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When Are We?

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For some of us it’s an itch, for others a royal pain, and for others a non-issue: Should we be talking about “21st-century skills” when we’re already a tenth of the way into the century? As we talk about the future of education, doesn’t using the term “21st-century” really mean we’re talking about the present, or even the recent past?

The other day I discovered that 20th Century Pictures, a precursor to 20th Century Fox, was founded in 1933. The New York Central ran its 20th Century Limited between New York and Chicago from 1902 (already into the century, we note) until 1967. Walter Cronkite’s Sunday-evening history show on television was called The Twentieth Century, and it ran from 1957 until 1966 and covered the whole thing, from grainy, herky-jerky newsreels of Teddy Roosevelt right up to more or less contemporary events.

It seems that new centuries seem new for a very long time, and they do tend to last their full hundred years. Since most of us only get to experience one new century in a lifetime, I guess this is a lesson we all have to learn anew and together, difficult as it is for generations bred to a 24-hour-or-less news cycle.

We are in the 21st century, as hard as it is to believe. And so asking kids (and teachers and schools) to learn 21st-century skills for a 21st-century workplace (Why do we talk so much about school being to prepare workers these days? Why?) is pretty much what we’re doing; if any of today’s students make it into the 22nd century, I bet they’ll need some retraining, anyhow.

So I’m okay with 21st-century skills, because that’s when we are and what we have to think about; if we’re all a little tired of urgent and rather hackneyed lists of what 21st-century students need and what 21st-century schools need to be doing (and I confess that I am), then that’s a different issue.

This whole conversation raises the question of what we are supposed to call “now.” “Contemporary” works, but it’s kind of blah. “Modern” may yet be quite useful, if we oldsters can shake images of Bauhaus architecture, Danish Modern furniture, Thoroughly Modern Millie (set in 1922), or A Modern Instance, an 1882 novel by William Dean Howells. (My school has been working with this, and it’s growing on me, I confess—maybe new centuries each deserve a shot at “modern” for themselves.) The “, c. 2011,” appositive seems silly, and awfully limiting.

So I think it’s “21st-century.” The trick, of course, is to actually be doing our work as it if really is the 21st century, and not as if we’re desperately marking time until things fall back into place they way they were when Cronkite was the Most Trusted Man in America and DeSotos, Ramblers, and Edsels roamed the earth.

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