Lessons from the Educating for a Bright Future Conference
by Satya Tanner
In July 2019, I gave a presentation at their Global conference in Salorno, Italy. The purpose was to go through a futures gaming process developed by Sohail Inayatullah called the Prout Parliament Game (1).
We adapted it to the Neohumanist education context, and the purpose was to enable participants to become more aware of their worldview and its limitations, as well as understanding how to make neohumanist education policy decisions free (somewhat) of sentiment.
Introducing Neohumanism and Futures
Neohumanism is a worldview based on the ethic of universal love that tries to encompass multiple perspectives, embraces diversity but also attempts to remove inequity. Neohumanist education is an approach that attempts to develop the whole self, not just academic skills. Rather it includes character development and ethics (2).
I began by giving an outline of futures by explaining what it is not, based on my own experience working in leadership fields: that operations is a short term reactive period, strategy is longer term allowing for planning rather than reaction, and that ‘futures’ is a space beyond strategy where there is so much uncertainty that strategic planning in the traditional sense loses its value. You cannot bring into the present a future that you cannot imagine (3), therefore I clarified that in ‘futures’ we use a series of tools that expand imagination and vision, whilst simultaneously developing learning systems that allow us to respond to change (4).
I went on to explain that we are living in a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguious (VUCA) world (5). The volatility we experience is a period of rapidly increasing time where individual actions can have a large impact, but also it is a time that requires vision and practice to bring alternative futures into our present (6). We began by broadly exploring 5 themes from the perspective of what was emerging, and what new narratives might exist:
Climate change and the food chain
Student driven learning
The rise of fascism
The rise of women
Mapping the Future
We said that it was 2039 and did anticipatory mapping on 1 of 6 imagined trends (based on current emerging issues) using the futures wheel. These were:
The neohumanist education (NHE) revolution – becomes national policy
The energy shift to renewables – 50% of all homes
Vegetarian as the new normal – 50% of all food
The conservative revival – 55% of all adults
Gender equity – 50% of all boards and positions of power
Technologies of the mind – 8 million in your region practice meditation (or 36%)
The purpose of the mapping exercise was for participants to practice thinking through the consequences of policy/trends, to think beyond their worldview and to repeatedly incorporate shadow aspects.
In the education revolution mapping example, we see more children meditating and having a fully developed ethical character leading to more benevolent leadership in society. However, we also see a potential rise in private religious schools reacting to the rise of meditation. This led us to uncover the disowned elements of the futures we were imagining.
The Disowned Side of Futures
Identifying ‘shadow’ or disowned future of policy decisions and trends helps to prevent utopian thinking and keeps the future dynamic. Of the topics available, the three most popular were Renewables, NHE revolution and Gender equity and their conclusions are described below:
Participants found that the energy shift to renewables would have obvious benefits (less pollution, less environmental consequences etc) but also bring up challenges such as disposal or competition with agriculture that would need strategies to combat unintended impacts. Renewables as the new polluter was a potential ‘disowned’ side that was acknowledged and needed solutions.
The Neohumanist education revolution led to all the ideals that make the participants so passionate about the topic (ethical society, full character development, benevolent leadership, less crime). However at what point might Neohumanist education also become a dogma or a fascist version of its original self? Would there be a rise in private schools seeking an alternative from enforced Neohumanist education? What strategies might need to exist to keep it from becoming stale curriculum?
Gender equity brings greater equality and problem solving capacity in the world, but after a quick lesson in feminist basics with the group (i.e. the negative impact of narrow gender roles on human beings), it became clear that the disowned future within the rise of women lies within their mentality. If the women who are rising are a part of the dominant subordinated/pecking order then it will be more of the same power relationships that we see today. If the mentality of women is one of coordinated cooperation, then we will have a different future to look forward to.
Thus participants became more aware of their worldviews and the limitations of those worldviews. In Neohumanist theory, sentiment plays a role in guiding our decisions (7), therefore the next step was development of a checklist as a tool to help us make a more rational decision.
