Living in a World Transforming
Editor’s Note: This article is based on a day long symposium given by Daniel Greenberg at the University of Pennsylvania Center for Educational Leadership, to superintendents of schools in Pennsylvania, on October 20, 2009.
I’d like to share a journey with you that started fifty years ago when I first entered the world of education and started what I then called “teaching”, a word which I would not use today. My physics training and also, throughout my early years, my very intensive Talmudic studies, got me used to trying to look at the heart and fundamentals of whatever it is that I’m seriously engaged in. It’s been an interesting journey to try to get more deeply into the essence of what education is all about. I’m still on that journey and find myself taking new directions even now.
I’m going to be working with and starting from a definition of education that I don’t think anybody would disagree with:
Education is learning how to survive and to become a productive person in the surrounding environment.
Educators strive to create a place where children learn how to survive and become productive people. But in fact, learning is basically what we all do all our lives. It never stops. It starts really at birth. A phrase like “lifelong education” is a tautology. You can’t avoid it. We’re all educating ourselves, and it never stops.
What does “learning” mean? We all sort of have a feeling for what it means. It means “figuring things out”. That’s a colloquialism and it’ll do for now. The question is, how do we figure things out? What’s the starting point for learning?
The starting point really is, interestingly, data. Data is the stuff—the inputs—that assault us everyday, all the time, from the moment of birth. Data is unformed, and it’s not endowed with any meaning for us when it hits us. Think of the newborn infant who has no experience of the world whatsoever. However the infant has senses. The primary senses which are worth focusing on here are vision and hearing. We also have a sense of touch which is extremely important. The other senses that we have don’t really play as important a role for humans as for other animals. What happens is that an infant’s eyes are assaulted by untold trillions of bytes of input—to use a term from the computer world—that come from all kinds of light sources. And there are trillions of sound waves assaulting the ears. That’s a staggering assault. For the infant, there is no context for it whatsoever. The act of transforming raw data into information, into useful combinations that have meaning for the person doing the transformation, is something that the human brain is, by its nature, capable of doing. It’s a staggering, monumental piece of work that the brain does from birth, and that we keep on doing—transforming raw data into information. It’s an act of design.
We are all by nature designers because design is creating meaningful form. And if you think about it, you realize that we’re designers in three fields. We’re all artists; we all take visual data and transform it into visual images that have meaning. That’s what art is. When you think about that you get a different outlook, for example, on current contemporary art, where artists have been adamant at claiming that whatever visual forms they put together can rightly be called art. I might not appreciate it. I might not be able to turn the data that I get from that canvas into information that’s meaningful to me. But at least I can recognize that the artist has done that. The artist has designed a piece of meaningful information from visual data, as we all do all the time.
There’s a very interesting book called Crashing Through. Crashing Through is the story of an individual who is blinded at the age of three by a chemical accident and in his fifties discovers that a new procedure had just been developed that that could restore his vision. The book tells about his life as a blind person, which was full and complete and amazingly active. For him the decision whether he should have his vision restored was a tremendously complex decision because he knew that it meant changing his life completely. But what he didn’t know, and that’s what makes the book so interesting, is how it would change his life, because what happened when he had his vision back was just what I’m talking about: he was assaulted by visual data and he could not form all that data into information—in his fifties. He simply couldn’t do it. He had not been able to develop an adequate frame of reference. The book is the story of his struggle and the extent to which it succeeded and the extent to which it failed. What the book points out is that this task that we do from infancy is gigantic. It is no wonder that people often say that the most intense learning takes place in infancy between birth and the age of three.
We’re not only all artists, we’re all composers too, because composing is creating meaningful form out of sounds. So every one of us is, from early infancy, really an artist, a composer, and even a sculptor, because we create form and meaning out of our sense of touch. So we’re all endowed with these natural talents, we are given the brain to do it. We do it in order to form a world view—an idea, for ourselves, for each of us individually, of what the world is about. That’s “figuring things out”. Each of us does it in their own way. We all fashion our own information from data and our own world view from information. It’s individual and it’s unique and it’s complex and there is no way on earth that any of us can fully penetrate the world view of any other individual.
Human beings are also proactive. We don’t just sit back and wait for the data to assault us. We go out and seek it, and seek to create more information. We have a name for that—we call it curiosity. It was not for nothing that Aristotle opens his premier volume, his Metaphysics, with the famous statement, “Human beings are by nature curious.” We go out and probe and seek all the data we can get, to make it into all the information we can get, to create a more and more complex world view. Again this is something that is native to us, that’s natural.
Curiosity involves, by nature again, taking risks. We have to take a risk when we’re curious, because curious means probing the unknown. People talk about the “terrible two’s” being the age at which children are mobile enough and old enough to be into everything and to actively do things that are very, very dangerous. The terrible two’s are nothing other than the manifestation of humans reaching the level of information processing, world view building, and mobility combined that lets them really take off into risk-taking and exploration. It’s in their nature. Why? What is the purpose for which humans have all this stuff programmed into them?
It turns out that there are two main purposes. One is survival. It’s a mechanism of survival. That’s why I say education is learning how to survive. That, in fact, is common to all living things. One of the definitions of a living thing is something that is self-organized to survive. The only way to survive in the world is to form a world view so that you can maneuver in that world and find a way to continue in existence. Our survival depends on our ability to explore and our ability to design and re-design world views.
There are other things that emerge with human beings that go beyond survival and relate directly to the second purpose, and they’re critical to who we are. One is awareness. It’s more than just seeing things, forming them into patterns, it’s sort of knowing the patterns. That’s awareness. I know some person is a male and that he has a beard and that he has a certain kind of haircut and wearing a certain kind of shirt. I’m aware of that. It’s not just an image that I formed from the data that he gives, it’s more than that. It’s a form of awareness that that image has some kind of meaning. And that’s something very strange when you think about it. It’s consciousness and of course nobody knows what consciousness is, but we are conscious from a very early age. Unfortunately, we can’t figure out exactly when we’re conscious, from what age we’re conscious, because we have no way of examining or communicating with infants. But we certainly know by the time they’re verbal, and we’ll get to that in a minute, that by then they’re quite aware of the world around them.
But there’s another thing that human beings have that goes beyond awareness and this is really sort of the icing on the cake. We’re self-aware. That means not only are we aware of the things that we see and that we grasp, but we’re aware of ourselves as selves, as humans, as persons. “I think therefore I am”, Descartes’ famous statement, was more than just a little triviality. It’s “I think that I am”. I’m able to think that I exist. And once you’re able to think that you exist, you open a whole can of worms because the first question that comes into your head, if you think about it and it comes into everybody’s head—kids’ heads, at a very early age—is why do I exist? What does it mean that I exist? What is my place in the universe?
