but offered the first economic analysis of a village. I saw ten- and twelve-year old children take responsibility for supplying tea and water to the work camp…and even younger children performing skits and songs which transmitted, better than any politician’s speeches, the old values of cooperation, discipline, and self-reliance. In village after village I saw the commitment and idealism of the children drawing adults into the Movement.5

Macy then goes on to make the following observation:

This facet of Sarvodaya’s experience has obvious relevance to other societies, and especially to industrialized countries where youth suffer from unemployment and a sense of meaninglessness and superfluity. They want to make an impact; and when channels for constructive, responsible activity are not available to them, they make an impact in other ways – through violence, vandalism, and a variety of cults.6

I think Macy is right. Young people like Ben growing up in our society want to make a difference, but, as Steven Mintz noted, they are afforded few opportunities to employ their energies and talents in positive ways. Mintz concluded that our approach to secondary education is a major part of the problem:

Society has continued to segregate teens in an institution – the high school – which is supposed to cater to their psychological, physiological, emotional, and intellectual needs, but which, in practice, many find juvenilizing and lacking in intellectual stimulation. As the stage of youth became increasingly prolonged, and adulthood more distant, the high school and the culture that surrounded it seemed more and more outdated in its strictures, athletic culture, regimentation, and lack of opportunity for teens to demonstrate their growing competency and maturity.7

Imagine all they could accomplish if young people used their energies and talents now, instead of waiting until The Future. Are our young men and women really less capable than the teenagers in Sri Lanka?

A second drawback of educators’ obsession with the future is that it is actually a hindrance to parental involvement in the education of their children. Parents, of necessity, must live in the present. They have mortgages to pay, homes to care for, neighbors they are obliged to love as they love themselves, communities to which to contribute. If children are being educated for The Future, then schools are separating, in a fundamental way, children from their parents. And Wendell Berry has pointed out this separation inevitably leads to the undermining of communities:

Neither teachers nor students feel themselves answerable to the community, for the school does not exist to serve the community. It exists to aid and abet the student’s escape from the community into ‘tomorrow’s world,’ in which community standards, it goes without saying, will not apply.8

This obsession with The Future is, by definition, irresponsible. To be responsible is “to be able to respond” to someone or something. Since the future has yet to happen, one cannot possibly respond to it. The consequences of the obsession, both for individuals and for communities, are almost entirely negative. Eclectic philosopher and interpreter of Eastern religious traditions Alan Watts noted:

Since what we know of the future is made up of purely abstract and logical elements – inferences, guesses, deductions – it cannot be eaten, felt, smelled, seen, heard, or otherwise enjoyed. To pursue it is to pursue a constantly retreating phantom, and the faster you chase it, the faster it runs ahead. This is why all the affairs of civilization are rushed, why hardly anyone enjoys what he has, and is forever seeking more and more. Happiness, then, will consist, not of solid and substantial realities, but of such abstract and superficial things as promises, hopes, and assurances.9

One of the reasons for the crisis in education today is that our system of schooling, particularly our approach to secondary schools, was designed to sort people for roles in the industrial economy that emerged just after the Second World War.10 Policy elites, including prominent educators, thought they could predict the jobs of the future and sought a rational way to divide students into two groups: one that would go on to college and into management and the professions; another much larger group that would work on the farms and in the factories. The future fooled them, however.

The economy changed. The jobs in the future, for which students had been prepared, turned out to be a mirage and, as a result, there is a growing class of underemployed or perhaps even permanently unemployable people. British political philosopher John Gray observed:

Bourgeois life was based on the institution of the career – a lifelong pathway through working life. Today professions and occupations are disappearing. Soon they will be as remote and archaic as the ranks and estates of medieval times. Our only real religion is a shallow faith in the future; and yet we have no idea what the future will bring.11

We might have known better. Dante Alighieri (in Canto XX of The Inferno) warned us that fortune-tellers, and diviners, condemned for fraud, would be cast for eternity into the fourth ditch of the eighth circle of Hell with their heads screwed on backwards, making it impossible for them to see ahead as they claimed to be able to do while living.12

