Taking an agentive stance towards utopian Futures

By André L. L. F. Sales, PhD  – @andreluisleite.

The COVID pandemic exposed the reality and consequences of the enormous inequalities characterizing the current living standards in the world. In the field of education, the impacts were so brutal that the United Nations (UN) launched a campaign entitled “Save our Future.” In this piece, I summarize some of these harmful effects, discuss a specific understanding of how the Future is created, generally, and explore an approach for future design that explicits how human intentional activities are critical in the process of drafting the world we are going to live tomorrow.  All this is done in support of the UN’s claim that “while education is a victim of the pandemic, it is also the solution to the longer-term recovery..

In late July, Shelby Carvalho and Susannah Hares[1], from the Center for Global Development, discussed the Pandemic’s impact under the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 4 – “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”. The researchers pointed out that, with the slower or even negative economic growth predicted by the International Monetary Fund, there will likely be an increase in the ongoing cut of funding over educational budgets worldwide[2].

In many countries of the global South, the funding cuts will prevent students from returning to class. Meanwhile, the decrease in education resources is a key reason for the layoff of almost 3,000 adjunct professors from the City University of New York (CUNY) colleges in early July 2020, and for an ongoing battle between the Professional Staff Congress[3], the union that represents 30,000 faculty and staff at CUNY and the Chancellor Matos Rodríguez – leader of CUNY administration[4].

As distance learning activities rely on technological means that demand proper infrastructural conditions, Carvalho and Hares argue that income, race, and geography will modulate the educational-loss impact. Their claim reinforces the argument that inequality is a caveat to the dream of improving learning opportunities through technological devices. Whoever taught online classes to one of the 104,500 CUNY students whose median household income is less than $20,000 per year would consider the authors’ argument reasonable.

The United Nations (UN) policy recommendation for “Education during COVID-19 and beyond“, released in August 2020, recognizes these challenges and calls governments, stakeholders, and educators to construct “resilient education systems for equitable and sustainable development”(5). The methodology recommended to achieve this aim is audacious. It defies the educational community to “bring about a set of solutions previously considered difficult or impossible”(5). What has made the UN suggest reaching for the impossible as the appropriate road to be taken? Could a utopian methodology—one that orients towards the impossible rather than the given reality—be a pragmatic, efficient and responsible call for action to be made under such tough times?

Honor your past, imagine our Future

I borrowed this title from the final report published by the White House Millennium Council. Ruled by Hillary Clinton from 1998 to 2001, this council intended to cooperate with federal, state, and local governments to celebrate the United States past by daring to imagine the challenges and opportunities brought by the 21st century. Usually, when we think about honoring and respecting something like the past or traditions, we assume that this should be done by avoiding change. The Millennium Council, this text subsection and the provocative argument I am making here point towards a distinct direction. If you want to preserve and honor something, you should be able to draw on it to build a future, which involves development and change.

Crises are times in which the constructed nature of the Future is made explicit. Disruptions of normality remind us that the rationale ruling social norms is written continuously by people’s engagement in maintaining the status quo or intentionally fighting to change it. All the adaptations, rebuilding, and reconstructions demanded by the inopportune SARS-CoV-2 restated a usually forgotten fact: it is possible to modify the current state of affairs.

All the dramatic changes we had to produce in our lives in 2020 might have helped us to grasp the idea that the forms of living, teaching, and learning available in a specific historical moment are contingent on human decisions and could always have been otherwise[6]. I should highlight that I am not talking about free will or individual choices made without any societal and natural constraint. I am not saying that taking an agentive stance towards the Future is simply a matter of personal willpower or arbitrariness. I am acknowledging, however, that the actions and commitments taken by each and every one of us are critical to the construction of the current state of affairs and to the kind of Future we are going to live in. The choices we make and the activities we pursue make us become humans and define what is possible, or impossible in a specific moment of time.

Have you ever thought that most of the things that are part of our daily life in the Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic countries were once impossible? Beyond the neoliberalism cliché that anything can happen if you imagine and work hard to achieve it, it is undeniable that the skill to create in the mind objects and ideas that are not part of reality is an important trait helping humans to cope with the unknown. This fact was recognized by Vygotsky more than a century ago in his studies about “Imagination and Creativity in Childhood”[7]. He was convinced that “absolutely everything around us that was created by the hand of man, the entire world of human culture, as distinct from the world of nature, all this is the product of human imagination and of creation based on this imagination”[8].He framed imagination as a driven force that, once embodied trough creative acts, make human development oriented towards the future.