We’re a piece of something enormous that we don’t comprehend at all. Why are we here? Everybody asks that question. All of us, by nature, because of our self-awareness are not only designers, we are all, by nature, philosophers, philosophers thinking about the meaning of life, and we all want to have—we demand, because of our self-awareness—a meaningful life. We want to live a life that has some meaning to ourselves. And again that’s uniquely individual. Every individual asks themselves why am I here. And every individual has to search for some meaning in their lives. It’s universal, it’s totally personal, and it starts in the earliest childhood that we know of.
I want to stress that everybody does this. Everybody looks not just for survival but for a meaningful life. How does that relate, for example, to the poor slaves or serfs in the Middle Ages who toiled away at a bare subsistence level, whose main preoccupation was obviously survival, and whose survival rate was pitifully low? Did they have time to think about meaning? Of course they did. It’s one of the main reasons, in my opinion, that religion played such a central and important role in their lives. It’s no secret to any historian that religion was something much more central to everybody’s life throughout history until modern times. Secularism appears only in modern times when we start having leisure to think about things other than survival. When you think of only survival you’re still thinking of meaning, and when you have religion you have something that can give your life meaning. My point is that no matter how miserable people’s existence is—we even saw this documented in great detail in concentration camps—there is always a search for meaning.
So here we have a whole bunch of things that are native to and natural to every human being from birth. They’re quite an array. But we haven’t come to the most powerful thing that human beings are endowed with, the most remarkable, spectacular and puzzling tool, and that’s language. Evolution has given us language.
What is language? That is a question, unfortunately, that is often glossed over. Think about what a word is. The first people really to write about it (and unfortunately to lead everybody astray) was Plato in the Socratic Dialogues; most of the Socratic Dialogues are about individual words. What does “good” mean? What does “friendship” mean? Socrates just makes mincemeat out of every possible definition, but he’s on to something. Plato concluded that you can’t define a word, that the definition of “word” lies in some ideal form that we can never know.
What is a word? A word is a symbol. It’s a symbol that is used by each of us to denote, in shorthand, a collection of experiences that we have. It’s a remarkable shorthand. It enables us to put into one little thing—you know “in the beginning there was the Word”—something that represents, at any stage of our life, a lifetime of experiences. Think of big words, words like “love.” Love comes into vocabulary of children at a very early age. “I love you, baby,” the mother says. The baby sort of catches what “love” means. There’s his mom or his dad loving him, it must mean something that dads and moms do. (It certainly doesn’t mean anything that siblings do.) And as we grow older, each of us has quite personal, quite individual experiences around which we build our concepts of the word “love.” No two people would agree on what “love” means, although they would agree on some general notion. That’s true of even the most concrete words, and that was again shown very early on. Chair. Try to define “chair.” That’s one of the ones that Plato realized he couldn’t define. Nothing you can say will describe in full all the experiences that all people call “chair”. And that’s true of every single word.
So here we have our little brain, which we pride ourselves on being big, forming shorthands for all these experiences that we have. Now we can build really complex world views, because what held us up before was we had information overload, stemming from a huge data overload. We took information, we used it to create designs, we were aware that we knew things, but how much can you manipulate with this information overload? Now, bang, we’ve got a shorthand. And the shorthand allows us, with a word, to put together tremendous amounts of the information of our experiences, with one little symbol. All of a sudden, by acquiring language, the human species has acquired the most powerful tool it has for building world views. Now our world views can become much more complex. Now we can figure things out a lot better.
So what I’ve done so far is take you on a little journey from data to information, to the building blocks of the design of a picture of the world, to awareness of that design and of what we’ve done with the information, to self-awareness—the idea that we’re trying to figure out how to have meaningful lives, and to the use of this miraculous thing called language, that enables us to combine a tremendous amount of information into a shorthand from which we can build much more complex world views. I’ve begun to describe the first part of what learning is about. The most important thing is to realize that this is all native, natural, inborn to everybody. You don’t have to teach anybody any of this. You don’t have to put it into their heads. We’re all capable of using all of these tools that we’ve talked about to figure things out. And we do it all the time. You do it all your lives. And so do all the kids in school.
Let me phrase it differently. I’m the one who has to give meaning to my life. I’m being blunt about this. I don’t care what anyone else thinks about the meaning I’ve established in my life. If we’re talking to each other and we’ve formed an acquaintance, I may say I’ve reached this conclusion about the meaning I have in life, or about this, that and the other thing, it’s is part of my world view. I might ask your opinion and listen to it respectfully. But I’ve got to make the decision about what gives meaning to my life. There’s a tremendously profound meaning to the phrase that we all quote, that trips off our tongues from the Declaration of Independence, that among these inalienable rights are “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. That is a very interesting phrase. It wasn’t something that they simply wrote down. They wrote this in the late eighteenth century, and the eighteenth century was the Age of Enlightenment when philosophers all over the world were really talking about these issues in a very profound way. And one of the things that the founding fathers agreed upon was that the learning that we’re talking about is, by nature, human—that we all seek to pursue a life that has meaning. That’s literally what the words meant. They knew that people have that by nature.
The innovation that the founding fathers made was to turn the observation that every human being seeks life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—seeks to survive and to have a meaningful life—into the statement that every individual in the world has that right. That really was a turning point in history, because nobody had ever said this before. The way our country was founded declared that each individual has the right to survival and to have the freedom to create their own meaningful life; whether we lived up to it is a whole other question. Talk about radical change! That’s a huge watershed in history. It never was said before. Once said, it changed the way the world looked at itself. We’re not living in a country that upholds the idea that there’s an authority that can determine people’s lives. We’re living in a modern country that claims as inalienable the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Every animal survives by interacting with their environment. As you go up the evolutionary ladder, the means of communication become more intricate, more complex. Animals will interact, will coordinate their activities somehow through some sort of set of signals that they devise or that they’re born with to create what we label as the social behavior of social animals. The problem is that animals are severely limited in their means of communication. And we’re not, because language provides a whole new dimension in the ability to communicate because what language provides is a way for us to link into someone else’s thinking. It enables each of us to tap into other people’s brain and to incorporate other people’s experiences into our grasp of the world. It is a powerful tool to coordinate our actions with the actions of other people. I want to look at this much more closely. What we’ve seen already is the extremely individual nature of the shorthand we call words. That each person develops their own words and their own meaning individually. People who grow up in complete isolation create their own language. A lot of infants create their own language before they realize that others do as well. Tribes that are isolated as they are in New Guinea, because of steep mountain ranges, have developed over a hundred different languages that have nothing in common with each other. That’s pretty remarkable. We all bemoan the fact that once the modern world comes to them and they actually can communicate with the outside world, we lose these languages, but the tribes themselves can now link into the rest of the world.
