Christopher ZinnIn my childhood and adolescence, I was excited for the future—not my own future, but the future. I marveled at the new and nifty solid state rectifier my father brought home from his Navy ship to serve, magically, as a voltage converter for my model railroad. A large portion of my very small earnings went toward issues of Popular Science, Tom Swift, Jr. novels, and Estes model rocket engines. I pondered the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey—what was it saying about the future of humanity?—and when I watched in wonder the lunar landing, the conviction took hold that, somehow, the constraints of earlier ages were falling away, that gravity had, in a sense, ceased to matter. The future of the world was bright and limitless, and it promoted feelings of optimism and hope.

For a while now it has struck me that the young people I teach today seem to have a very different expectation of the future. No matter the cause—climate change, political meltdown, diminished economic expectations, to name a few obvious ones—high school students seem to regard the future as a dark cloud looming toward them, inevitable and irreversible. The future, that future, makes them fearful. Irony, black humor, and understandable anger and resentment take the place once held in youthful hearts by hope (however simplistic that hope may have been).

As a literature teacher who believes that the stories we choose to tell ourselves say something about who we are or want to be, and as a cultural historian curious about generational shifts, I wanted to find a way to explore this topic with our students. We think of the senior year as focused on the student’s developing relation to the world at large as we prepare to “send them forth in freedom.” For this reason alone, the second semester class on “America in the World” seemed a good opportunity. This course had once been designed to give students a picture of “recent history”—the 20th century—and of the role of the United States in the modern world. The intention had been to draw the long arc of our history curriculum—which begins with the first human communities and civilizations—toward the present (or at least its immediate prehistory!) in the senior year. More recently, we shifted our four year history curriculum forward, so that students now study post-WW II history in the 11th grade, and can move into the study of the present, perhaps even the future, their future, in grade 12.

I planned the class with the conviction that hope for and confidence in the future have been important if not essential components of human progress toward freedom; as self-governing people, our ability to discern things about the future was something that needed to be cultivated just like our other human abilities. It meant that thinking about the future isn’t just a matter of extrapolating from what seem undeniable facts or tendencies in the present. It also meant cultivating the ability to imagine alternative futures, to envision better worlds. This form of Utopian thinking allows the mind and the heart to imagine and give spiritual energy to the composition of a picture that seems both impossible and real–a form of vivid imagining that can lead to real results. It involves a refusal to be bound conceptually by “realistic” considerations, what William Blake termed “mind forg’d manacles.” It is what Martin Luther King accomplished when he was able to imagine what he called “belovèd community” at a moment when the evidence of his or anyone’s senses would have convinced them that there were no signs of such a community in the America of his time. With that picture, King was able to depict a way for our society to move forward from racism and segregation.

Thus the mantra for the class came from futurist Nick Montfort: “The future is not something to be predicted, but to be made.” At the beginning of the class we asked, “how can we practice “future-making?” First, we looked at stories about the future, beginning with George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four. Published in 1949, Orwell’s picture of the world in 1984 was, in effect, a confirmation and extrapolation of what he witnessed in the world at the beginning of the Cold War and the truths he perceived about post-war society, truths which most well meaning folks in the western democracies did not acknowledge. Orwell’s purpose was not so much to exercise that Utopian capacity as to imagine what it would be like if it no longer existed in human beings. In daily seminar discussions, we pondered the accuracy of Orwell’s picture, absorbed the crushing insights he conveyed, and took note, for later use, of the many “inflection points” through which he traced the outlines of his future world. Our second future fiction, Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed (1974), offered a more ambidextrous account of possible futures, focusing on two different planets, each with their Utopian characteristics. Like other science fiction writers of her time, LeGuin imagined a vast planetary system and chronology that allowed her to explore possible worlds and relate them along an imagined historical axis in which Earth held a place in the now distant past. The scope and boldness of her projected world, and the dialectical character of her comparative Utopias, encouraged an even more speculative approach to imaging possible futures.

Emboldened and, I hope, equipped by these examples, the students were then asked to create their own “prognosis,” their attempt at “future-knowing,” in whatever format seemed most hospitable to their ideas. Most of the students chose to write narratives that take place in an imagined future, and they skillfully used the tool of “inflection points” (basically, details that hint at possible systematic developments) to make those pictures vivid and plausible. The quality of their work, and the way they engaged in this activity, convinced me that this is a worthwhile, perhaps essential, inquiry in the senior year, but I also recognize there is work to do to improve the class. For one thing, many of the students’ accounts leaned toward the dystopian rather than the utopian side of imagining. While this no doubt reflects the difficulties of our times, their true sense of things, it may also be true that we just need to practice more Utopian world building, so that we can actually become more skilled at imagining the future. Of course, given the events of the past several weeks (I am now working with my students remotely as we try to respond to a pandemic!), my students’ thoughts about the future may have shifted even further away from Utopian possibilities. But there can be no doubt that we need to learn how to make better futures, and even though hunkered down in relative isolation, I am looking forward to the next group of future-makers to see if we can, working together, imagine worlds whose futures we would welcome.
Chris's and his future students