Over the last thirty years, the debate about human development has been privileging genetic determinations, societal constraints, and hormonal forces. The mainstream understanding tends to assume explicitly, or implicitly, passivity and adaptation to a static world as the basic form of how we become who we are[8]. It is as if questions like  “where did we come from?”; “how do we become humans?” and “where should we go from here?”, could be easily responded to by the results of an ancestry DNA tests sold by Amazon. 

These over-deterministic approaches have not a lot to say about how collaborative practices and engagement in shared activities can affect the course of one’s development. Moving in another direction, building on Vygotsky ideas and stressing the limits of Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT), Anna Stetsenko[9] calls attention to the active and agentive role played by human activity in the process through which we become humans. She shed light on the cruciality of agency and collaboration not only in the adaptation of humans to current norms but also in the reinvention of the status quo.

The Transformative Activist Stance (TAS)[10], a theoretical framework that has been informing my research on contemporary forms of activism[11], frames the process of human development as “fully immersed in collaborative practices” and “co-constituted by each individual’s active contributions to these practices, whereby the dynamics of what exists are changed as a whole every time a person acts”[9]. Combining insights from soviet Psychology, contemporary postcolonial approaches, and feminist perspectives, the TAS states that human development is sustained in a collectividual agency. The neologism terms the dynamic terrain produced by and through the ceaseless process of people collectively shaping and reshaping their world, while, at the same time, being shaped and reshaped by it.

According to the TAS, agency is “situated and collectively formed” because each person acts as both “a community member” and “from a unique position and stance on a given community’s predicaments and conflicts.” Imagination is a central piece in this process as it involves “people’s ability to imagine what does not yet exist, what they think needs and ought to be created and struggled for, through imagination and action that are challenging the present and stretching beyond the status quo[12]”. In sum, agency is nothing “less than a world-forming and history-making role”[13] performed by humans through their activities and commitments to a world that is not totally here yet.

Studying the function played by imagination in creative behavior, Vygotsky comprehends that human creativity consists in the intentional capacity of combining separate elements in order to bring into reality something that didn’t exist before. He makes a compelling argument by saying that “the imagination, by virtue of the strength of the impulses it contains, tends to become creative, that is, to actively transform whatever it has been directed at”[8]. Building this idea, TAS asserts that, by committing to sought-after futures, imagined futures that are not here yet but that we strive to create, humans agentively and collaboratively create themselves and the Future they are moving towards.

In this transformative perspective, people are understood neither as only passively situated in the world, nor as only produced by this world. The radicality here, supported by diligent scrutiny of the premises sustaining ideas on human nature and human development[14],  is conceiving that humans are world “co-creators, who come into being precisely through their own acts of real-izing the world [i.e., literally making it real; cf. 8] — acts that are possible only in solidarity with others, in shared spaces, and through joint efforts” (Stetsenko, 2020, p.02)[7].

Stetsenko is a researcher whose life has been marked by cultural, geographical, and language transmutations and whose work expresses her commitment to make science a tool for social transformation. She drafted an inspiring and elegant image to illustrate these ideas:

we all are not just passengers on this moving train of history – as if we were just gazing outside at the rapidly changing landscape while merely observing, coping with, and adapting to it. Instead, the train itself is made to move, and to move in a concrete though fluid and ever-changing direction, by the collective efforts of people who act together yet with each person mattering, in individually unique ways, at every step of the way, at every move of history (p.18)[14].

The United Nations’ call for impossible actions in the field of education is a call for each one of the players involved in the educational field to use its imaginations, its power, its peers, and its resources to commit in the Present to a Future in which equitable quality education opportunities for all can be a basic human right. How is this possible?  Recognizing that “our practices and therefore our reality (coterminous with our own becoming) is already shaped, or tailored, to a future that is sought after and posited as desirable and necessary – and not as an abstract notion but rather, as something one commits to and brings into reality”[13].

What is the Future you are standing for?

Suppose that the idea of taking an active stance towards designing our Future sounds strange to you, or you feel it is too theoretical. In that case, you should click here and watch the educational proposal made by the Institute for the Future. In one of their foresight Futures, learning, working, and living would be measured by a platform called the Ledger in units called edublocks – “a kind of digital currency that connects every aspect of our lives”. This possible Future was part of a game workshop temporarily located in a possible 2026.