There’s a great mystery in the use of language. How does an individual, who has created their own sense of what words mean, communicate and link to another person’s sense of their words? It begins at a very early age. And it begins in a way that’s revealing. It begins with children who struggle mightily to learn what other people’s use of words mean to them. Children, from a very early age, have this enormously difficult double task of creating their own shorthand to represent their own experiences and at the same time figuring out how other people’s use of their shorthand can relate to their own use. What motivates children to do that? They work so hard at it despite every obstacle. If you think about children figuring out how to speak a common language and think of all the obstacles they overcome, it must be the hardest work they do in their entire lives.
They have to first of all figure out what the sounds they hear mean. There are a jumble of sounds that other people make—what do they mean? Is that a word, isn’t it a word, is the person just making noise, is the person making music, is the person actually saying a word? And then they have to figure out what that word means to the other person. They work at it, they mispronounce words, they misuse them, and they say them wrong and they’re corrected all the time, or they realize on their own that they’re wrong. The only thing that even remotely resembles that much work is when they try to learn how to walk: nothing stops them. They fall all the time, they get up over and over again, they hurt themselves. It doesn’t stop them, they go on. But that’s really nothing compared to language. It takes them years of struggle to become children who can actually freely converse and use language. What motivates it? Why do they struggle so hard?
The answer stems from awareness and self-awareness. They understand, intuitively, that by doing this they can communicate. They can link into another person’s brain. Think about a child at home. They’re completely dependent, and they know they’re dependent, for example, on their mother feeding them. They know that’s a matter of survival. They know that instinctively. And they’re hungry. We all know the dilemma of infants that are hungry. What do they do initially? They cry. Well, they cry for a lot of things. They cry when they hurt themselves. They cry when their stomach aches. They cry for whatever reason. We don’t even know all the reasons they cry. Parents struggle mightily, and you hear this all the time: “Oh, I know that cry; that cry means she’s hungry.” To me they all sound the same, but I’m not the mother and then often it happens that the mother offers nutrition and the baby rejects it and then the mother says, “Oh, I guess that wasn’t a hungry cry. I wonder what’s bothering the kid?”
And then they realize that this conglomeration of sounds that the mother is using and that they’re making on their own can be used to link in a way that’s miraculously shorthand. “I’m hungry. Look at that, I don’t have to try sixteen different cries to convince her that I’m hungry. I can say, ‘I’m hungry,’ and miraculously I link into mother’s brain. She translates that into a different set of words: ‘My infant is hungry, I need to provide nutrition,’ and something happens. I get fed!” So the struggle that children make is, I think, a conscious struggle. It’s a struggle to reach the point where they can increase the power of their grasp of the world by linking into other people’s grasp of the world, and the more they link into, the easier their job is to grasp the world and to create a complex world view.
One of the interesting features of language is that there are circles of intimacy in the use of language that we are all aware of but we don’t really talk about that much. Every close-knit family has a bunch of uses of words that are unique to them—a word that brings a laugh to everybody because it is shorthand for an inside joke, or a word that brings grief or sadness that other people around have no clue about. We all know that we say things to people who are the most intimate to us that other people don’t pick up even though we’re using a widely familiar vocabulary. And as the circle widens, the number of words that are intimately shared lessens. You can see it happening in expanding circles. I came from Philadelphia and when I moved to New York, people often looked at me and said, “What are you talking about?” I mean, simple words had different meanings, whole phrases had a different meaning. I used to enjoy a “milk shake”. I didn’t know what a “frappe” meant. And nobody else knew what a “milk shake” meant.
As you go farther afield, words become less commonly shared. It’s one of the really major problems in politics, where the use of words is really critical. And as politics goes from the very local level, to the state level, and to the national level, regardless of what your political views are, regardless of what your political philosophy is, the words that you use to describe what you want to say have less and less common meaning to the audience. As your audience becomes larger, if you are a serious political leader who wants to lead on a national scale, you have to understand this. And you have to tailor your use of words so that the larger audience has a hope of sharing the same meaning. When you start to think internationally, it boggles the imagination. We know how different our use of English here is from the use in England and even from the use in Canada, from Australia—they’re really different. Yet we all speak “English”.
When I was growing up a wonderful book came out, which had about a hundred different translations of one little passage of the bible into English from different regions in England. I used to read those with fascination. When you consider translations from one language to another, there’s no way. You cannot make a real translation of anything. You just can’t. You can make something that you call “a translation”, that is a collection of words. There’s a very big debate among professional translators, a debate that will never be settled and can’t be settled. What do you want to do when you translate? Do you want to get the meaning that the person who wrote intended in their world, in their language? A good translator is immersed in both worlds and supposedly has a pretty good grasp of the nature of the broader language in each world. Do I want to convey the meaning that I see in that language and put it in the other language in such a way that at least it will come close to the same meaning? Or do I want to take the words that these people use in their language and try to use sort of the dictionary definitions of those words in this language and perhaps lose a lot of the meaning? That way at least you get a more “accurate” translation. But you can’t even do that, because each individual in their culture has developed their own words in that culture, in that environment, in that set of experiences. We all know this and yet somehow we don’t really think about it. Think about a debate. Think about the United Nations. Again, never mind your politics. Think about trying to set it up. Think about sitting in the United Nations. They have simultaneous translators, they have serial translations. What are they doing? They don’t understand each other, no matter who they are. They just can’t possibly really understand each other. When we read that the Eskimos have a hundred different words for snow, well, we hear their different words because our information processing of their data when they make these sounds tells us they’re different words. But did you ever try to see the explanation of what these different words mean? What is this word? Well, it’s snow that has a little bit of this property, that property. It doesn’t mean anything to me. And even if they show it to me. I’ve got to be an Eskimo, I’ve got to live up there, I’ve got to really experience it.
There is an experience I had that illustrates what I have been saying about language. I grew up in, and functioned in, the academic world for a long time. One of the things that I learned at a very early age is that the more scholarly you are considered, the smaller the audience that shares an understanding of your language. That’s a serious thing. It was an object lesson when I was growing up. So I figured I had to sort of train myself not to do that. One of the first papers that a colleague and I wrote was about some obscure pre-Socratic philosophy. We submitted this paper to a respectable journal. It was a scholarly paper in the sense that it made a point that nobody had made. The first journal we sent it to rejected it because it was written in such plain language that their response was, “Everybody knows this, what are you writing it for?” We kept going to journals until somebody was willing, grudgingly, to publish it. That was the first object lesson. A second experience finally explained why this happened. This same friend of mine and a few other collaborators started a journal called “The Natural Philosopher,” because Natural Philosophy was the name given throughout history to science. It was the umbrella name for all sciences. Ours was a journal that welcomed papers that were about virtually any scientific subject. We had a fine, distinguished editorial board for our journal, consisting of friends who had no idea what was in it, but knew us and thought it was okay to lend their names to it. (The more boards you can be on if you’re in academia, the better it is, whether or not you know what the board you serve on actually does. That’s why so many academicians get into trouble—because they find themselves on boards of journals that later accept things that they shouldn’t have accepted.)
