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Adapting to future requires knowledge of past

Urging more common sense as common practice and a pop-culture character approach to teamwork, cultural anthropologist Jennifer James gave this year's second general session a laughter-punctuated glimpse of what they will need to adapt to today's changing world based on what has happened in the past.

James, a nationally recognized specialist in the cultural elements of technological change, used "Pokémon" cartoon/card game characters as an example of making the most of the best talents and idiosyncrasies to pull together a team that can get things done. And while the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" work together to fight their foes, she said, their mentor — Splinter the sewer rat — embodies the job of today's board members who must be fast and resourceful.

These cartoon character superheroes who work together as teams are a far cry from the 1950s hero icon: the Lone Ranger. That go-it-alone, "Who was that masked man?" hero is unlikely to succeed in today's fast-paced, technologically shifting world.

Describing the freedoms that have been gained decade by decade, James pointed to the ideas that in their time seemed revolutionary and unattainable. But through the persistence of leaders who could envision a better future, great strides in human freedoms have been achieved from women's rights through civil rights and the rights of the disabled.

While no one can know exactly what the future will hold, James cited several signs that major shifts are again underway.

"When you're at the tipping point, right before a major cultural shift, things get very bizarre," James said, including questions being raised over issues that many people believed have already been settled. That would include the emerging struggle between science and intelligent design curriculum that has surfaced in Kansas.

James compared American culture to an intricate tapestry, with a new tapestry — the future — being woven before our eyes. While some parts have been rewoven, much of that future is still an unknown void. As the reweaving takes place, many people look at that void as a moral one, she said, and they want to go back to what they see as a simpler time.

In describing what she sees as the four main stages of the adaptive process — technology, economics, demography and culture, James questioned why educators continue to use the past as a measurement for the future. How, she questioned, can we adequately measure what today's students will be able to do by using a standardized college entrance exam (the SAT) that was designed to predict the abilities of a "1927 white guy in the military?"

Today's children are being raised on interactive computers, where her generation … and most of the audience … were raised on the passive medium of television. "We can't motivate the net generation with the tools of the past," she said.

Kids today don't see themselves as crew but as navigators in the educational process, James said. And new teachers … those recent college graduates raised more on computers than television … have an increasingly hard time adapting to an education culture in schools that stifles their ability to think in the future.

Returning to the pop-culture analogy, James said the story being woven throughout the "Harry Potter" series is a classic tale of transition that people can relate to because "we all feel like orphans" in times of great change. She pointed to the popular characters in the novels as being surrounded by hostility but saved by education.

"If they can be bold and use all of the resources around them," she said, "they can fight evil. If they do their homework, they will make good decisions about who's telling the truth."

And the future, she said, speculating on the series' finale, may redeem the lives of Harry's parents so he won't be an orphan any longer, leaving a tapestry that has been rewoven and that makes sense.

Throughout this difficult and uncertain process, "Take care of yourselves," James urged the conference in closing, "because you are taking care of our children."

Before James addressed the assembled school board members, administrators, business officials and guests, Brent Clark was introduced as the new executive director of the Illinois Association of School Administrators to succeed Walt Warfield, who will retire June 30, 2006. Following Clark's introduction, Thomas Leahy, superintendent at Quincy Public SD 172, was announced as IASA's Superintendent of the Year.



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