Alvin Toffler, The Industrial Era School

Every society has its own characteristic attitude toward past, present and future. This timebias, formed in response to the rate of change, is one of the least noticed, yet most powerful determinants of social behavior, and it is clearly reflected in the way the society prepares its young for adulthood.

In stagnant societies, the past crept forward into the present and repeated itself in the future. In such a society, the most sensible way to prepare a child was to arm him with the skills of the past—for these were precisely the same skills he would need in the future. “With the ancient is wisdom,” the Bible admonished.

Thus father handed down to son all sorts of practical techniques along with a clearly defined, highly traditional set of values. Knowledge was transmitted not by specialists concentrated in schools, but through the family, religious institutions, and apprenticeships. Learner and teacher were dispersed throughout the entire community. The key to the system, however, was its absolute devotion to yesterday. The curriculum of the past was the past.

The mechanical age smashed all this, for industrialism required a new kind of man. It demanded skills that neither family nor church could, by themselves, provide. It forced an upheaval in the value system. Above all, it required that man develop a new sense of time.

Mass education was the ingenious machine constructed by industrialism to produce the kind of adults it needed. The problem was inordinately complex. How to pre-adapt children for a new world—a world of repetitive indoor toil, smoke, noise, machines, crowded living conditions, collective discipline, a world in which time was to be regulated not by the cycle of sun and moon, but by the factory whistle and the clock.

The solution was an educational system that, in its very structure, simulated this new world. This system did not emerge instantly. Even today it retains throw-back elements from pre-industrial society. Yet the whole idea of assembling masses of students (raw material) to be processed by teachers (workers) in a centrally located school (factory) was a stroke of industrial genius. The whole administrative hierarchy of education, as it grew up, followed the model of industrial bureaucracy. The very organization of knowledge into permanent disciplines was grounded on industrial assumptions. Children marched from place to place and sat in assigned stations. Bells rang to announce changes of time.

The inner life of the school thus became an anticipatory mirror, a perfect introduction to industrial society. The most criticized features of education today—the regimentation, lack of individualization, the rigid systems of seating, grouping, grading and marking, the authoritarian role of the teacher—are precisely those that made mass public education so effective an instrument of adaptation for its place and time.

Young people passing through this educational machine emerged into an adult society whose structure of jobs, roles and institutions resembled that of the school itself. The schoolchild did not simply learn facts that he could use later on; he lived, as well as learned, a way of life modeled after the one he would lead in the future.

The schools, for example, subtly instilled the new time-bias made necessary by industrialism. Faced with conditions that had never before existed, men had to devote increasing energy to understanding the present. Thus the focus of education itself began to shift, ever so slowly, away from the past and toward the present.

The historic struggle waged by John Dewey and his followers to introduce “progressive” measures into American education was, in part, a desperate effort to alter the old time-bias. Dewey battled against the past-orientation of traditional education, trying to refocus education on the here-and-now. “The way out of scholastic systems that make the past an end in itself,” he declared, “is to make acquaintance with the past a means of understanding the present” Nevertheless, decades later traditionalists like Jacques Maritain and neo-Aristotelians like Robert Hutchins still lashed out against anyone who attempted to shift the balance in favor of the present. Hutchins, former president of the University of Chicago and now head of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, accused educators who wanted their students to learn about modern society of being members of a “cult of immediacy.” The progressives were accused of a dastardly crime: “presentism.” Echoes of this conflict over the time-bias persist even now, in the writings, for example, of Jacques Barzun, who insists that “It is … absurd to try educating … ‘for’ a present day that defies definition.” Thus our education systems had not yet fully adapted themselves to the industrial age when the need for a new revolution—the super-industrial revolution— burst upon them. And just as the progressives of yesterday were accused of “presentism,” it is likely that the education reformers of tomorrow will be accused of “futurism.” For we shall find that a truly super-industrial education is only possible if we once more shift our time-bias forward.


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