Alvin Toffler, The New Educational Revolution: Listening to the Future

In the technological systems of tomorrow—fast, fluid and self-regulating—machines will deal with the flow of physical materials; men with the flow of information and insight. Machines will increasingly perform the routine tasks; men the intellectual and creative tasks. Machines and men both, instead of being concentrated in gigantic factories and factory cities, will be scattered across the globe, linked together by amazingly sensitive, near-instantaneous communications. Human work will move out of the factory and mass office into the community and the home.

Machines will be synchronized, as some already are, to the billionth of a second; men will be desynchronized. The factory whistle will vanish. Even the clock, “the key machine of the modern industrial age,” as Lewis Mumford called it a generation ago, will lose some of its power over human, as distinct from purely technological, affairs. Simultaneously, the organizations needed to control technology will shift from bureaucracy to Ad-hocracy, from permanence to transience, and from a concern with the present to a focus on the future.

In such a world, the most valued attributes of the industrial era become handicaps. The technology of tomorrow requires not millions of lightly lettered men, ready to work in unison at endlessly repetitious jobs, it requires not men who take orders in unblinking fashion, aware that the price of bread is mechanical submission to authority, but men who can make critical judgments, who can weave their way through novel environments, who are quick to spot new relationships in the rapidly changing reality. It requires men who, in C. P. Snow‘s compelling term, “have the future in their bones.” Finally, unless we capture control of the accelerative thrust—and there are few signs yet that we will—tomorrow’s individual will have to cope with even more hectic change than we do today. For education the lesson is clear: its prime objective must be to increase the individual’s “cope-ability”—the speed and economy with which he can adapt to continual change. And the faster the rate of change, the more attention must be devoted to discerning the pattern of future events.

It is no longer sufficient for Johnny to understand the past. It is not even enough for him to understand the present, for the here-and-now environment will soon vanish. Johnny must learn to anticipate the directions and rate of change. He must, to put it technically, learn to make repeated, probabilistic, increasingly long-range assumptions about the future. And so must Johnny’s teachers.

To create a super-industrial education, therefore, we shall first need to generate successive, alternative images of the future—assumptions about the kinds of jobs, professions, and vocations that may be needed twenty to fifty years in the future; assumptions about the kind of family forms and human relationships that will prevail; the kinds of ethical and moral problems that will arise; the kind of technology that will surround us and the organizational structures with which we must mesh. It is only by generating such assumptions, defining, debating, systematizing and continually updating them, that we can deduce the nature of the cognitive and affective skills that the people of tomorrow will need to survive the accelerative thrust.

In the United States there are now two federally funded “education policy research centers”—one at Syracuse University, another at Stanford Research Institute—charged with scanning the horizon with these purposes in mind. In Paris, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has recently created a division with similar responsibilities. A handful of people in the student movement have also begun to turn attention to the future. Yet these efforts are pitifully thin compared with the difficulty of shifting the time-bias of education. What is needed is nothing less than a future-responsive mass movement.

We must create a “Council of the Future” in every school and community: Teams of men and women devoted to probing the future in the interests of the present. By projecting “assumed futures,” by defining coherent educational responses to them, by opening these alternatives to active public debate, such councils—similar in some ways to the “prognostic cells” advocated by Robert Jungk of the Technische Hochschule in Berlin—could have a powerful impact on education.

Since no group holds a monopoly of insight into tomorrow, these councils must be democratic. Specialists are vitally needed in them. But Councils of the Future will not succeed if they are captured by professional educators, planners, or any unrepresentative elite. Thus students must be involved from the very start—and not merely as co-opted rubber stamps for adult notions. Young people must help lead, if not, in fact, initiate, these councils so that “assumed futures” can be formulated and debated by those who will presumably invent and inhabit the future.

The council of the future movement offers a way out of the impasse in our schools and colleges. Trapped in an educational system intent on turning them into living anachronisms, today’s students have every right to rebel. Yet attempts by student radicals to base a social program on a pastiche of nineteenth-century Marxism and early twentieth-century Freudianism have revealed them to be as resolutely chained to the past and present as their elders. The creation of future-oriented, future-shaping task forces in education could revolutionize the revolution of the young.

For those educators who recognize the bankruptcy of the present system, but remain uncertain about next steps, the council movement could provide purpose as well as power, through alliance with, rather than hostility toward, youth. And by attracting community and parental participation—businessmen, trade unionists, scientists, and others—the movement could build broad political support for the super-industrial revolution in education.

It would be a mistake to assume that the present-day educational system is unchanging. On the contrary, it is undergoing rapid change. But much of this change is no more than an attempt to refine the existent machinery, making it ever more efficient in pursuit of obsolete goals. The rest is a kind of Brownian motion, self-canceling, incoherent, directionless. What has been lacking is a consistent direction and a logical starting point. The council movement could supply both. The direction is super-industrialism. The starting point: the future.


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