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The Future is Already Here

We celebrated our second annual GCSE Certificate Presentation Evening last week, which seemed an appropriate opportunity for reflection, not just on the extent of the pupils’ achievements but also on what might lie ahead for them. 

If you really want to know what the future is going to look like, I recommend a book called ‘The New Silk Roads’ by Peter Frankopan, Professor of Modern History at the University of Oxford.  If you think that economic power may one day shift from the West to the East, you are too late: it already has.  As small examples, the author notes that airline pilots can command salaries of over half a million dollars in parts of Asia because their skills are so scarce, and Starbucks currently opens a new branch in China every fifteen hours.

The first chapter of the book provides a fascinating insight into the speed of change in the East and the shift in the balance of power and influence.  The so-called ‘Belt and Road’ policy being pursued by the Chinese government is a strategy to promote economic growth by committing hundreds of billions of dollars to develop roads, railways, ports and energy plants, many of which are already up and running.  In contrast, announced at about the same time here was the Northern Powerhouse initiative fronted by George Osborne, which was designed to improve infrastructure and communications in the North of England.  Its main achievement to date has been the opening of the new southern entrance at Leeds railway station. 

Frankopan highlights that Google used to have the motto ‘Don’t be evil’ enshrined within its code of conduct, but the decision was taken to drop this in the summer of 2018, at the same time the company began to develop a search engine, codenamed Dragonfly, to block websites and searches on topics related to human rights, religion and other sensitive subjects.  By doing so, they created a product that would be acceptable to the Chinese authorities, giving the company access to a huge and growing market. 

The economist Branko Milanovic has observed that the great winners of the redistribution of global wealth in recent years have been the Asian poor and middle classes, while the great losers have been the lower middle classes of the rich world.  This in turn has led to the rise in nationalist and populist policies, the imposition of tariffs and an impotent raging against the globalisation that used to be trumpeted as the pinnacle of human achievement.   

In England, we seem to be stuck in an ideological rut that has developed the idea that the past was somehow better than the present, and a return to a former golden age would allow Britannia to rule the waves and our diplomats to be at the heart of all key decisions.  Frankopan again appears to offer a perceptive analysis when he says that nostalgia can have an intoxicating and powerful effect.  Looking back through rose-tinted spectacles can create false pasts that cherry-pick only the very best, while ignoring the worst and the mundane.  While harking back often triggers warm memories of supposedly better times, the process can be deceptive, misleading and wrong.  In fact, today’s world is better in almost every single way than the world of the past. 

He is scathing about our current political debate, pointing out that the biggest problem about Brexit is not the question of whether leaving the European Union is right for the UK; it is whether it is right to do so at a time of such profound geopolitical and economic fragility.  There are real dangers in concentrating only on matters that are of parochial importance when so many other more significant and challenging problems require and demand attention. 

We are a relatively small school on the outskirts of a medium-sized city on an island that looks to be floating away on its own devices.  It may not therefore be easy for us to deliver core messages to our pupils about the importance of having a global outlook and the role they might play in it.  But if it was easy, it would not be interesting, and the harder thing to do and the right thing to do are usually the same, so we will keep trying to do all we can to get these key messages across.

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