“Life is flux.”
-Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 500 BCE)
“The only lasting truth is change.”
-Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower (1993)
The philosopher Heraclitus lived about 2,500 years ago, back when most people could generally expect to live a life much like their parents and grandparents, and then fully expect to pass along a similar life to their children and grandchildren. In fact, most of humanity until quite recently lived in such a time. Plant in the spring; harvest in the fall. Bring the goats to high pasture in the summer; shelter in the valley below in the winter. Celebrate the annual rituals in the well-known ways over and over, generation after generation, and the divine will provide. Et cetera. Yet even with that slow, cyclical pace of life, observant people like Heraclitus could see that nothing ever really stays the same. He famously pointed out that even though a river may appear the same one day to the next, you can never truly step in the same river twice. So part of being a wise adult is learning how to deal with the inevitability of change.
So what about us? We, the frazzled masses of the 21st century? As we can see before our very eyes (and, like, on graphs and stuff), the rate of technological change in our world is rapidly accelerating. Furthermore, despite some potential hold-ups involving the physical limits of computer processing speed, overall technological change is likely to continue at a breakneck speed for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately for us planner-aheader types, we can’t predict exactly how it will develop, but we can be reasonably certain that it will develop. And it should go without saying that technological change drives forward economic, social, and environmental change, for better or for worse.
Yet humans, for all practical purposes, are staying exactly the same as we’ve ever been. We’re the same as we were in the 1990’s when Octavia Butler published her chilling and prescient Parable of the Sower, quoted above. We’re the same as we were when Heraclitus was wandering around the Mediterranean countryside, musing on the nature of the universe while generally trying to avoid everybody in it (he was famously misanthropic). For that matter, we’re basically the same as we were circa 200,000 years ago when our ancestors were moseying around the grasslands, snacking on roots and berries and the occasional woolly mammoth or whatever. Same old homo sapiens.
Yet wherever and whenever we find ourselves – in a prehistoric savanna, an unexplored arctic tundra, a theocratic city-state, a sanitized modern suburb, or a maze-like city of 20+ million others – humans have always found a way to survive and sometimes even thrive. How?
A lot of it boils down to Three Big Things: adaptability, variation, and cooperation. Each of these qualities deserves its own exploration, so today I want to talk about adaptability and how it keeps humanity going.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the importance of adaptability in our rapidly changing world. Like every-single-day a lot.
Humans are remarkably adaptable by nature. Even the most stodgy among us will change a bit over the course of a lifetime, and some hyper-adaptable weirdos will change a ton. Think about it: are you the same person you were 20 years ago, 5 years ago, yesterday? Is your best friend? Your spouse? And more generally, humans adapt not only on the individual level, but also on the group and population level. Whee! So much ability to change!
Our adaptable nature helps us learn how to survive and thrive in wildly disparate environments and conditions. Of course, once we’ve figured out something that really works, we also need to be able to lean on our capacity to recognize patterns and repeat what we’ve learned. You know, just chug along for a while. It’s a bit tiring trying to invent the wheel every day, after all. Ideally, individuals and groups will strike the necessary balance between change and repetition. When conditions are changing quickly, adaptability comes to the fore, and when things are more predictable, repetition settles in. Voilà: dynamic balance.
The situation right now in the early 21st century though is this: things are changing quickly, but instead of soon returning to a more predictable state when we can all just settle in for some sweet repetition, things are likely to continue to change quickly, but more so. That’s what an accelerating rate of change means. Shit.
Yet we’re still pretty invested in our love of repetition. And this tendency shows itself perhaps nowhere more than in our educational system.
“The Information Age has facilitated a reinvention of nearly every industry except for education.”
– Joel Rose, 2012
The American educational system as we know it largely took shape in the Industrial Era, and it continues to teach and reinforce Industrial Era habits and values today. So what did society need to instill in a young person to get along well in Industrial conditions? Things like this:
Keeping regular hours and being punctual five days a week and multiple times per day.
Sitting still in the same place for long periods.
Staying calm and complacent when higher-ranking individuals make excessive or absurd demands.
Churning out a high volume of product.
Following sometimes arbitrary rules set by authority figures.
Declaring allegiance to your local group and your nation.
Being routinely assessed in impersonal, standardized ways.
Following a predetermined path of advancement.
Being separated into groups based on status and/or skill level.
Sound familiar? You were probably taught all of these things from kindergarten right through high school, and perhaps even college if you happened to attend (about a third of Americans have a 4-year degree). You probably really believe in the value of at least one or two of these things, maybe even feel strongly about them. But nonetheless, they were habits and values that were largely developed in the cauldron of the Industrial Era, by people who wanted a functioning workforce to carry out Industrial Era tasks, perhaps with the goal of improving Industrial Era people’s lives, or perhaps mostly to help make Industrial Era owners very wealthy.
But this kind of education isn’t serving us well in the Information Age, and it sure as hell isn’t going to fly in whatever Age is rapidly approaching. We need an educational system that instills adaptability, not Industrial Era predictability and obedience. We need young people who can look into an uncertain future and come up with novel ideas and envision how to form them into reality. We need students who know how to ask “why” and then to delve into problems for deep and even transformative understanding. We need people who are ready to create and adjust to new types of workplaces, or possibly even new conceptions of what it means to work. We need adults who know how to nurture their children to be confident and resilient in the face of major changes to the conditions around them. We need people who know how to tap into their creativity and feel prepared to take meaningful creative risks.
This level of change in our education system will take much more than just an updating of our curriculum; as many insightful educators have pointed out, it will take a complete paradigm shift. In 2018, this paradigm shift is well past due.
Now don’t get me wrong: school isn’t the only place we learn, and there are many ways those of us who are blessedly done with that racket can go ahead and work on our own adaptability. But considering the average high school graduate spends about 15,000 hours of his or her precious youth in school (to say nothing of homework), we’d better make school count. Life is change: will we change with it?