Thursday, October 9, 2008

Super Futures

Children starting Kindergarten this year will retire in the year 2068. Their teachers are to prepare them for their future without knowing what that future will really be. In the past visionaries, philosophers and futurists have imagined futures that have turned out to be true. I propose we look to modern-day visionaries, philosophers and futurists for a glimpse of the possible futures of those children just entering school this fall.
Smart children have been around since the dawn of history. Yet only certain periods in Earth’s history have produced true geniuses and creators; people whose contributions have benefitted humanity in some way or another adding complexity to our species. Social scientist Howard Gardner delineates the indispensible role of circumstances in the production of the world’s geniuses (Gardner, 1993). Gardner argues creative people possess unusual combinations of intelligence and personality but must be surrounded by informed peers and have the support of caring individuals who believe in their ideas; that is, creative individuals require a supportive milieu to thrive. Such a milieu ignited the fifteenth century Renaissance producing creators such as Galileo Galilei and Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Machiavelli among others. A similar early twentieth-century milieu also ushered in the modern era pushing smart people, like Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky, T.S. Eliot, Martha Graham and Mahatma Gandhi, towards greater human complexity and humanitarian contribution.
Could we be at the brink of a new Renaissance? Many modern-day visionaries, philosophers and futurists think so. American futurist, Daniel Pink, labels this new age, The Conceptual Age. He sees the rise of “high concept” and “high touch”. According to Pink (2006),

High concept involves the capacity to detect patterns and opportunities, to create artistic and emotional beauty, to craft a satisfying narrative, and to combine seemingly unrelated ideas into something new. High touch involves the ability to empathize with others, to understand the subtleties of human interaction, to find joy in one’s self and to elicit it in others, and to stretch beyond the quotidian in pursuit of purpose and meaning.

Harvard biologist and Pulitzer-prize winning author E.O. Wilson (1999) suggests the way to this new Conceptual Age is through Consilience; or a unification of all the great branches of learning, a kind of hyper-interdisciplinarism that will move humanity exponentially to complexity. Wilson states (1998)

What I've done is simply point out what the trends are in the increasing [blending] of the scientific disciplines. . . . We've seen everything that we conventionally call biology and the natural sciences now linked with a web-work of cause-and-effect explanation running from particle physics all the way to ecosystem studies and the brain sciences. The idea of consilience, then, is simply an observation that this is what is happening, and a projection into the future that this will continue.

This unification of knowledge coupled with breakthroughs in techniques and technology enable people to meet their higher potential. Young people today break records at earlier and earlier ages. Science writer Phillip Ross attributes the proliferation of chess prodigies, for example, to the advent of computer-based training methods "that let children study far more master games and to play far more frequently against master-strength programs than their forerunners could typically manage.” (2006). The potential of today’s smart children is unprecedented in human history.

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