Jonathan Swift satirized the absurdity of educating for the future in Gulliver’s Travels, published back in 1726, in which he described the “Academy of PROJECTORS”:

In these Colleges, the Professors contrive new Rules and Methods of Agriculture and Building, and new Instruments and Tools for all Trades and Manufactures, whereby, as they undertake, one Man shall do the Work of Ten; a Palace may be built in a Week, of Materials so durable as to last for ever without repairing. All the Fruits of the Earth shall come to Maturity at whatever Season we think fit to chuse, and increase an Hundred Fold more than they do at present; with innumerable other happy Proposals. The only Inconvenience is, that none of these Projects are yet brought to Perfection; and in the mean time, the whole Country lies miserably waste, the Houses in Ruins, and the People without Food or Cloaths. By all which, instead of being discouraged, they are Fifty Times more violently bent upon prosecuting their Schemes, driven equally on by Hope and Despair.13

I think our future-obsessed educators misunderstand the true purpose of education. Education is the process by which people become responsibly mature members of their communities. If young people develop character, become familiar with their cultural inheritance and the wisdom of the past, and acquire the habits of mind that will help them think critically, they will find their way to honorable lives.


By placing the use of the energies and talents of our youth in abeyance, by separating children from their parents and thereby undermining communities, and by irresponsibly presuming to know the future, educators participate in folly, the proportions of which resemble a modern form of idolatry.

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery any more.

~Wendell Berry 14

C. Douglas Lummis, a former professor of International and Cultural Studies who taught in Japan, once asked Ivan Illich in an interview to speculate about a “possible future.” Illich responded sharply: “To hell with the future! It’s a man-eating idol. Institutions have a future…but people have no future. People have only hope.” 15

When the future is no longer a mystery, it becomes a man-eating idol. The Marxist literary and cultural critic Terry Eagleton has pointed out:

Foretelling the future…is not only pointless; it can actually be destructive. To have power even over the future is a way of giving ourselves a false sense of security. It is a tactic for shielding ourselves from the open-ended nature of the present, with all its precariousness and unpredictability. It is to use the future as a kind of fetish – as a comforting idol to cling to like a toddler to its blanket.16

It has not always been this way. In the past, in most cultures, people had the sense to know that the future was in the hands of the gods. The classics scholar, Bernard Knox, wrote:

The early Greek imagination envisaged the past and the present as in front of us – we can see them. The future, invisible, is behind us. Only a few very wise men can see what is behind them; some of these men, like the blind prophet Tiresias, have been given this privilege by the gods. The rest of us, though we have our eyes, are walking blind, backward into the future.17

The story of how human beings abandoned this understanding and began to believe that the future was ours to design and control is long and has been told a number of times.18 In his seminal work, The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry delineated the catastrophic ramifications of the assumption of unlimited human sovereignty that led to the “displacement of the modern mind.” When he looked for an explanation of how this “displacement” occurred, he concluded it was our obsession with the future:

What has drawn the Modern World into being is a strange, almost occult yearning for the future. The modern mind longs for the future as the medieval mind longed for Heaven. The great aim of modern life has been to improve the future – or even just to reach the future, assuming that the future will inevitably be “better.” 19

He continued:

The future is the time when science will have solved all our problems, gratified all our desires; when we will all live in perfect ease in an air-conditioned, fully automated womb; when all the work will be done by machines so sophisticated that they will not only clothe, house, and feed us, but think for us, play our games, paint our pictures, write our poems.20

Obsessed with the future, our political and economic elites and the educators and bureaucrats who serve their interests have been leading us down a road that resembles the one imagined by the professors at Swift’s Academy of PROJECTORS. And if we continue to follow them down that road, the consequences for our communities and for our places on the earth will beat least as dire as Swift anticipated.