We asked Thomas Kuhn to serve. He is famous for his history of science writings, and for inventing the concept of “paradigms” in science. My friend and I were talking to him and he declared that he would never, ever serve on the board of this journal. He looked at us with real anger. He said, “You’re committed to presenting these articles in a way that people from all different fields, and even lay people, will understand. I, however, am committed to creating history of science as an academic discipline in its own right, with its own chairs and its own departments in universities, and the key to doing that is to create a jargon of our own that is written for each other, but that people outside will only understand in some general way, but not in detail.” That was when I finally understood what it was all about. How naive I was! All those years that I was in academia I didn’t get it. Academicians thrive as a guild. A guild is a group that has their own secret methods of doing something, and they don’t want other people to know. If you weren’t in the guild of artists, for example, and you dabbled in painting, you couldn’t sell your pictures.
There’s a mystery of language—indeed, there’s a miracle of language. The miracle of language is that it works at all, that we can communicate. It works enough within a culture for people to tap into each other’s brain. That’s its power, the reason human beings can take giant leaps in their ability to grasp and understand the world. The greater the connectivity, the greater the ability to connect with other people and communicate with other people, the greater our ability to understand the world.
Once we understand the connecting and communicative power of language, learning attains a whole new dimension. It’s the dimension of the collective learning of the human race. What a difference that makes! Language, and the connectivity of language which is so difficult to attain and which we work on all our lives, make each of us as individuals potentially able to access the world views of any and every other individual to the extent that we can reach them and communicate with them. This connectivity has a profound effect on learning. It generates a fascinating feedback spiral. Learning leads to changes: the more you learn, the more your world view changes, and the more you’re able to change. And the changes that it leads to in turn enhance our ability to learn. And that, in turn, leads to other changes that will greatly enhance the ability to learn. Connectivity is crucial to this because it enables us to link to what other people have learned.
I want to summarize something now: all human beings are born, by nature, with all the key ingredients to learning. The ones we’ve gone over so far are the drive to survive, proactive curiosity, the drive to lead a meaningful life, the desire to figure things out, to be designers, the ability to design complex world views—all these are native to us—and the basic tool of language really removes all the limitations to the complexity of our designs. The shorthand does it. Language gives us access to everybody else’s designs.
The invention of writing was a great transformation in the level of human connectivity. Writing makes it possible for societies to be stable and to produce libraries, museums, and a code of laws. This has tremendous cultural significance. All you have to do is look at modern countries, which have writing but haven’t succeeded in using it to create these institutions, and realize the kind of unsettled situations that they live in. The first known code of laws put down in writing, the Code of Hammurabi, not surprisingly came out of Babylonia, an early cradle of writing. Back then they used clay to write it in, to impress their writing in, and in that way the code was spread through the Babylonian Empire.
The other thing that writing does, which goes hand-in-hand with creating a stable society, is create wealth and prosperity, because you can’t really carry out trade, or be able to really collaborate in any kind of economic enterprise, unless you have the security that these things are going to be protected by the society, by its traditions and by its laws. For example, it has been very difficult for American companies to make it in countries that haven’t created a system whereby you can take your contract to a court and enforce it. Even though writing doesn’t guarantee that this happens, writing makes it possible for this to happen and the fact that it makes it possible for societies to be stable and to produce wealth also has tremendous cultural significance.
It was Aristotle who first put this idea into writing! He noted that culture really is created and leaps forward when leisure becomes available, which happens when there’s enough of an excess economic prosperity that there is the ability for some people to have leisure to engage in these things. Everybody wants a meaningful life; people who manage to get themselves into an elite class of people, who have the wealth to withdraw from the day-to-day grind of survival, are able to exist because of the excess that that society produces. They have the time to exercise their brains, and to sit back and create all the wonderful things that were created, and that we know about, from ancient times—for example, from the Greeks, in whose midst Aristotle lived. The Greeks created in Alexandria what they called a library, a great repository of all of ancient culture, which existed there until the 7th century AD, when it was destroyed. This library is known to have had over a million books and writings collected in it, which is really quite amazing. They thought at the time that it contained all the ancient culture that existed in writing at the time, which was collected from the various places in the Greek and Roman Empires.
So this is the first step in an upward spiral that I’m talking about: having access to a very wide number of people in a quantitatively and qualitatively broader circle than anything you could do orally; having access to their experience, their world views, the things that they created and designed, and having access not only to those of contemporaries but to those of the past. All this constitutes a transformation. You build on that. Isaac Newton made a famous statement that the only reason he could do all the things that he did was that he stood on the shoulders of others. People could start “standing on the shoulders of others” once writing came into place, so learning vastly increased in quantity and quality. By “learning” I mean the ability to create models of the universe that improve your chances for survival, and give new meaning and variety to the kind of lives that people could live. You could not, in the hunter-gatherer society, say, “It gives meaning to my life to be a philosopher.” You just couldn’t do that. I mean, what next? “When are you going to shoot your next animal or deer to feed us?” But once you have writing, and you also have some leisure, you can do it.
That situation lasted for a long time and didn’t change. But there are limitations to writing. It takes a long time to write something. More important than that, how do you make copies of it? We’re so used to copy machines, and now we’re so used to computers printing out stuff in as many copies as we want. Poor John Stuart Mill in England, in the 18th century, wrote a whole book by longhand. Then he sent it to a friend of his in Scotland. It got lost in the mail! And what he did was, he sat down and wrote it all over again! This kind of thing must have happened in the ancient world all the time. More important than that, if a person wanted to have others read what he wrote, he had to hire a copyist to make copies, which is quite a limitation. That’s the way libraries were created. Manuscript copies of things from ancient times still existed in the Medieval world, where they were usually stored in monasteries. And then there were copyist errors too. Those kinds of errors somewhat limited the effect of writing on culture. On the other hand, obviously, enough copies were made that culture leapt forward.
Now, five hundred years or so ago there was another great transformation: printing. And while writing took some time to spread across the world, printing transformed the world in a very short period. Within fifty years there was really a global change, at least in the Western world, as a result of printing. Because what printing does is disperse widely whatever knowledge is available in writing. I have to explain what I mean by “widely”. On early printing presses, people had to set the type by hand, letter by letter, and so forth. And then they had to carefully and slowly ink it, put it on a sheet of paper, and hang it up to dry. That all sounds so tedious. But back then the idea that in a day of work you could produce a few thousand copies of something was earth-shaking. At that point books became the norm, and people who actually wrote things, and had important and interesting things to say—or even not such important and interesting things to say!—could actually get them set in type and sent out all over the place. Imagine the situation when you have somebody like Galileo or Kepler or even Copernicus. Where was Copernicus? Copernicus was holed up in some monastery in Poland—remote Poland. If he had written something in a manuscript, the chances of that reaching anybody within a hundred years would have been pretty remote. But he, or the people associated with him, managed to get it printed and before you knew it people read it all over the place. And so what you have is suddenly, very suddenly, people all over being able to get access to information that was in writing.
