High Hopes and Empty Debates

Life Skills February 21, 2019

It is often said that we live in declining societies, that there is concern for their future. It therefore comes as no surprise that we, particularly we here in France, love to debate and argue about education, whose role is precisely to prepare our children for the world of tomorrow. The matters in dispute are numerous and often comply with the same sad rules that govern today’s public debate sphere: buzz, controversies, caricatures of social divides and the continuous dissemination of fake-news.

The study IPSOS carried out for the WISE forum, being held these days in Paris, bears witness to our relationship to education and to the future of the labour market in two ways. On the one hand, and this seems at first glance to be good news, the people surveyed are, on the whole, confident about the future of work: 78% of young Europeans surveyed, 86% of recruiters and 74% of education specialists. An unexpected result in view of the pervasiveness of collapsology in our rhetoric and our public debates. The main factors put forward to explain this optimism include the expected developments in how we work (more flexible hours), the values promoted in the context of work and evolving management methods. Most importantly, for young Europeans as well as for recruiters and education professionals, there is the anticipated positive impact of technological advancements such as artificial Intelligence on the labour market and on ways of working.

Yet, at a time when artificial intelligence experts are continuously warning us of the upheavals to come and as, in the very heart of Silicon Valley, we are beginning to question what we believed was the indestructible and logical connection between technological and social progress, this optimism too is called into question. And this reassessment is made all the more legitimate by the fact that the people surveyed, the study tells us, are as much “techno-enthusiasts” as they are defiant towards current human organizational systems—education, democracy, economy—they deem are failing and in which they have simply ceased to believe. Correlation? Causality?

There is cause for concern when we observe the coexistence between optimism towards what is machine and deep distrust, if not outright rejection, towards what is human (specifically the education system) and so should be preparing our children to master this machine.

Although 77% of young Europeans believe themselves prepared for the developments brought about by robotization or artificial intelligence, there are grounds for doubt in respect to the fact that the same individuals also believe the education system does not adequately prepare young people for these technologies and their consequences, and in light of the fact that there are fewer than 10 000 experts on this subject in the entire world. Optimism can be a formidable driving force, it encourages risk-taking and boldness, but it must not turn into self-deception and entrapment.

Essentially what this study tells us is that most people can no longer imagine reconciling projection for the future and adjustment of the current system to better prepare for it. And yet answers exist. There are solutions that, far from re-establishing the school systems of old, lauded by some, take the shape of innovative schools that enable the acquisition of skills such as the ability to collaborate, creativity, proficiency in computer tools, foreign languages, all of which will be key to employability in the future. But who knows? After so many public debates on education have gone awry, after so many stereotypical questions have avoided facing up to the real issues, there is no more space in public conversations to expose those answers and to collectively adopt a relevant strategy for our school systems.

This study tells us that if we do not learn to correctly restate the debate about the future of our education system, we are preparing for a world in which admittedly, thanks to the autonomous car, we will no longer need to learn to drive, but where the technological and ethical implications of the aforementioned car will be beyond our understanding. Our obsession with yesterday’s debates may well prevent us from anticipating today and tomorrow’s challenges, with the risk being that the school system, far from impelling emancipation, become instead a source of alienation. It is therefore time to move beyond our complacent optimism and our nostalgia for yesterday’s schools, and to sensibly and serenely ask the questions that are truly fundamental for our children: which skills do we need to teach, which technical and ethical training in digital technologies, which values, which lifelong training do we need to promote, what link must we create between education and employers… This is a matter of urgency.