THINKING CRITICALLY ABOUT THE FUTURE

Todd Nussen, BHP Teacher
New York, USA

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Milky Way, lightning, airglow—Kiribati, central Pacific Ocean. Image courtesy of the Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center. Public domain.

From preparing for the potential impact of a changing climate, to working out methods to feed a quickly growing population, it certainly seems that we’re concerned about our future. As history teachers, we feel obligated to make sure our students understand their world today. Don’t we also have a duty to teach our students how they can help sculpt the future?

Kurt Vonnegut once suggested we create a new presidential cabinet position—Secretary of the Future. He believed it would behoove the leaders of the free world to have someone who would advise policy makers on how to plan for the future we want and avoid the future we don’t. This seems natural since we—like other organisms—have an innate drive to have our genes live on in future generations. Humans are unique in that we also possess the remarkable ability to pass on not only our genes, but also information that future generations can use and build on. Humans, unlike any other organism, can actually plan for and even shape the future. If we’re “programmed” to secure a safe environment for our descendants, why not have a qualified adviser to protect our future as a community, a country, or, for that matter, as a species?

The Big History curriculum is designed to allow students to use ideas from the past to explore what the future might be like. It asks students to hypothesize what the future might hold for our planet and our species in one thousand years, one million years, even one billion years. In our Big History/World History course, we allot adequate time for examining current political, economic, and environmental issues in order to address a more immediate future. We ask students to think about a future they’ll be around for—one in the year 2050, for example. This is a future that our students can quite possibly influence, if they think critically and plan appropriately.

The activities in BHP Unit 10 ask students to do things like assemble teams of experts to help plan for a future millions or billions of years from now. Students might call on physicists and astronomers to devise a way for our species to survive in a sunless future, or recommend that botanists figure out how to cultivate crops on Mars. Activities like this are excellent ways to utilize Big History skills and are also a fun way to end the course; however, Big History/World History can also ask students to take part in molding the future they’ll be living in just decades from now.

To do this, students must first answer some daunting questions:

  • What are the most significant threats to maintaining our way of life?
  • Do we want to maintain our current way of living or change it?
  • How are we beginning to solve these problems?
  • How can we begin to influence the future, starting today?

An excellent place for students to look for answers to these questions is the BHP website itself. Gapminder.org and un.org are two of many other websites that I encourage my students to use to find out more about current issues that different regions and groups are facing.

Once the problem has been identified and researched, students choose a course of action to help rectify the problem by answering another set of questions:

  • Does money need to be raised?
  • Do more people need to be aware of this issue?
  • Will creating a petition show policy makers that this is an issue that many agree needs attention?
  • How can I construct a letter that demonstrates my concerns? Whom do I send it to?

If we want them not only to think critically about the near future, but also to shape it, students need to learn how to take action. MoveOn.org and millenium-project.org are two websites that teach students how to take action on issues they feel passionately about. These organizations help students distribute petitions, create charity fundraisers, and even show them how to write letters to policy makers. Not only does taking action allow students to use the Big History skills of supporting claims, using texts, constructing arguments, and thinking across disciplines, it also teaches them about the democratic process as well.

Abraham Lincoln said: “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” If we encourage our students to think about the future and how they can shape it, we might just have an entire generation qualified to serve as Secretary of the Future.

About the author: Todd Nussen has been teaching world history for more than 10 years at Oceanside High School in New York. His schedule includes two ninth-grade BHP classes. Each 40-minute class has about 30 students.