Depending on your current age, your recollections of your Head Teacher’s final end of year speech may be crystal clear or a little hazy. Their ability to deliver anything meaningful will, of course, have played a part in your ability to remember the details, but I wonder what we’d each say if we had the opportunity. I left school in 1978: as my headmaster was a man who achieved a certain notoriety for his ability to speak for up to an hour while saying almost nothing, I have no memory of his presumably rousing words of hope and inspiration.

Were I to be 18 again now, and paying more attention, what might I hope to hear? A sprinkling of verbal hope might be just the thing to help the pill go down, given the latest news headlines. Take your pick from: current youth (un)employment figures; surveys showing that my generation might be the first since either WWII or 1900 (take your pick of survey: customer choice now extends as far as grounds for pessimism); a Saga survey showing a third of over 50s are financially supporting their own adult children, or the indebtedness I might accrue if I opt to better myself with a degree. Knowing that my school had previously produced not just ambassadors to Qatar and Paraguay, but a Lib Dem MP and Keira Knightley might have lifted my spirits, although the most successful (Knightley) dropped out. Her fame and wealth had come as an alternative to education, rather than as a consequence.

Were I to be 57 (less of a stretch, to my regret), I can’t help but think I might feel equally challenged by the task of writing and delivering such a speech. As a head teacher saying farewell to a cohort of students, you not only need to take your final opportunity to inspire them and instil them with the hope of possibilities (and vice versa). You also need to acknowledge the passing of your role as acting ‘in loco parentis’ (follow the link for a legal definition). If 2011 is a challenging time to be an 18 year old, it is no less so for anyone responsible for their care, nurturing and development. This morning’s Today programme reported a marked drop in the number of us who are optimistic that our children will have better lives than we have enjoyed, and a recent report suggests that young people today will be 25% worse off than their parents.

My first point, I suspect, might be to point out that no-one can ever actually know the future. (Although humming along as Doris Day sings “the future’s not ours to see” does not mean we have to adopt an attitude of “Que sera sera.”) We can see trends, and extrapolate them as characteristics of how the coming world might look and feel: words like turbulent, unpredictable and difficult may spring to mind. On wet mornings, we expect rainy days even when preceding weeks have been dry.

In his book Leaders Make The Future (which we will be reviewing shortly), Bob Johanson outlines a future world characterised by VUCA – volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Having already observed that a good grasp of recent history gives us a headstart in understanding the possible future (see a recent post on a related theme), he elects to quote F Scott Fitzgerald in preference to Doris Day:

The test of a first-rate intelligence is to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should … be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.”

The future will be challenging, but most people’s futures always have been. In wishing the next generation well as they embrace adulthood, I’d be tempted as an educationalist to encourage them to reflect on education itself. As a scientific education can inspire the will to investigate and discover, so a humanities education can equip the student with the understanding that sometimes there is no ‘correct’ answer, but rather a matter of picking the right approach. Neither approach – nor any of the other disciplines within even the narrowest curriculum – represents a universal truth: each discipline is a lens for viewing the world from an individual perspective, but a 360 degree view will always provide the fuller image.

Nor should they embark on their adult lives seeing what they have learned as a mere repository of knowledge – even professional librarians acknowledged decades ago that wisdom now consists of knowing where to find the answer, rather than simply knowing it. They already have Google, Wikipedia and mobile computing – and more knowledge in our pocket than my generation had in every library in the world. Technology has changed that aspect of human life beyond recognition, although it has thankfully not dispelled our natural human inquisitiveness. There may be more to learn, but we still have an appetite to do so.

What I hope that the education they’ve received gives them is not a library, but a set of habits and instincts that will stand them in good stead. A mind sharp enough to review all the possibilities and a tongue sharp enough to ask revealing questions make a powerful combination. I’d urge them to have an interest not just in the past (to understand where we have come from), but in the current (where we are) and the future (where we may find ourselves) too. I’d remind them history has an important indirect lesson: to think about the providence of our source material as well as what it might tell us. Understanding the motives of those who blog, tweet and publish web sites tells us as much as the content of their output, although the questions it begs aren’t asked often enough.

I’d also try to explain something that they’ve probably already tired of hearing – and will become much wearier of if they pursue the option of higher education: that there is much to be gained from reading around the reading list rather than just down it. No matter how strong they may have been in their favourite subjects, they will help themselves – and those they interact with – better in a complex, ambiguous world if they acquaint themselves with a broader range of inputs. Some of the issues they face in life will be genuinely insoluble, but understanding more of the contributing factors will help them (and others) find positive ways forward.

And I’d urge them to keep up the good habits they’ve been accustomed to – although through choice than statutory national curriculum. (Learning doesn’t stop when the final bell rings: as a head teacher, I’d want there to be a national curriculum for adults too.) It’s best summed up by a slogan that was dated even when I was looking forward to the summer holidays, but still has so much to recommend it: feed your head. In a future world where increasing self-reliance shows many signs of being less than optional, they will need to fall back on their own resources on many occasions. And the greater the resources, the softer the landing.

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