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Responsibility for the Future: What Education Can and Cannot Do


The other day, when I was talking with my colleague Professor Hiroyuki Hirota, he asked, "When you do research in education, how far into the future do you think about? If we assume that a child who is ten years old today will live until age 80, that's until 2070. Do you do research that looks that far ahead?" I was stunned. I had only thought myself responsible for up until around 2020 in my own research. But it's true, if we think about where the children of today are headed, the work that we do in education is dealing with a time that exceeds that of our own lifetimes. It caused me to be aware of some simple, clear questions. Professor Hirota, who has had great success in the research of educational history, raised an excellent question and it was probably because of his sensitive grasp of the complex issue of time.

We tend to be, above all, interested in the issues at hand. Solving problems of the students in the "here and now" is easy to accept as our work. For us, living as we do in the present, somehow we lack both the freedom and the perspective to effortlessly overcome the barriers of time and imagine how present problems connect up with the future. However, it is worth asking the question of whether problem-solving in the "here and now" is something that essential in educational work. What sort of meaning does making children happy in the "here and now" have in the lives of those children decades from now? What sort of society will be created by guaranteeing that they have an "enjoyable school life" in the "here and now," when decades from now those children have grown into adults? In fact it is likely that many theories will arise in connection with treating each child in our presence as important, and what kind of society that these children will build when they grow up. Having a happy childhood, an "enjoyable school life"--is it connected to what sort of society will come into being in 2070? In recent educational controversies, many such long-range questions have begun to emerge.

For Japanese, who created an "affluent society" at a frantic pace, recent thinking about educational issues has been in the "here and now" of how to create happiness for each individual child. The problems of bullying and truancy are basically built on of the concepts of valuing each individual child and enriching "school life now." It is not that I want to say that these are not important. However, by placing so much emphasis on these problems, aren't we avoiding the most basic problem that education has to deal with in our society, in other words the idea of "building the society of the future"?

What sort of society do we want to help our children to build? Even without thinking of 2070, it does not take much information to imagine what sort of problems will beset our country and our world in the third and fourth decades of the 21st century. Domestically, the problems of an aging society and a falling birth rate, and on a global scale the widening of the economic gap between the North and the South and population growth, and in the environment as well--doesn't the job of responsible education in an affluent society include giving our children the skills to anticipate and solve such difficult problems?

In the past, educational ideals were spoken of in terms of plans for future society: before the war it was "construction of a modern nation" and "a rich country and a strong army;" after the war it was "building a democratic society" and "high economic growth." In comparison, it is difficult to even to imagine an ideal society in our future, under the weight of the problems we have to solve. In our era, where the very existence of humankind depends on whether we can find adequate solutions to our problems, what can education do, and what can it not do? Isn't thinking about educational responsibility from a point of view that takes into account realistic hypotheses about the future different from optimistic, groundless theorizing? I would like to once again consider the idea that education is an enterprise that can be brought to fruition within history and a broader understanding of time.

This article is a translation of
Kariya, Takehiko. 1999. Responsibility for the Future: What Education Can and Cannot Do (in Japanese). Gekkan shinken nyusu chugakusei ban Vol. 242 (published by Benesse Corporation): 6.


Takehiko Kariya
Sociologist of education; Ph.D. in sociology from Northwestern University. Books include "Gakko tte Nandaroo" (What is School?) published by Kodansha Publishing Company.
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