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Election 2012: We're all candidates for change, especially middle-schoolers

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Martha Irvine/AP

(Read caption) Remember 'Obamamania?' This year, it's difficult to find a college student who's truly excited about the presidential race – flyers on a bulletin board in the student center at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Ill., Sept. 20, 2012

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Something really important is missing from the presidential candidates’ discussion of the future: the future. The real future.

That’s especially important for the first-time voters destined to inhabit that future. Some of them go to my school and, though they won’t vote this time around, they already have their eye on presidential politics.

This reaches beyond topics like the national debt, health care system reform, saving the middle-class, and finger-pointing over past, present, and future financial crises – partisan skirmishes that will always be with us, it seems.

 But lurking in the background are some underlying issues of longer-range, more granular importance, and this goes to the question of the future my students will vote for and inhabit.

Who will be the first to talk about the fundamental shift in the complexion, balance of education, and talent in the world? Proto-voters can’t always discern what future value their democratic rights and responsibilities will have, but they should. They need to transcend the values being foisted on them by the customary media outlets, and the customary self-serving campaign rhetoric of both political parties.

This is the YouTube/Google/Twitter generation, after all. Yet even the candidates of another generation have Facebook pages. Even my middle-school students are facile at rapidly collecting standings, issue statements, spin and news, and the text of candidate speeches and news conferences. But do they want to? Not when politics seems so old-school, shrill, and negative.

These are the students who are starting to think about voting for a president for the first time. They must also have their eye on how the world will have changed by the time they do so. The candidates don’t seem similarly foresighted. What will my school’s sixth-graders know, and not know, when they commence their post-secondary school lives? When they vote for a president for the first time?

Hindsight could be telling. At the time of the 2008 presidential election,  my students and I viewed a YouTube video with some astounding future shock statistics. There were 1.3 million college graduates in the United States, 3.1 million in India (all of whom speak English), and 3.3 million in China. In 2016, the world’s No. 1 English speaking country will be China. How about their 17 million blogs – 35 percent of all their Internet users? “If you’re one in a million in China, there are 1,300 people just like you!” A teacher in Beijing makes $454 a month, a nurse $260. They have more honors students than we have students, and more cell phones than we have people: 301 million. The US is seventh in global network readiness. Denmark is better “wired” than we are. I would not exchange their system for ours. I’m just pointing out a few (outdated) dashboard indicators! But the campaign rhetoric of this year’s election has yet to accommodate or catch up with this analytical mindset.

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More future shock: According to the US Department of Labor, 1 in 4 workers have been with their current employer for less than one year; 1 in 2 less than five years. Today’s learners will have 10 to 14 jobs by their 38th birthday. Many of the college majors for these workers didn’t exist 10 years ago. In four years, when the class of 2016 is entering the work force, what will they be working on? According to former Secretary of Education Richard Riley, the top 10 in-demand jobs in 2010 didn’t exist in 2004 – i.e., we're preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, with technologies yet to be invented, to solve problems that aren’t yet problems. In 2010 accessible online data approached a Yottabyte, or 1 trillion terabytes. I wonder what it is now, in the year of iPhone 5.

One issue of the New York Times contains more information than a person in the 18th century would encounter in a lifetime. Each day, 1,400 books are published. New technical information doubles every two years – by 2010, every 72 hours. YouTube serves 100 million videos per day. Last year it served 2.5 billion videos to nearly 20 million unique visitors. Were you a unique visitor? I was. My students were.

At the time of the 2008 presidential election, 70 percent  of US four-year-olds had used a computer. It took radio 38 years to reach a market audience of 50 million; television: 13 years; computers: four years. What’s next? The number of Internet devices in 1984 was 1,000; in 1992 it was 1 million; in 2006: 600 million. The first text message was sent in 1991; today, the number exceeds the population of the planet – daily. One out of eight couples married in the US in 2005 met on the Internet.[2]

We’re on a steep learning curve, and an unprecedented trajectory toward the future. And these are all out-dated statistics – changing daily . So what should my school’s social studies curriculum be in the approaching new school/election year!? Has an appropriate high school, much less college, been invented for these future voters I’m watching?

Experts say our future voters need three things: The ability to cope with massive amounts of information, effectiveness at global communications, and self-direction of their own learning and organization. Yup, issues and information are evolving at exponential rates.  Which makes the job of citizenship and voting pretty important – because we’re all candidates for change.

That “hopey, changey thing” had better be workin’ for us this time around. If the next president can’t speak to us about these vital signs, and if we don’t demand a shift in the conversation, then we’ll be showing up in the future expecting the past. That isn’t going to work. My 2008 middle school students are voters now.

Todd R. Nelson is head of school at The School in Rose Valley, PA.    

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs.

[1] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ljbI-363A2Q

[2] 21st Century Learning tools for the Classroom (Howie DiBlasi). Search “Did You Know III” on YouTube or Vimeo to see complete presentation, and its numerous updates.

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