The Future (Shock) is Now

Future Shock Cover (Wikipedia)
Future Shock Cover (Wikipedia)

Having been on my “to read” list for quite some time, I was finally able to dig into an oft-mentioned book: Alvin Tofler’s 1970 look at, well, today, Future Shock.

I had not read it before, though I see one of his quotes mentioned quite often: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

Quite awhile ago, I had heard a story about the book on NPR, and was reminded that a copy still sat upon my bookshelf. Why I hadn’t cracked the cover, I am not sure. And, of course, hindsight is 20/20, so there are tributes to Toffler’s insight, as well as critiques. Prediction is a tough business, so I don’t really want to offer either. Also, I will be honest… I made it about 2/3 of the way through, and then took a fast-forward jump to Chapter 18: “Education in the Future Tense.” So, some of the quotes below are from earlier in the book and some from that section, and I need/want to finish the entire book.

So, here, I want to just pull out a few quotes that speak to the current state of debate when it comes to education, school choice, and ed tech, without offering too much additional commentary.

On education:

“Failure to diversify education within the system will simply lead to the growth of alternative educational opportunities outside the system.” (274)

On technology:

“Moreover, in the educational world of tomorrow, that relic of mass production, the centralized work place, will also become less important… A good deal of education will take place in the student’s own room at home or in a dorm, at hours of his own choosing… he will be freed, for much of the time, of the restrictions and unpleasantness that dogged him in the lockstep classroom.“ (275)

On individuality:

“It is obstinate nonsense to insist, in the face of all this, that the machines of tomorrow will turn us into robots, steal our individuality, eliminate cultural variety… technology, far from restricting our individuality, will multiply our choices—and our freedom—exponentially.” (282)

On mass schooling:

“Mass education was the ingenious machine constructed by industrialism to produce the kind of adults it needed… 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 in instrument of adaptation for its place and time.” (400)

He goes on to know how progressives such as John Dewey were trying to instill ideas of “presentism,” and to push back against the ideas of the education industrial complex. I’m still not sure that we are all reading enough Dewey. At any rate, back to the quotes:

On the connection between school and work:

“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 leave their way through | novel environments, who are quick to spot new relationships in the rapidly changing reality.” (402-3)

On the study of history and social issues:

“It is no longer sufficient for Johnny to understand the past. It is not even enough for him to understand the present, for this 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.” (403)

On the structure of schooling:

“This trend [toward a knowledge-based industry] will be sharply encouraged by improvements in computer-assisted education, electronic video recording, holography, and other technical fields. Parents and students might sign short-term “learning contracts” with the nearby school, committing them to teach-learn certain courses for course modules. Students might continue going to school for social and athletic activities or for subjects they cannot learn on their own or under the tutelage of parents or family friends. Pressures in this direction will mount as the schools grow more anachronistic, and the courts will find themselves deluged with cases attacking the present obsolete compulsory attendance laws. We may witness, in short, a limited dialectical swing back toward education in the home.” (406)

On the nature of truth as it relates to schooling:

“Given further acceleration, we can conclude that knowledge will grow increasingly perishable. Today’s “fact” becomes tomorrow’s “misinformation.” There is no argument against learning facts or data – far from it. But a society in which the individual constantly changes his job, his place of residence, his social ties and so forth, places an enormous premium on learning efficiency. Tomorrow’s schools must therefore teach not merely data, but ways to manipulate it. Students must learn how to discard old ideas, how and when to replace them. They must, in short, learn how to learn… By instructing students how to learn, unlearn and relearn, a powerful new dimension can be added to the education.” (414)

My hope is that I can find some time to read the last third of the book and, perhaps, watch the documentary.

In the meantime, I just wanted to share the quotes that I found compelling in hope that it will give me some ideas to talk about/from in the PD events I have coming up this summer. My hope is that Toffler (and his wife’s unattributed) work still resonates for you, too.


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