The Grand United Duchy of States

Editorial: why must the future be “digital”?

The explosion of digital initiatives in high schools makes me wonder: what’s the point of education?  Photo: Heather Skau / Shutterstock

The explosion of digital initiatives in high schools makes me wonder: what’s the point of education?  Photo: Heather Skau / Shutterstock

Coding for kids, hackathons, closing the so-called “skills gap”… society seems locked onto one vision of the future, which it wants schools to help inaugurate: a technological utopia. But that’s narrow thinking, I say. And it’s not the purpose of education.

It’s a mainstream narrative: schools need to get with the times, overhaul their curricula and prepare kids for a future totally unlike anything human society has ever seen before. After all, waves of digital revolution are making some jobs obsolete and creating others out of thin air… decentralised ledgers are altering concepts as elemental as contracts and accounting… automation is reaching into the worlds of investing and transportation and translation… Without a revolution in schoolrooms, how can kids excel professionally in such a strange world?

Under the unsettling gaze of this hyper-technologised future, people are working hard to bring schools into the digital fold. This year a new subject, Digital Sciences, is being taught across the grand duchy in order to prepare students for a “hyper-digitalised environment” (the education ministry’s words), while the government’s “the future is SMART” campaign promotes high schools that offer training in hotbutton techy areas like smart buildings, mechatronics and IT (and which isn’t to be confused with its “future hub” label, awarded to schools that embrace technology). The mission of the government’s Digital4Education project, meanwhile, “is to prepare young people for a professional landscape of rapid and permanent change.” At the school level, changes are also being instituted: more than one lycée in Luxembourg has digital initiatives, iPad classes and other celebrations of gadgetry, and the Lycée Guillaume Kroll even launched a two-year degree in cybersecurity this year.

Crash an afternoon coffee break in Kirchberg or the Cloche d’Or and you’ll get an earful of the same: “The future is digital! Youngsters should get with the programme!” A sure way to get nods of approval is to suggest that coding is the skill of tomorrow, even if nobody is completely sure on the specific what, how or why of this futuristic undertaking. But the fervour is real: you can sign up your four-year-old for a coding class at Kid Skills Life (in English, French or Luxembourgish, no less). Or, if you missed that boat, your comparatively outdated eight-year-old will still be accepted at Code Club, which boasts over 1,000 pupils in Luxembourg.

The brainwash

I’m no luddite, but I find that between half and two-thirds of this conversation is missing. Is the point of education really to train kids for success in a techy future? Are we happy that coding-as-professional-competence has become an extracurricular activity for children?

And why is “digital” the only type of future we seem to be entertaining?

The frenzy over getting kids high-tech jobs surely stems from concerns over their future employability, the norms of which are, undoubtedly, changing. If so, the underlying anxiety in that concern is about their having a comfortable life. We want the next generation—the next local generation, more precisely, the kids in our own households—to live well and avoid hardship. I get that. I want it too. But it’s no big stretch to suggest that we’ve gone down something of a rabbit hole when it comes to what, apparently, is required for that comfortable life: tech, tech, tech.

By far the future most commonly depicted in Luxembourg (and elsewhere), and particularly in the business world, is that of a tech utopia. Any and all problems can be solved by digital means: green power can replace oil; blockchain can root out tax evaders; self-driving cars will make traffic accidents a thing of the past; etc. Even the circular economy, a noble enough idea, relies on big data and blockchain and, above all, tech startups.

It’s an exciting world, by all means. But I don’t remember being asked if it’s the best or only way—and much less if it’s up to schools to make that dream come true.

The same old broken system

Thanks to the familiar free-market forces behind this tech utopia, it will undoubtedly be, in reality, more of a tech dystopia with enclaves of privilege within it. Indeed, the tech industry seems to be anything but “disruptive” when it comes to the systems that facilitate it. Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, etc. are merely the latest barons of our society, drawing power from wealth and wealth from power, the same old story. Letting market forces blindly determine “solutions” for every little thing is exactly what got us into our present state of environmental catastrophe and widespread inequality.

But never mind. Even if you disagree with my take on the situation, I hope you will agree that educators do not exist to serve the economy—which is undeniably powering the tech mania. So how is it that Amazon’s hiring needs have made such drastic inroads on school curricula?

“I wanted this reform to ensure that every child and young person can acquire the skills to understand and play an active role in the digital world. Coding is the language of the 21st century!” said education minister Claude Meisch last year.

It is? Who decided that?

Disruption, but for real

“It’s not that hard to imagine the world being run better than we run it now,” said Kim Stanley Robinson, Hugo- and Nebula-winning author of The Ministry of the Future, in an interview recently. “That isn’t really the problem. The problem is: how would we get there from where we are now? Given the massive infrastructure and social system that we live in, the network of international and national laws, the economic system of neoliberal capitalism. It all looks—and wants to look—like the only alternative. It wants to look like it’s permanent.”

How, indeed, would we get there? I dare people to actually challenge the fundamentals of our power structures, of our economy, of our future. Specifically, I dare kids to challenge all that. In school. As public institutions outside the mechanics of the free market, schools are under no obligation to play into the demands of Jeff Bezos’s business model. They needn’t concern themselves with shooting digital-age coding wizards straight onto the payrolls of firms eager to monetise this expertise. They are places where systems can be studied and truly questioned.

So please stop the hype around coding classes for toddlers, hackathons for teenagers, young entrepreneur bootcamps. All these things might have their place, but I’d like to see an equal fervour for programmes on—who knows?—rewilding, local ecosystems, repair and maintenance, poetry…