The Information Revolution, the distribution of cultural advances in print, was a quantum leap. Obviously it had a tremendously profound effect on science and technology. It had a tremendous effect on exploration. That was the era where global exploration started. Why did it start at the same time that printing started? Is that just a coincidence? Not at all. Exploration depended on a tremendous amount of information being shared.
Columbus’ voyage is an interesting example of the effect that had. Once he returned from the western hemisphere, what he did became known widely very quickly. There were people who traveled all the time in the ancient world. We know, for example, that as early 500AD Arabs traded with China and India. We know their trade routes and how they did it, now that we’ve studied it and unearthed archeological evidence. But the exact trade routes were not known widely in Europe. Once Columbus did his trip everybody found out about it almost immediately, and within no time everybody was doing it—the Portugese were out there, the English, the French, the Dutch—all within no time flat because they all had found out about Columbus’ voyage. And more than that, they found out about the technology that made it possible. Western Europe didn’t have ocean-going boats. The most they could do was sail the Mediterranean—that they could do from Phoenician times. Ocean-going boats were different. They’re harder to construct. They have to be more hardy. That’s advanced technology. How do you design an ocean-going boat? Well, once you had one person, or one group, investigating the technology of building boats for exploration, it spread very quickly.
A global transformation in religion was brought about, as we know exactly, by printing. The first book printed was the Bible. The reason that made a difference is that nobody read the Bible before. In order to read it, you had to have a handwritten copy. First of all, there weren’t very many around, and second of all, the Bible in itself was a holy book whose actual effect on everyday religion was minimal because the religion that people actually practiced in any of the monotheisms—Muslims, Catholics, Jews, it didn’t make any difference—was a religion that had been refined and explained and developed over a period of anywhere from a thousand to two thousand years by various interpreters who were respected in the religion.
Nobody had Bibles. So how did you know what it was to be a good Christian? How did you know what it was to be a good member of any religion? You knew because you went to the people you respected—the priests, the scholars—and you found out from them what the meaning of the religion that you were associated with was. That makes perfect sense, because over a long period of time things get interpreted and adapt themselves to historic change.
Then all of a sudden the Bible gets printed—I’ve never been able to figure out really what motivated Gutenberg to print the Bible. It’s the first book. Nobody’s ever seen a printed book before, and his livelihood depended on selling it and making a living. (It turns out he ended up bankrupt and broke. He wasn’t a very good businessman.) So obviously he knew that the first book he printed had to sell. Well, who was he thinking of selling it to? He must have been thinking of selling it to the interpreters. He probably figured that, considering all the bishops and cardinals and popes and priests who interpret the handwritten Bibles, there are a lot of them, so he’ll do them a favor and print a Bible. He sure as heck didn’t intend it to fall into the hands of people like Martin Luther and John Calvin. That was not his intended audience. But there it was: printed, so everybody can read it, and before you know it there are people saying, “Wait a minute, I don’t like any of the interpretations that I hear, because I can read the Bible myself, and I can see what’s written in black and white.
That immediately caused an earthquake in the whole history of western culture. Because right away, thanks to printing, you get people who say, “I can do it on my own, I can read it myself. I can read Isaac Newton. I can read Galileo. I can read any philosopher I want. I can teach myself. I can create my world view now, directly. I don’t need to hear it from experts.”
The number of people who can actually learn and educate themselves and create meaning for themselves and create designs of the world, without intervention of experts or traditions now became tremendously large. One of the consequences that leads to, of course, is information overload. Believe it or not, people wrote about information overload back in the 16th and 17th century. “How are we ever going to sort it out? How can you tell a book that is reasonable from a bad book? How can you tell when people are wasting their time reading a bunch of nonsense that somebody’s had enough money to print?” And, to be sure, there were a lot of people who printed a lot of nonsense. So that was a serious concern. That led to was people writing encyclopedias. They wanted to get back to facts. When I was growing up there was the Encyclopedia Britannica. Either you had it in your home or you wanted to have it. It was in the library. You wanted to look up a fact, you looked it up in the Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedias were an answer to information overload. Encyclopedias had somebody filtering the available information.
More important, printing led to instability, for the very reason I talked about when discussing religion. It led to the possibility of people now distributing radical new ideas that were societally transforming. That’s when you have the development and distribution of things like new philosophies of government, social philosophy. This is dynamic, this is something that can actually affect the way human beings organize societies and live. People were not only thinking about this stuff and talking about it in their own little circles, or writing it somewhere in their notepad that gets lost, but people were printing it and distributing it and saying, “You know, guys, there can be a better society.” Eighteenth century France, before the revolution, was ruled by absolute monarchs who had all the panoply of coercion and everything that it took to keep a society stable, and yet they freely allowed these guys to write their philosophy which basically undermined their whole government. All the philosophies on which our founding fathers based their theories, by which English monarchy was transformed, were written by French thinkers. The king knew that it was being written. His censors told him. But he felt so secure! “Let them write what they want.” Then came 1789. Talk about a global transformation causing instability!
Now let’s look at the third global transformation, about 200 years ago. This is a little more subtle, a different kind of transformation: it’s a passel of transformations and revolutions in dissemination and production of information. I’m talking about the development of high-volume printing, which is very, very different, qualitatively from the kind of printing that happened before that. Think of a printing plant that produces newspapers. They’re just phenomenal. They produce 30,000, 50,000, 100,000, 200,000 copies of a newspaper—newspapers written, put to bed, as they call it, some time in the evening, and it’s out and printed and ready to go in several hours. And you see these gigantic machines rolling out this stuff in no time flat, cutting it, folding it, everything. Compare that to the presses where you produce one page at a time and hang them up to dry. High-volume printing started with the Industrial Revolution. It helped create, and then it fed on, the Industrial Revolution.
The second thing that happened as a result of the Industrial Revolution was fast travel, which is another method of distribution of information. You can print a lot of copies of something, but how do you get them to your audience? In general, you can have trade with a lot of people and produce all kinds of goods, but you have to get the goods to market. Now all of a sudden you get methods that are really fast for transporting and distributing these things: trains. They really changed society. All the major cities in the history of the world until the 19th century were founded near waterways. They had to be, because the only way you could transport bulk was by boat. It’s an accident of physics that you can build a big thing that floats but you can’t take a big thing and just whish it over land. When you actually think about land transportation before the advent of the train, it was all but impossible. You either carried it on your back or you carried it on an animal, which is even more limiting because in addition to everything else—the limitations of the animal—you have to carry the animal’s food too. It’s sort of a no-win situation. Or you carry it in a cart. But there were no roads. How do you get a cart anywhere? Transportation by land was just very, very difficult. One of the reasons the Roman Empire could exist at all was because they built enough roads—very few, but enough—so that they could at least move their armies a little more quickly.
