As I step back into the classroom for another year of teaching freshmen about science, its wonders and its cultural impacts, I am, once again, confronted with a dilemma.
What do I teach them about the future?
It's hard to imagine how the generation of kids sitting in those seats can avoid facing a different kind of world and a different set of challenges than what I expected to face at the same age. From energy issues to climate change to resource limits, our kids may face an array of imperatives forcing them to become the heroic generation, whether they want to be or not.
So what do we tell them?
What do we teach them?
The ethics of this question touches many of life's compass points. Randy Curren is a professor of philosophy here at the University of Rochester. He has done a lot of work on the philosophy of education and what it tells us about our responsibilities in preparing the next generation for this new kind of future. It was in conversations with Curren that I first heard the term "disaster ethics" as in what are ethical norms when the floodwaters are rising.
Curren is currently studying the ethics of sustainability education. The questions that field raises acknowledges "sustainability" to be "the defining challenge of our time." But, it asks, how are we to understand sustainability's ethical dimensions. "What are the principles most important to capturing what is ethically at stake, and what do they imply for personal ethics, professional ethics, and social ethics?" As Curren sees it, "these are basic questions ... and the answers to them are far from settled in theory, let alone in practice."
So how far and how fast? This generation of students already has a mixed view of their futures as the toll of the great recession withers job markets. They certainly have had an earful of climate change even if what they have heard may have little to do with the science it’s based on. In the wake of 9/11 they have grown up in a world where security has been both an omnipresent watchword and a feeling that has been hard to come by. Beating these kids over the head with doom will not likely help much.
If there are challenges ahead, then all our children need to be given the knowledge that can help them prepare to take their own reins. Neither watering down our best understanding nor toppling hope in waves of anxiety makes sense. But avoiding the issue entirely will simply be a retreat from responsibility.