Don’t Let the Shadow of the Future Cloud Children’s Lives

One of the many gifts I received from my attendance at the Radical Nemesis: Ivan Illich conference on April 1 was getting together with old friends and colleagues, many of whom I hadn’t seen in some time. Though the conference was quite good, the conversations we had after the event, during dinner and breakfast, were, to me, even more interesting. Indeed, Dan Grego, the director of the TransCenter for Youth in Milwaukee, had many sharp things to say, particularly when our conversation moved to education.

I often note, as others of like-mind do too, that we should live with and enjoy our children now, in the moment, and that it is okay to ignore what the state curriculum says we need to be making our children learn now and instead focus on what the children are actually interested in and are motivated to do, no matter how far removed from conventional schooling it appears to be to us.

During this conversation Dan referred to Ivan’s idea of “the shadow the future throws” on our present thoughts and actions. Dan told me the following story, which is part of a longer work in progress that he shared with me following the conference. Dan plans to publish the complete article soon, but he gave me permission to use these excerpts.

The Educator’s Folly

Back in 2004, the National Council of La Raza received grants to support the creation of Early College High Schools across the country and determined that some of them would be in Wisconsin.  A press conference was held at the Milwaukee Area Technical College to announce the initiative.  I was invited to attend.

When I arrived, crews from several local television stations were setting up their cameras and microphones.  A group of young people enrolled in the alternative high schools that had been selected to participate in the project were sitting in the back of the room waiting for the dignitaries to show up and the press conference to begin. 

I mingled with the students and chatted with some of them.  I got to know a young man named Ben who was seventeen.  After talking with him for a while, I made a prediction: 

In a few minutes, you and your friends will be asked to stand behind the podium and listen to the speakers.  At some point, one of them will say something like: “This is a great day for Milwaukee because our children are our future.”  When that happens, go over and grab the microphone away from whoever is speaking and tell him: “I’m here right now.”

The press conference began.  The students were herded behind the podium.  The president of the technical college welcomed everyone and introduced a representative from the National Council of La Raza who described the initiative.  Then, he invited the superintendent of the Milwaukee Public Schools up to the microphones.  The superintendent said: “This is a great day for Milwaukee because our children are our future.” 

Standing behind the cameras, I made eye contact with Ben and gestured to him to do what I had suggested.  He smiled shyly, looked down at his shoes, and shook his head.  The press conference droned on to its conclusion.  When it was over and the media people were packing up their equipment, Ben found me in the crowd. 

“How did you know someone would say that?” he asked.

“Because,” I answered, “most of the people in the adult world don’t believe you’re here.  They think you are somewhere else they call The Future.”


There are some practical reasons why educators should abandon their “obsessive speculations about the future.”  My conversation with Ben points to one of them.

For too long, in modern, industrial societies, adolescents have been given mixed messages.  Fashion designers and advertisers treat them as mini-adults and bombard them with seductive images intended to persuade them that they can be sexy at thirteen; while in schools, they are often infantilized.  They are told over and over again in subtle, and sometimes in not so subtle, ways that they cannot be expected to make real, useful contributions to their communities until some nebulous “future.”  No wonder so many young people feel they are “growing up absurd.”[1]

. . .  A second drawback of educators’ obsession with the future is that it is actually a hindrance to parental involvement in the education of their children.  Parents, of necessity, must live in the present.  They have mortgages to pay, homes to care for, neighbors they are obliged to love as they love themselves, communities to which to contribute.  If children are being educated for The Future, then schools are separating, in a fundamental way, children from their parents.  And Wendell Berry has pointed out this separation inevitably leads to the undermining of communities:

Neither teachers nor students feel themselves answerable to the community, for the school does not exist to serve the community.  It exists to aid and abet the student’s escape from the community into ‘tomorrow’s world,’ in which community standards, it goes without saying, will not apply.[2]

This obsession with The Future is, by definition, irresponsible.  To be responsible is “to be able to respond” to someone or something.  Since the future has yet to happen, one cannot possibly respond to it.  The consequences of the obsession, both for individuals and for communities, are almost entirely negative.

. . . I think our future-obsessed educators misunderstand the true purpose of education.  Education is the process by which people become responsibly mature members of their communities.  If young people develop character, become familiar with their cultural inheritance and the wisdom of the past, and acquire the habits of mind that will help them think critically, they will find their way to productive adulthood. 

By placing the use of the energy and talents of our youth in abeyance, by separating children from their parents and thereby undermining communities, and by irresponsibly presuming to know the future, educators participate in folly, the proportions of which resemble a modern form of idolatry . . .

. . . C. Douglas Lummis, a former professor of International and Cultural Studies who taught in Japan, once asked Ivan Illich in an interview to speculate about a “possible future.”  Illich responded sharply: “To hell with the future!  It’s a man-eating idol.  Institutions have a future…but people have no future.  People have only hope.”[3] 

It has not always been this way.  In the past, in most cultures, people had the sense to know that the future was in the hands of the gods.  The classics scholar, Bernard Knox, wrote:

The early Greek imagination envisaged the past and the present as in front of us – we can see them.  The future, invisible, is behind us.  Only a few very wise men can see what is behind them; some of these men, like the blind prophet Tiresias, have been given this privilege by the gods.  The rest of us, though we have our eyes, are walking blind, backward into the future.[4]

The story of how human beings abandoned this understanding and began to believe that the future was ours to design and control is long and has been told a number of times . . . [5]

[1] Paul Goodman. 1960. Growing Up Absurd. New York, NY: Random House.

[2] Wendell Berry. 2002. The Art of the Commonplace. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, p. 63.

[3] Ivan Illich and David Cayley. 2005. The Rivers North of the Future. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, p. xix.

[4] Bernard Knox. 1994. Backing into the Future. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, pp. 11-12.

[5] See, for example: Robert Nisbet. 1980. History of the Idea of Progress. New York, NY: Basic Books; Morris Berman. 1981. The Reenchantment of the World. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press; Christopher Lasch. 1991. The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.  The story was also the theme of a novel that won (ironically?) the Turner Tomorrow Fellowship.  Daniel Quinn. 1992. Ishmael. New York, NY: Bantam Books.