Then there were different kinds of instantaneous communication, all of which came into being in the 19th century as a result of the Industrial Revolution—for example, those that use electricity, like the telegraph. The telegraph is incredible. It enabled you to transmit information very quickly. The telegraph was critical in coordinating armies. It played a big role in the Civil War, and after that everybody understood that in war, or in business, wherever information flow is critical, something like a telegraph is imperative. Now, you could connect all land masses by telegraph. There were huge networks of telegraph all over land masses. But you have these big oceans between land masses, so you still had “the slow boat to China”, so to speak. Information from the new world to the old world, back and forth, had to go by steamships, whatever number of days it took. The history of the laying of the Atlantic cable is an incredible saga because they kept trying and trying and trying, and halfway across the Atlantic it would break. A cable 3,000 miles long. It boggles the mind. It took a whole lot of tries, a lot of lost money by entrepreneurs. In the end they laid the Atlantic cable—one cable, which was of course, a lot of cables wound together, and all of a sudden, literally overnight, the two continents were connected instantaneously.
And then you get the telephone, and wireless transmission. High-volume, high-speed distribution of information is something that makes a huge difference: the accessibility of what’s been accumulated—the world views, the experience, all the understanding, the figuring things out that were yearned for by an ever wider population at an ever quicker rate, is being transmitted to a bevy of people who really want it. Nowadays, we take all these things so much for granted!
The Industrial Revolution also produced something else. It also produced a need for a part of the population to do something that had never happened before. It has to do with the nature of industry, and it’s something that’s really a little strange. The Industrial Revolution created machines that were wonderful. They produced stuff in huge quantities like never before, and tremendously increased wealth, trade, and prosperity. The widespread availability of everything—food, clothing, shelter, art, you name it—the Industrial Revolution produced it. It was phenomenal. Life expectancy rose, health rose, prosperity rose all over the parts of the world that the Industrial Revolution touched. And everybody wanted to be in the forefront of this transformation. There was only one drawback, and this is an accident of history. The machines of the Industrial Revolution, right up to very recent times, did not have sophisticated feedback mechanisms. Fundamentally, to make the industrial machines work, human beings had to be adjuncts to the machines, because only human beings had enough intelligence and ability to make that whole system work together smoothly. You needed people on the assembly lines. You needed people in the control rooms, lots of people everywhere. These people had to be, literally, wedded to the machine, part of the machine. This is an incredibly important and inescapable fact of history. The Industrial Revolution and all of its benefits had a tradeoff—that it needed a huge mass of human beings to operate fundamentally as semi-robotic pieces of a machine.
The more the Industrial Revolution spread, the more of these people you needed. There’s a problem, and the problem is that people do not want to be robotic pieces of a machine! That’s not our nature. So how do you get around that? Well, you can try to get adults to be parts of the machine. You can try to do it by all kinds of methods—for example, by sheer force, or by offering them bribes (such as high pay). But that really doesn’t get enough people. The only way to do it is to start young. If you start young, you can produce a whole population—a whole sub-population of people, who of course were not members of the elite—who will be trained from early childhood; which means that some piece of their free will, some piece of their ability to operate in ways they wished, has to be literally broken. And the key to doing that is harsh discipline and coercion.
That was the birth of mass education. It’s no accident that it was created in the United States. The United States became the world powerhouse in the Industrial Revolution by being at the forefront of creating mass public education. If you read the literature of the origin of mass public education, you can see that was the key, that was the main factor. The key element of mass public education was discipline. Everybody was very open about it. You’ve got to get children trained from an early age to obey the rules, more than anything else. You can’t let them pursue their curiosity. You have to make sure they know certain things necessary for the industrial economy. That’s exactly how “the three R’s” were born. They make perfect sense, because in order to function effectively as part of the machine, you have to be able to read instructions and to follow them, you have to be able to be literate enough in writing to communicate with the people involved in the industry, and you had to know enough arithmetic to understand the machine and also to provide the ancillary services such as everyday bookkeeping. That’s how “the three R’s” were born, but discipline was really was at the foundation of the modern mass education system.
A lot of other things happened as well. Between 1870 and the first World War, the influx of people into this country by the tens of millions from all over the world, but especially from Europe, was enormous. There was a huge problem of integrating these people into a cohesive society. They came from many, many cultures, they all spoke their own native languages, they all had their own interpretations of reality, their own world views. We want them to be able to coexist here. We are the only country in the history of the world to this day where a huge variety of ethnic and racial groups have coexisted and—except for the Civil War—have coexisted without killing each other. Think about Europe, the most “civilized” continent in the world, the recipient of all of the benefits of Western Civilization. In the 20th century Europe managed to slaughter, without outside help, over 100 million people. The number is staggering. I’m not talking about the damage Europeans did in the rest of the world. I’m talking about the damage they inflicted on themselves. And here on our shores we have a continent where tens of millions of people came in a short length of time, where we managed to integrate them into the culture in a way that they didn’t slaughter each other. They came from places where they were used to slaughtering each other and they didn’t do it here. That was a tremendous challenge. That was the second big challenge that changed, by adding a whole bunch of subjects that were civics-related to the curriculum—all kinds of social studies, history of the United States, aspects of culture that introduced them to what at that time was called “the melting pot”. That term has been badly misinterpreted. Today, people think it meant everybody had to be the same. But really the melting pot meant that you tried to get these people to shed enough of their enmities from the past and to share enough cultural knowledge that they will at least be able to form a cohesive society. And that created basically the rest of the curriculum.
The elite, meaning the people who were most prosperous and did the most governing, didn’t get any of this stuff—the three R’s, history and all that stuff and nonsense. The elite were educated strictly in the classics, in Greek and Latin, at high school age. Their curriculum was to learn how to read and write Greek and Latin literature. There was a method to the madness because the Greeks and Romans were the people who had the great ancient empires, and the elite were going to rule empires. They thought that by instilling the culture of empires, they could get these people to get used to the fact that this is the way you rule. And there was nothing considered important between Greek and Roman times and the 18th century anyway, except for Genghis Khan. They didn’t want to emulate Genghis Khan, because he was a “savage”. So they taught Greek and Latin.
