A couple of weeks ago I was at Toronto Digifest. It’s a festival I actually co-directed for several years in the early 00s but which has been dormant since 2005. It has now been started up again by its original founder, Luigi Ferrara. I was curious to see what it would be like and so went down to check it out.
One of the keynote speakers was Run Burnett, President of Emily Carr College of Art and Design. He gave a good talk, which interested me above all for two reasons:
1) He spoke at length about orality, making the point that our digital future was connected to our oral past. And even though his grasp of the nature of their connection was limited, just noting their connection is a huge insight that few people get. Since my new book, You Are Your Media, explains the connection between oral and digital cultures more comprehensively than any other other, I gave him a copy so he would get the full picture.
2) He spoke about the future of education in the digital age, and was adamant that existing educational institutions are inadequate to address the needs and potential of the next generation of creative learners. I totally agree. He also said that they aren’t even good enough to handle the needs of today’s learners, which I think is also true. This is a message I had heard again and again at the Mobility Shifts conference in New York a week earlier – that despite the best efforts of progressive educators, public education is fundamentally ‘broken’. So I asked Ron Burnett what conditions he felt were essential to create the sort of institutional revolution that would be required to ‘unbreak’ public education and genuinely meet the needs of 21st century students. His answer (paraphrased) was: “The kids need to do it for themselves. We can’t do it for them. So I spend most of my time trying to radicalize them.”
And I like this answer. Because I too think that only the kids can push forward the changes that need to happen, and yet they are not aware of their own power or of the urgency of the situation. They are distracted, intimidated, and in some cases pampered. Which is depressing. And it needs to change. Western students today may not have the demographic advantages that they did when their radicalism transformed society in the 1960s, but they possess a massive cultural advantage as masters of digital knowledge and systems. If only they could take advantage of that advantage, if only they could recognize that their desire for a more sustainable, creative and equitable world is actually attainable through hyper-efficient collaborative activism, the rest of us geezers could throw our weight behind them. But so long as they are brainwashed into thinking that paying off student debt is the end goal of human life, we’ll be stuck on the same old toxic treadmill, learning the same misguided lessons and paving the way to a broken future.
So how do we radicalize our kids?