People are beginning to question, however, the wisdom of living for “tomorrow’s world.” Before the end of the last century, Ivan Illich detected the changing mindset:

There is a generalized sense now that the future we expected does not work and that we are in front of what Michel Foucault called an “epistemic break”: a sudden image-shift in consciousness in which the once unthinkable becomes thinkable… It is no longer tolerable to the common sense to think of nuclear bombs as weapons, or of pollution as the price of development. The disintegrating ozone layer and warming atmosphere are making it intolerable to think of more development and industrial growth as progress, but rather as aggression against the human condition… What is new is not the magnitude, nor even the quality, but the very essence of the coming shift in consciousness. It is not a break in the line of progress to a new stage; it is not even the passage from one dimension to another…we can only describe it as a catastrophic break with industrial man’s image of himself.21

I think there is growing evidence that Illich was right. More and more people all over the world are acknowledging the hubris of our obsession with The Future, with what Illich once called “the Promethean fallacy.” 22 This shift in consciousness is a sign that we are abandoning our Promethean expectations and rediscovering the possibility of Epimethean hope. We are beginning to recognize (again) the limits of human competence and have begun hedging our bets.23

Instead of placing all of our faith in the industrial food production system, for example, more and more people are supporting local farmers and are even growing some of their own food. Instead of subjecting their children to the industrial system of schooling, a growing number of people are educating them at home. Instead of looking to experts and to The Future, people are rediscovering the gifts present within their own communities.24 And we are beginning to recognize again that young people in “advanced” industrial societies are just as gifted as the teenagers in the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement.25

Historian Howard Zinn reminded us:

And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.26

As we seek to discover (recover) ways of living that are in harmony with the natural world in its diverse landscapes and watersheds, perhaps educators will come back from the future and contribute to the long, difficult labor of living well today.

The future will always be a mystery.


If I ran into Ben again today, I wonder if I would recognize him. He would be twenty-four or twenty-five now. A lot has changed in the last seven years. I hope he found his way to a life worth living and work worth doing. I hope he has been contributing in some way to the “common sense” that has begun “searching for a language to speak about the shadow which the future throws.” 27

If he asked for my advice, I think I would share with him what a woman who appeared to me in a dream once told me:

Don’t worry about the future. If you live well today, the future will take care of itself. If you live poorly today, the future will be bleak no matter what gadgets the scientists invent, no matter what systems the experts design. Seek understanding and be compassionate. That’s most important of all.

* * *

Author’s Note: This essay is the third part of a trilogy that includes “The Educator’s Dilemma and the Two Big Lies” and “The Educator’s Secret and Modern Stupidity,” both of which were published in Life Learning Magazine. I wrote the first draft of this essay in the winter of 2009-2010 and then set it aside. I was inspired to finish it after hearing Peter Dawson Buckland read “Education and the Problem of ‘the Future’” at the AERA annual meeting in Denver in May, 2010. I want to thank Peter for the nudge. I would also like to thank Pat Farenga, Gene Walz, and Dick Westheimer for their helpful criticism.

Daniel Grego is Executive Director of TransCenter for Youth, Inc., a nonprofit agency that operates four high schools in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Dr. Grego has been a guest speaker for many organizations like the Centre for British Teachers and the Children’s Defense Fund, and at numerous forums focusing on education issues. He has taught in the Education Department at Alverno College and the Philosophy Department at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee and been a consultant for the Institute for the Transformation of Learning, the Helen Bader Foundation and to Wisconsin’s Governor and Legislature in the drafting and revision of Wisconsin’s Children At Risk statute. He is a founding member of the Alliance for Choices in Education (ACE) in Milwaukee. His writings have appeared in Encounter, the CYD Journal, Out of the Box, the Milwaukee Journal/Sentinel, America, the George Wright Forum, Life Learning Magazine, Education Revolution, Vitae Scholasticae and other periodicals and anthologies, including the book Life Learning: Lessons from the Educational Frontier. One of his main interests is exploring the confluence of the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi, Ivan Illich, and Wendell Berry. He lives with his wife, choreographer Debra Loewen, and their daughter, Caitlin Grego, on a small farm in the Rock River watershed in Dodge County, Wisconsin.