Winston Churchill was expected to go to Eton, and at twelve years old he had to pass the exam to get admitted. The exam was all about Greek and Latin. He was a terrible student. He didn’t pay any attention in class. So he got the test, and he recounts how he looked at his blank piece of test paper and stared at it. He had no idea what to write. He dipped his pen in the ink, put it down on the paper, and a big splotch of ink fell on the paper; and he handed in a blank sheet of paper signed with his name, with a big splotch of ink on it. That was his exam. Of course, he got accepted. There was no way not to accept him, because of who his family was, but he was put in the “dummy class” because they couldn’t put him in the regular class. And the “dummy classes” were all conducted in English, and so he studied English literature and English writing, which of course wasn’t thought to be worth a damn for ruling an empire. The rest is history. He became one of the great English stylists and writers and orators of the 20th century because he was a “dummy”.
Before I go on to the Fourth Great Transformation, I’ll give you an example of change, and then I’ll tell you the litmus test that distinguishes between a transformation and a change. An example of change that isn’t a transformation is the introduction of papyrus and sheepskin and ink as a method of writing as opposed to chipping things into stone or impressing them in clay. It’s a significant change, but it is not transformative. Another example of change in the ancient world is realizing that you can use water transportation to create a larger empire than a land empire, something the Romans figured out. That’s a change, but not a fundamental cultural transformation. The Roman Empire was the same kind of empire that every other empire was, only it was bigger because they had a clever idea. It was a significant change, not a transformation.
The litmus test of a transformation versus a change is a Rip van Winkle thing. If you pluck a person out of the pre-transformation world, into the post-transformation world, how comfortable would they be? If you take somebody right out of the hunter-gatherer world, and stick them into the urban agricultural world with writing, they would simply be at a loss. That’s a transformation. You take somebody from the whole ancient world right up to printing, there are all kinds of changes that they would notice but they would be comfortable. They would recognize the farming, they would recognize that people were still using the same old Roman roads, they would recognize cathedrals because they had temples. They would understand that things had changed but they would still be able to accommodate themselves to the new conditions. You take a person from that ancient world and you stick him into the world of 1600 and they won’t know one side from another because everything is different. Culture is different, science is different, philosophy is different, technology is different. Everything is different. Whole new worlds have opened up that they never even heard of. The same thing is true between pre-Industrial and post-Industrial times. People suddenly put into this new world are not oriented, they don’t have the information, the design, the world views, that enable them to make that transition easily.
The same is going to hold for the fourth transformation. This transformation happened about fifty years ago, and is still very much in process. If anything, it is accelerating in its rate of transformation. It is again an information revolution, and this time it’s a transformation in the storage, processing, and distribution of information. What that has actually done is given, in principle and in practice, and in large parts of the world, unlimited access to everybody, and to all human knowledge past and present.
That takes some thinking and pondering. This is totally unlike anything before. Anybody now can have access to anything known. To be sure, there are still rough edges to it. There are still things that haven’t been made accessible. But we’re so much in the midst of this that we can no longer even guess at the future.
Who would have predicted three years ago, five years ago, that Microsoft, as an operating system on desktop computers, would lose that entire market, that it’s all going to be obsolete? Nobody’s going to have desktop computers soon. We’re not going to store programs on a hard drive. Nobody could have predicted that. So we have rapid change in this whole area of storage, processing, and distribution. We have an incredible increase in the creation of new knowledge and in the almost complete obliteration of the distinction between “fields” of knowledge. You cannot split knowledge into the separate disciplines that we all have been using for so long. The first person to create these fields was Aristotle. He wrote the first textbooks in physics, metaphysics, logic, rhetoric. Before him, nobody thought in those categories. He was a great categorizer. He created these fields and universities to this day have still maintained them. However, differentiation in knowledge now is utterly meaningless. To talk about “interdisciplinary knowledge” is a joke because there’s no such thing anymore as “disciplinary knowledge”. Every discipline is intertwined with every other discipline, and niches now can be found for any form of creativity, any form of imagination.
I strongly recommend to people who want to see that aspect of it, to read a book called The Long Tail. The Long Tail is a book written by a man who was the editor of Wired Magazine. The book tells vividly how, because of the way that information is now processed and distributed, even people who have something that’s of interest to only a handful of other people in the world, can now use the current methods of processing and distributing information to get that information out to them.
Think about how many magazines there were. First you had bicycles of all kinds to take a simple example. Then you got a bicycling magazine, which was a way of distributing information. A magazine costs a lot of money, it needs advertisers and so forth. But obviously some people thought there were enough people interested in bicycles to put out a bicycling magazine. And then there was racing bicycling, mountain bicycling, all kinds of different bicycling. After a while every publication was so niched that one couldn’t even afford to put them out, and most of them have collapsed. But the niches don’t collapse.
Today, say you’ve created a new kind of pedal for mountain bikes, which you think is really much better. Thirty or forty years ago you couldn’t even afford an advertisement. You would never get it out there unless a big company picked it up. Today you create it, you make a picture of it, you stick it on the internet, you have people pay for it over the net, and you’re in business, even if there are only a few thousand people in the whole world who care about it, because they can find it with search engines. They can look for pedals for mountain bikes and by goodness, you come up!
The whole idea now of the accessibility of information creates wealth, creates niches, creates variety, creates literally an infinite number of ways to be a productive person in the modern world and maintain yourself, and have a meaningful life, and still not starve to death. It’s staggering. And kids know it, they all understand it perfectly.
Another thing that happens in this modern transformation is that it’s created an age-independent world society. It’s not only created a global village, which is real, but when you go online you don’t know how old the person is that you’re talking to. You never ask that. When you’re interacting with somebody online, you never say, “how old are you?” You don’t even ask, and often you can’t tell from the moniker, “Are you male or female?” You usually have no idea where they are. I see kids doing this all the time. They may discover after a while they’re talking to somebody in Australia, or New Zealand, or in Poland, or whatever. They couldn’t care less about these distinctions. And they certainly don’t care about age. They interact with whomever they want, with adults, with teenagers, with little kids—they don’t care. It’s an age-independent society.
There are so many implications for this. It means, for example, that obsolescence is very, very rapid. Information and knowledge become rapidly obsolete because so much new information, new knowledge, so many new designs of the world are coming into play so rapidly that nothing is stable. What that does is immediately increase fear. It increases fear because a lot of people are afraid of the earth under them not being stable anymore, afraid of all the foundations of their existence disappearing and not being stable anymore. Adults are especially prone to this.
It’s interesting because the gap between adults and children in anything—knowledge, competence—has narrowed. Many children are much more competent than adults. And we’re all too aware of it. I don’t even know how to use my simple cellphone, I have no idea. I’m glad I can make phone calls, and I know how to get my messages. But a cellphone is a computer, with tremendous power. Kids know how to operate it. It’s unbelievable what they can do with a cell. I’m not even talking about taking pictures. It is programmable in a million ways and mine is not even a sophisticated, high-tech phone. Adults are not as good at this as kids, and we’re afraid of it. We’re afraid of the younger generation and we’re often afraid to acknowledge it. A lot of adults react to that fear with hostility, which is what you usually do when you have fear. You find ways to denigrate what the younger generation does because you’re afraid of what they can do. That’s something to bear in mind. The reality is that children now can forge their own path without adult help. The role of adults is totally changed. Adults are now part of the human continuum. The thing that adults are most useful for to children is their wisdom and life experience. Kids certainly don’t think I know more than them in areas in which they know more than me. I don’t parade as an expert at everything. I’ll answer their questions because they’ll turn to me when they think I might have something interesting to say but they don’t mistake what I say with ultimate truth. They might say, “I wonder what Danny’s take on this is.” And if they don’t want to know my take, they don’t ask.
