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Oh, what’s the point?

October 5, 2014

I’m sure you know that there are only two tenses in English – present and past. Everything else is just a combination of these two. If we want to talk about the future in English, we either use a present tense (the train leaves at 6, I’m meeting him tomorrow, I’m going to do more exercise, I want to become a doctor) or we use some kind of modal verb – will, might, should etc. This suggests that, for users of English at least, the future is either viewed as already existing in the present, or we feel it can only be discussed with an element of subjectivity. Linguistically, the future doesn’t really exist in English.

When focusing on future forms in the classroom, I’ve always found this quite an easy concept to explain; plans or intentions are already underway, therefore the use of a present tense is logical. Modal verbs express desire or doubt, suggesting the action may not actually happen, which is also logical because, well, you could get hit by a bus beforehand. While the concept of an uncertain future is easy enough to explain, the complex array of future forms that we use to try and describe these different degrees of uncertainty in English can be hard for students to implement, especially if their own language works differently, which it usually does. Some languages just use a present tense with a time expression. Languages used in predominantly Muslim cultures often use the word Insha’Allah to show that the speaker doesn’t really have control over the future. But then there are other languages that have an actual future tense, involving verbal inflection and everything. Does this mean that speakers of these languages view the future differently? If the future exists as a linguistic structure, does this make it more real for them? How real is the future anyway?

The reason for my preoccupation with the future at the moment is that I have just started studying Education Futures. I’m already way behind with the reading, and I should actually be doing that rather than writing this so I’ll try to brief. So far I have discovered that future studies is an actual thing, an academic discipline and not just the domain of science fiction writers and fantasists. Many countries have institutes of future studies – think tanks where people get together and analyse the future. (Apparently it’s equally possible to analyse the future as it is to analyse the past – it’s just that you need to use different methods and tools.) The information generated by these institutes is then used to shape government policy on a number of areas – health, defence and, of course, education.


Ways of analysing the future:

I kind of feel that I need to frame my views on this in the form of questions, so that I can then find the answers to these questions in the reading that I am about to embark on. Very soon. Straight after I finish this. Well, after I finish this and empty the bins. And load the dishwasher.

Right, so the big question I have at the moment is this:

If it’s possible to tell what’s going to happen in the future, how come we’ve allowed the present to be so awful?

Maybe you think this question is unfair, and that the present isn’t that awful at all. Maybe you’re right, and I’m just suffering, like 45% of residents in Scotland, from post-referendum depression (I will post something about this, though at the moment it hurts too much). But from what I can make out so far (and further reading will either confirm or refute this), these future studies institutions have been pointing out the dangers of neoliberalism for quite some time now. Loads of academic papers have been written that highlight how a society based on self-interest, and an education system based on the development of human capital for the benefit of multinational corporations, means we are neglecting the values and qualities that allow humans to develop in a way that benefits the communities they exist in and society as a whole. And yet, we live in a world where everything (including language!) is a commodity with a monetary value, and governments, despite what the futurists are telling them, still allow education policy to be dictated by the needs of industry rather than society. So, if future studies are ignored anyway, why should we even bother?

I suppose that having such a bleak outlook on the future means that any change in my attitude can only be positive. Maybe there is hope. Maybe I need to worry less about the impact of previous future studies on the present, and more about the impact of current future studies on the future. Maybe I need to stop thinking of the future as an extension of the present or a set of subjective ideals, and more as a separate entity. I probably won’t be blogging much over the next few months as I need to spend more time on other things (including this), but if I find any reason to be more hopeful about the future I’ll be sure to post about it.

  1. Good luck with all that you’ve got on over the next few months, Steve. If you do find reason for hope, let us know! 🙂 It does sometimes seem as if there are lots of good ideas, lots of potential and possibilities but very little implementation or change because of missed opportunities or short-term perspectives. Perhaps a step back is a good idea. I’m hoping that there is still hope! 🙂

    Me, at the moment, I’m currently thinking of the past, which is possibly more fun at the moment 😉

  2. Thanks for the good wishes, Carol. I agree that things don’t seem to change in the way you might expect them to. Many good ideas often get diluted or twisted in their implementation. I might start getting a bit more optimistic in future posts – I really hope so. In the meantime, enjoy your reflective practice and if you come across anything that you think might cheer me up, please let me know. 🙂

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