Developing and Testing Checklists
After developing the futures wheel and identifying the disowned future for their chosen topic, participants reverse engineered and presented a neohumanist policy checklist based on the trend they had chosen. The checklist was harder to develop than anticipated. To move from policy developer to policy evaluator via generic ‘good policy’ principles can be quite difficult. Participants were able to develop checklists for their original topic context quite well, but there was a tension between creating a checklist that was too specific to the policy and one that was too loose to give any meaning. For example a checklist for the NHE education revolution might include topics such as the quality of the curriculum regarding child development, but this doesn’t give any meaning when applied to the shift to renewable energy or gender equity.
In terms of what did work well, one particular group derived their checklist from the Gross National Happiness Domains (living standard, governance, education, health, ecology, community, time use and balance, culture, wellbeing) (8). Others were along similar principles such as inclusion, diversity, caring for future generations, whole ethical development, encouraging contemplative practice and wellbeing.
We tested their checklists for wider applicability on two “test” policies:
Tight regulation on meditation education
Relationship education for teenagers that includes navigating romantic relationships with robots
Tight regulation on meditation education was voted down because it didn’t allow for diverse ways of teaching or perhaps even diverse types of meditation. Relationship education for teenagers including the complexities of Artificial Intelligence was upheld due to the potential diversity of relationships in the future. However caution was made regarding the quality of the education, and what worldviews and values underpinned the education itself.
Funding and Politics
Participants were then asked to develop proposals for funding with the Ministry of Education and Lifelong Learning, and then to justify their proposal using their checklists. 3 presenters were picked. The first proposal was for non-compulsory meditation in schools with parental approval and accessibility to all. Key questions from the neohumanist policy checklist included the inclusiveness of the program and accessibility. Another group presented a program for schools that had some compulsory components and some optional components covering a scope that included yoga, meditation, and social service, and was student centred in its approach. The third proposal was for a “children in permaculture” program to be rolled out into schools. Their key questions included the degree of impact on future generations, encouraging compassion, and expanding the mind beyond limiting views.
The Minster for Education and Life Long Learning (role played by a younger woman, who in 20 years time will be approaching the age of a likely minister in 2039) evaluated the proposals. In classic ministerial fashion she chose to award the funding to the proposal that was the most cost effective, replicable and easy to be accepted in society. When comparing permaculture to meditation she said “It (permaculture) is a widely accepted concept”. As such she chose the children in permaculture program.
Her accurate embodiment of the ‘corridors of power’ perhaps left some wondering how they could have better sold their proposals. For others, perhaps they were left wondering how we will educate the next office holders in the corridors of power to be less risk averse. The young woman herself wondered whether there would be capacity to change the strict, repetitive curriculum and teaching methods in her home country, its conservative philosophical basis ironically embodied in her role play as Minister.
And for myself, I was left wondering how peer to peer or decentralised, student-led education might play a role in dismantling the corridors of power. If old ways of thinking gave us our current problems and are embedded in the systems and minds of our current and future policy makers, how will we advance newer, ‘politically riskier’ solutions? But in a time of volatility, small actors with vision can make large changes. Small actors are appearing on our horizon, so I concluded that not only is the future bright, but also exciting.
In summary the conclusions from the activity were:
Seeing the disowned future in our worldviews is a necessary step in maintaining a truly neohumanist position
Neohumanist policy checklists are not so easy to develop in a short period of time, but the work of organisations such as the Gross National Happiness Center provide an excellent starting point. Further additions to the checklist included inclusion, diversity, impact on future generations, encouraging contemplative practice, expansion of mind and ethical/compassionate development.
A good policy is subject to both your ability to sell it, and the political will of the decision makers whose skills are governed by the system they came out of. i.e. a more conservative system will result in more conservative decision makers.
To see the presentation in full you can access it here:
For more on Neohumanist education, see: Sohail Inayatullah, Marcus Bussey and Ivana Milojevic. Eds. Neohumanist Educational Futures. Tamsui,Tamkang University, 2006.
Comments made by Sohail Inayatullah based on the work of Fred Polak. In his book, “The Image of the Future” (trans. Elise Boulding. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 1973), Fred Polak, describes how we are pulled into the future by the images we create of the future. Noting the link between the death of a culture and weak images, he makes an appeal, “The thinkers, leaders, and creators of our age still have all the wealth of the uncensored past and the vast reservoir of the open future to draw upon in creating new visions, plus the opportunity to bring the great mass of the citizenry into responsible partnership in fulfilling these visions.”