Our connection with the next generation depends on our making ourselves available as sources of life experience, not as experts. We have to deal with the fact that as adults our perspective is retrogressive. We’re a drag on the future. We’ve got to accept that. We have to work hard not to be a drag on progress, because most of us, not having been raised in this transformed world, are not really fully competent to contribute to the transformation. That’s sort of a sobering realization.
People who are growing up in this accelerated period of transformation have adjusted to it. They’re going to grow up into adults who can handle it. Children, when they’re born, have the ability to handle rapid change. That’s one of the keys. To them everything is whirring around. It’s obviously part of human nature from birth to be adaptable to rapid change, otherwise, as a species we wouldn’t have survived. So it’s there, we’ve got it. And if we don’t kill it, one way or another, it’s going to stay. Kids will grow up being just as adapted to change as they were when they started out if nobody drums it into their heads that they shouldn’t be changing, that there’s something stable that they should stick to and not wander away from. If we don’t tell them, for example, that they’re wasting their time when they email, or chat on Facebook, or play video games, or whatever, which we really don’t understand at all. It’s just now beginning to break into the mainstream educational colloquy that maybe video games have some educational value. For the kids who play video games it’s the farthest from mind-numbing. They’ll never stick to a game that they’ve learned and mastered. For them the world of video games is a world of constant challenge. It might not be our idea of what they ought to be doing, but we ought to take a second look. They’re choosing their own path and there must be a reason. We have to really be careful about trying to understand this whole mind set that we’re not familiar with.
When we first started our school, parents would complain that their teenaged kids spend an awful lot of time on the phone. This was before the internet, before Facebook, before all this stuff. “My teenager gets on the phone, spends three hours with a friend and all the stuff they’re talking about is such nonsense. They should be doing their homework, reading a book or doing something serious.” But there’s a reason that they’re doing this. The underlying assumption that what they’re doing is a waste of time because it’s not something that we as adults are still doing, or approve of, has it backwards. We should be asking ourselves, what is it that’s driving them to do it? And once you think about it that way you suddenly understand: you couldn’t pay me a million dollars to be a teenager! This is the hardest period of life and they’re trying to figure out how to make it in society. Social interactions change dramatically when you become a teenager. They’re trying to figure out how to maneuver in this scary new world. All of the seemingly empty conversation to us is their groping for understanding, and they do this with their friends. This isn’t idle talk to them.
The present transformation is different because it’s quicker, it’s evolving, and at a breakneck pace. This transformation has created a chasm between past—between the recent past of just a generation or so ago—and the present. And the chasm is widening. As adults, and especially as people in fields that deal with children, we are faced with a historic choice that we are not free to ignore. We can’t make believe it isn’t there. The chasm is there, it’s getting wider. And we have to decide whether we’re going to jump it while we can still even think of jumping it. It’s always risky to jump, but risk is embedded in us. We either leap—from Industrial-Era thinking to this new Information-Era thinking—or we stay on the wrong side. If you really think about it, the tremendous divide in the world today is a divide between people on one side of this chasm and the other—people who are not ready or prepared culturally to jump the chasm. There are a lot of people on the other side of the chasm who would like to see all of the stuff on the current side of the chasm disappear and would like to do everything they can to destroy it and make it disappear, except they can’t.
That’s the challenge that we all face. We have to literally not reform, not change, but fundamentally redesign all of our educational institutions. This is a huge challenge. And the question is whether people who deal with children are up to it. Those of us who aren’t are going to be left behind. It’s not going to be a choice. A growing number of young people find school, at best, irrelevant. Even if they don’t fight it, even if they’re not hostile to it or hate it, they’re finding it irrelevant. They may put up with it, but they’re finding that where they really get their information, and where they really get their dreams realized, and their ideals and their life’s meaning, is not from what they find in what we today call “educational institutions”. They get it from the sources of learning and design and world view formation that are accessible to them on their own. So we don’t have a choice.
How do you redesign education? How do you go about it? One of the things to keep in mind is to be aware of the pitfalls and the retrogressive things that we’re doing in current structures because that gives you some insight into what to try to avoid.
The only way to do it is to encourage the creation of new models. And I mean new models. I don’t mean takeoffs on the old models. You’ve got to encourage pilot programs that are really, really different. It’s very hard, but it’s doable. You’ve got to encourage the study of pilot models from the vantage point of the other side of the chasm.
Let me explain what I mean by that. It’s not the same as what’s called “alternative education”, not in the public or private sphere. There isn’t a charter school around that doesn’t have to conform to the same kinds of standards that the government has set up for the non-charter schools. The reality is that there are almost no models today that are radically different. Obviously Sudbury Valley School is one, but there can never be only one, and ours is not even necessarily the one that most people will like. There should be others out there that start from scratch, start from the knowledge of where we are now in global transformations. We’ve got to look for it, actively. We’ve got to ask people to redesign. It’s got to be part of our world. And when we look at a redesign, our first reaction cannot be, “Oh, that won’t work, that doesn’t include this or that necessary piece.” We don’t know what will work anymore than people in the cyberworld know what will work in the cyberworld. They don’t know. That’s why there’s so much progress—because everything is being tried. Every single thing is being tried nowadays on this other side of the chasm. Nobody in this new world can ever say to anybody, “This can’t work,” before it has been tried and tested. That’s a significant change right there. The companies that survive in the cyberworld are the ones who tell their people go out and do things. We don’t know what will work. Try it!
I’ll give you example of how different this is from even a generation ago. A wonderful series put out by PBS interviewed all the people in the beginning of the computer industry. They interviewed the founder of Intel. The interviewer said, “You developed the first computer chip, and you knew you had basically invented a desktop computer. Why didn’t you go on and make the desktop computers?” The Intel founder said, “We brainstormed and we couldn’t think of any use for it. The only use we could think of, literally, is for collecting recipes. And, he said, I couldn’t think of my wife ever using that for recipes. She’d much rather use a card file.” That’s the essence of the wrong side of the chasm that I’m talking about. That’s the world that has been left behind.
In today’s world, on the other side of the chasm, nobody would say that. They would say, “Okay, go try it, see if you find something useful.” That’s the challenge that I see. To survive, we have to leap over the chasm, and stay on the other side.
Copyright © The Sudbury Valley School Press, Inc.®