Social Education 64(1), ©2000 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.

Footsteps of a New Millennium

H. Michael Hartoonian and Richard Van Scotter

Education is simply the soul of society as it passes from one generation to another.

—G. K. Chesterton

 

Passage into the new millennium has rekindled the desire to think that we can start our culture and ourselves over again. But our selective imagination, born out of the Abrahamic concept of privileged responsibility and the allure of conquering the next frontier, may put us at risk. This risk can be defined as cultural amnesia, the inability to comprehend the landscape of our past—so replete with scars as well as beauty. Each mark upon that landscape holds clues and secrets for us, but only if we can read the wisdom hidden in its record of cultural and environmental events. This is a search for what is not immediately apparent to understand the unseen forces that explain observable events. For without an understanding of our past, we live each day from hand-to-mouth.

Three essential questions—What to keep? What to throw away? What to build anew?—arise from reflections about the past. Addressing these questions can provide our collective imagination with the nourishment needed to sustain human intimacy, aesthetic awareness, economic well-being, and community identity. Every culture and every individual must struggle with these questions. Now, as we enter the new millennium, these questions arise within a landscape grown more global, more diverse, more technologically sophisticated, and potentially more dangerous than ever before.

As we leave one culturally-fragmented epoch and prepare to enter this new landscape, we appear like Adam and Eve as Milton describes their departure from Eden in the last chapter of Paradise Lost.

Some natural tears they dropped,

but wiped them soon;

The world was all before them,

where to choose

Their place of rest,

and Providence their guide.

They, hand in hand,

with wandering steps and slow,

Through Eden took their solitary way.

Of course, culture cannot simply be “left behind.” Time, and the cultures that pass through it, may appear to have boundaries. Likewise, place may seem comprehensible only when we create borders, territories, and regions. These are illusions. Time, space, and culture all are fast losing their meanings in a world that requires global coherence as much as local identity.

The new millennium presents a temporal border that we are crossing. But the continuity we maintain with the past is essential to how we traverse this frontier. How well we live with others will depend, in large part, on the stories we tell about the past in order to maintain our bonds with each other. Our task is to find the right stories from the past to help us live responsibly and navigate into the future. The darker view is that we have lost the stories that once guided our journey; if so, they must be reinvented.

We do have stories these days, but those that inform and shape us appear passionless and cold. They motivate, but hardly nurture, the spirit. Take our misunderstanding of capitalism and our simple devotion to a market system that conveys the story of economic utility. As Neil Postman explains in The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School, this story says that if a person pays attention in school, does one’s homework, and scores well on tests, he or she will be rewarded with a high-paying job. The driving idea here is that the purpose of schooling is to prepare people for competent entry into the economic life of the community. It holds that America is not so much a culture as an economy.

The appeal of economic utility is its close association with another compelling narrative – comsumership. If a person gets a good job, then what? As the story goes, he or she will have ample amounts of disposable income to spend at shopping malls, along motor city strips, through mail order catalogues, and on the Internet. Or, as Postman states it, while the tale of economic utility postulates that you are what you do for a living, consumership says you are what you accumulate.

The stories we live by can bound our imaginations and blind us, or they can awaken and inspire us. Of course, territorial boundaries serve useful purposes, but we might want to cast them in a light similar to the view of Aldo Leopold, who gave us the concept of “land ethic,” as expressed here in a passage from The Sand County Almanac:

One hundred and twenty acres, according to the County Clerk, is the extent of my worldly domain. But the County Clerk is a sleepy fellow who never looks at his record books before nine o’clock. What they would show at daybreak is the question here at issue.

Books or no books, it is a fact, patent both to my dog and myself, that at daybreak I am the steward of all the acres I can walk over. It is not only boundaries that disappear, but the thought of being bounded. Expanses, unknown to deed or map, are known to every dawn, and solitude, supposed no longer to exist in my county, extends on every hand as far as the dew can reach.

This special section of Social Education is about the continuity of human history and the shaping of the future from long cultural streams. It is about our ability to see anew that which was already there. It is about our passion to “read” the future in the footprints of the present. The essays presented here explore in various ways how our contemporary conditions are connected to the past. Hopefully, they can help us to develop or reaffirm the stories, ideas, and conceptual frameworks we need to bring our minds and hearts to bear in navigating the landscape of the 21st century.

The current conventional wisdom suggests that in preparing for the future, we should consult mainly our engineers, economists, computer wizards, and corporate vanguard—who in fact seem curiously absorbed with the past. In an age of information glut and incoherence, their response is to create more of the same. In an era of unprecedented affluence, they appear preoccupied with economic growth rather than with the creation of genuine human wealth. At a time when incivility in schools and society calls for fostering character and constructing meaning, they demand narrow standards to measure content only.

If we want to discover those footprints that will lead us to a more sane, just, and good society, as Postman reminds us, we will need to call on our poets, playwrights, artists, theologians, humorists, philosophers—and educators.

As Maya Angelou envisions our embarkation on this age-old quest,

Lift up your eyes upon

This day breaking for you.

Give birth again

To the dream.

 

H. Michael Hartoonian is a professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, College of Education and Human Development, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. He was NCSS president in 1995-96.

Richard Van Scotter is vice president-education, Junior Achievement Inc., Colorado Springs, CO.