1. Ivan Illich. 1992. In the Mirror of the Past. New York, NY: Marion Boyars Publishers, p. 35.

2. Steven Mintz. 2004. Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, p. 381.

3. Paul Goodman. 1960. Growing Up Absurd. New York, NY: Random House.

4. Sarvodaya means “the awakening or welfare of all.” Shramadana means “to give labor or human energy.”

5. Joanna Macy. 1985. Dharma and Development: Religion as Resource in the Sarvodaya Self-Help Movement. West Hartford, CT: Kumarian Press, p. 96.

6. Ibid, p. 97. In the urban areas of the United States, we call these cults “gangs.”

7. Steven Mintz. Ibid, p. 253.

8. Wendell Berry. 2002. The Art of the Commonplace. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, p. 63.

9. Alan Watts. 1951, 1979. The Wisdom of Insecurity. New York, NY: Vintage Books, pp. 60-61.

10. Joel Spring. 1976. The Sorting Machine: National Education Policy Since 1945. New York, NY: David McKay.

11. John Gray. 2003. Straw Dogs. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, p. 161.

12. See Canto XX of the Inferno.

13. Jonathan Swift. 1977. Gulliver’s Travels. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, p. 174.

14. Wendell Berry. 1998. “Manifesto: the Mad Farmer Liberation Front” in The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, p. 87.

15. Ivan Illich and David Cayley. 2005. The Rivers North of the Future.Toronto: House of Anansi Press, p. xix. Illich earlier made this distinction between expectations for the future and hope in his essay “Rebirth of Epimethean Man.” There he wrote: “Hope, in its strong sense, means trusting faith in the goodness of nature, while expectation, as I will use it here, means reliance on results which are planned and controlled by man. Hope centers desire on a person from whom we await a gift. Expectation looks forward to satisfaction from a predictable process which will produce what we have the right to claim.” Ivan Illich. 1971. Deschooling Society. New York, NY: Harper & Row, p. 105.

16. Terry Eagleton. 2011. Why Marx was Right. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, p. 66.

17. Bernard Knox. 1994. Backing into the Future. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, pp. 11-12.

18. See, for example: Robert Nisbet. 1980. History of the Idea of Progress. New York, NY: Basic Books; Morris Berman. 1981. The Reenchantment of the World. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press; Christopher Lasch. 1991. The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company. The story was also the theme of a novel that won (ironically?) the Turner Tomorrow Fellowship. Daniel Quinn. 1992. Ishmael. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

19. Wendell Berry. 1977. The Unsettling of America. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, p. 56.

20. Ibid, p. 57.

21. Ivan Illich. 1989. The Shadow that the Future Throws. Unpublished manuscript of a conversation with Nathan Gardels, p. 2. An edited version of the conversation was published in Nathan P. Gardels, editor. 1995. At Century’s End: Great Minds Reflect on Our Times. La Jolla, CA: ALTI Publishing, pp. 68-79.

22. Ivan Illich. 1971, p. 114.

23. See, for example, Bill Vitek and Wes Jackson, editors. 2008. The Virtues of Ignorance. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky.

24. John McKnight and Peter Block. 2010. The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

25. See, for example, Joseph Allen and Claudia Worrell Allen. 2009. Escaping the Endless Adolescence. New York, NY: Ballantine Books; William Damon. 2008. The Path to Purpose: Helping Our Children Find Their Calling

in Life. New York, NY: Free Press; Robert Epstein. 2007. The Case against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen. Fresno, CA: Quill Driver Books/ Word Dancer Press; and Alex Harris and Brett Harris. 2008. Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion against Low Expectations. Colorado Springs, CO: Multinomah Books.

26. Howard Zinn. “The Optimism of Uncertainty” in Martin Keogh, editor. 2010. Hope Beneath Our Feet. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, pp. 279-280.

27. Ivan Illich. 1989. Ibid.

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