The Age of the Unthinkable (Part I)

I have a goal of reading at least one non-educational (and non-fiction) book every couple of months and thanks to the SAIS’s Book Club on December 1st, I am currently reading The Age of the Unthinkable by Joshua Cooper Ramo.

To be honest, as I started reading Ramo’s first chapter I was disappointed when I saw the following: “We are entering, in short, a revolutionary age. And we are doing so with ideas, leaders, and institutions that are better suited for a world now several centuries behind us.”

Here We Go Again, I Thought.

Interestingly though, Ramo’s words take a turn…

“On one hand, this revolution is creating unprecedented disruption and dislocation. But it is also creating new fortunes, new power, fresh hope, and a new global order. Revolutions, after all, don’t produce only losers. They also – and this is the heart of the story I want to tell here – produce a whole new case of historical champions.”

A new global order. A new case of historical champions. The Age of the Unthinkable is about both. I wonder, though… What are we doing in education to create fertile ground to not only grow these historical champions but to help them navigate, learn, and engage in this new order?Are we providing our young learners with the language, creativity, and revolutionary spirit that Ramo argues many of our current leaders lack?

When I think of the learning that I have done in the past year, I am equally thankful for my Klingenstein cohort as I am for my growing network of online colleagues. Through Twitter and RSS and the many face-to-face conversations that happen as a result of my virtual learning, I have shifted my mindset about what it means to learn in the 21st Century. I understand more fully what George Kennan meant when he said, “Today you cannot even do good unless you are prepared to exert your share of power, take your share of responsibility, make your share of mistakes, and assume your share of risks.” I am able to do those things because of the people in my expanding network – many of whom I consider close friends and many of whom I have never met – who model this type of “doing good.”

What communities are we creating for our students – at all ages but especially at the elementary level? How are we to create “responsible, productive, and compassionate members of the expanding global community” (the last 10 words of Trinity School’s Mission Statement) if we continue to stay isolated in our classrooms, our grade levels, our schools?

I hope to push teachers at Trinity to consider these questions as we continue to engage in conversations about making learning relevant for kids. Ramo offers an interesting starting point for the conversation:

“The future demands a different resume. Today the ideal candidates for foreign-policy power should be able to speak and think in revolutionary terms. They should have expertise in some area of the world – be it China or the Internet or bioengineering – where fast change and unpredictability are the dominant facts of life. They should have experienced the unforgiving demands for precision and care that characterize real negotiation – as well as the magical effect of risk-taking at the right moments. They should have mastered the essential skill of the next fifty years: crisis management. And they should be inclined toward action, even action at times without too much reflection, since at certain moments instinct and speed are more important than lovely perfection of academic models.”

How do we develop revolutionaries, risk-takers, experts, negotiators, crisis-managers, and innovators?

In this ever flattening and increasingly global world, aren’t all of our students going to be engaged in some sort of foreign policy? Doesn’t every student have the potential to be a historical champion?

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5 thoughts on “The Age of the Unthinkable (Part I)

  1. Crisis managers? What an interesting idea for a role for which we want to prepare our students. In talking with PDobbs at lunch last week, we discussed her recent trip to the farmers market to pick up her mixed-load box. She just got what they put in the box. When faced with some unknown veggie, she had to do some research. She had a need-to-know moment that motivated her. I joked that our students get such a box everyday they come to school – they had no real say in what is in their mix of learning that day (to some degree). But are many responding with a need-to-know curiosity? Why or why not? Is it because there is no sense of crisis for them? Do they not sense that if they don’t learn how to prepare what’s been given them, that they might not eat and the “food” may go to waste? Maybe if we started by asking them to bring their own boxes-their own crises that they want solved…that they are willing to solve. Maybe they are tired with solving the teachers’ problems. Maybe they need a perceived crisis that matters to them…that has felt consequences. Then, they could develop that crisis-management muscle in authentic ways.

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  3. Bo — thanks, as always, for the comments. In 5th and 6th grade at T, I have seen the most interesting interactions (in perceived and occasional actual crises) during our outdoor education trips. These trips vary from two to five days in length and naturally present opportunities for students to serve as problem-solvers and crisis-managers. Interestingly, once teachers and students are back in comfortable quarters, many of those interactions and opportunities disappear. I do wonder how we — at Trinity — can re-think some of what happens on those outdoor ed trips to provide for more authentic right-brain growth.

    The more and more I think about the work that must happen “in the classroom,” the more frustrated I become with the rigid and deeply ingrained 19th and 20th century systems in place in our schools. I keep thinking that it’s not enough to make some of these shifts in piecemeal ways. And even with your S8 work, I suspect that some students “turn on” for the S8 class period and then go back to being passive participants throughout the rest of the day and into the evening. I keep going back to what Ramo writes: “they should be inclined toward action, even action at times without too much reflection, since at certain moments instinct and speed are more important than lovely perfection of academic models.” How do we make this happen in our schools? And, in light of throwing out everything in place of something new (doing the unthinkable — which I long to do!), is it worth it (for the students) to chip away — one experience after another or one elective class after the next— at the traditional model of doing school for the sake of doing school?

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