In March 2016, SXSW EDU (pronounced South by Southwest E-D-U), Institute for the Future, and the ACT Foundation promoted a 36-hour game to radically reimagine the Future of working, learning, and living. This game was a workshop designed to engage students, workers, and educators across the United States in shaping a future in which potentially all human activity could be converted into formal education. The workshop laid out a basic scenario in which “your Ledger account is a record of everything you’ve ever learned, everyone you’ve learned from, and everyone who’s learned from you[15]” and ask for participants to “expand upon one another’s cards to create “builds” as players debate, extend, and pose questions about other players ideas”.

As already presented in Vygotsky studies, humans’ ability to imagine and create something new is sustained by their lived experience. Therefore, this foresight future for education was built upon facts and ideas that are part of our present life. For instance, there are ongoing debates on how to measure student success using learning analytics and digital assessments that decrease the relevance of human’s instructors. “Digital credentials are reshaping the way we think about education and professional development by enabling lifelong learner-control of their evidence-based skills and achievements and supporting the transition to standards-based and competency based learning[16].

During the Learning is Earning Workshop, the goal was to engage participants in thinking about the Future the Institute for the Future could move towards. The attendees were encouraged to work creatively and collaboratively within this scenario:

If technologies like edublocks and the Learning Ledger really existed … and if one billion people were using them to make new connections between how they learn, work and live … What could be different? What would you change … in your school, in your work, in your company, in your life? What amazing things could happen in your community? What new challenges would we face—and how could we solve them?

These workshop’s instructions provide us with two crucial hints to understand the necessary conditions to take an active stance in enacting Futures. First, the departure point is a situated agent immersed in a network of peers, creating and sharing meanings and cultural tools. It’s not by chance that the game directions list the number of people already using edublocks. No one can enact a Future by herself or himself, as it demands a community to create and share meaning with. Second, imagination and creativity are essential tools to bring pursued Futures into reality.

When an imaginative Future was shared in the platform, the game demanded players to: a) inquire to the author on the envisioned Future; b) propose actions that should, or shouldn’t, be taken to move from the present time to that Future; c) expand the proposition by elaborating on it; d) defy the proposal by expressing their concerns about it; e) take that thought in a different action. These modes of interaction allowed people to imagine collective futures with and toward others. But, what do imagination and creativity mean in that context? Furthermore, how are these two separated processes combined in the enactment of desired Futures?

In a nutshell, imagination is often thought of as a process of mental wandering, and does not necessarily lead to a concrete and shareable object or thought. Meanwhile, creativity is associated with taking an action, and tends to generate a concrete shareable outcome. Producing collective futures demand these two resources and also a kind of synergy between them. The creators of the Learning is Earning 2026 workshop were fully aware of this because they not only asked participants to imagine possibilities in a world shaped by the Ledger, but also encouraged them to engage actively in each other’s propositions about potential problems and solutions that would be available in this world.

Vlad Petre Glăveanu[17], discussing the modes of envisioning collective futures, points out different forms in which envisioning futures can be made. “Imagining with others is grounded in exchanges of both positions and perspectives with the aim of reaching some form of consensus”[17]. On the other hand, “imagining towards others shares the emphasis on dialogue while striving towards diversity and accommodating difference” [17]. During the 36 hours in which the Learning is Earning 2026 experiment was ruled, 2641 people concerned with the future of higher education worked actively and creatively in the imagination of a collective future expressed in shared thoughts, concerns and desires. 

Moments like the ones we are experiencing in 2020 make the impossible become urgent. Out of a sudden, we are pushed towards directions we used to think that were unthinkable and an acute sense of agency flows into our lives. The possibility to use all that we had to learn in 2020 to enact a Future in which education will be a potent tool to produce more resilient subjects and educational systems, demands us to understand and take an active stance in the construction of this future. This article aimed to provide you with some ideas to help you to think about how you could follow the United Nations idea and take an active and creative stance towards the Future of education in a world of Covid-19 pandemics.

About the Author

André L. L. F. Sales, PhD

Postdoctoral Associate Researcher at Social Psychology Program at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo, Brazil. Volunteer Professor at Rio Grande do Norte Federal University, Brazil,  and International Visitor Researcher at the City University of New York, USA.

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