10.3 The Content of Learning in the Cultural Context
"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."
-- From the Notebooks of Lazarus Long, by Robert A. Heinlein

What ought education to contain, in order to achieve the goals of engaging the mind to the task of bringing the learner into the main stream of society? The various interested groups such as government, teachers, administrators, and school-based associations, have all conducted studies and composed their own lists over the years. The one here is therefore in a long tradition, but it is presented in the context of the discussion of this book, not so much as a summary of the extant literature Some of the items are fundamental and obvious, but worth restating precisely because the obvious is sometimes invisible, and therefore ignored, even when it is important. Other things may be less obvious, but nonetheless important to achieve the appropriate balance in the entire cultural context.

Life Skills

Once, it was once assumed that basic life skills were taught at home, and that the school system need no longer concern itself with them. However, such things as manners, etiquette, how to balance a chequebook, use the banking system, how to shop, to budget, to raise a family, to look for a job, and to obtain government, medical, dental and legal help--among many others--can no longer be assumed to be in possession of the student. To fulfill the mandate to help a child become a functional adult, schools must pay attention to such things; failure to do so will leave many students incapable of breaking out of family patterns of ignorance and poverty. Critics of including such things in a school curriculum are quick to blame the parents or some ethnic sub-culture, but in so doing they forget that the school has an ethical obligation of its own that does not depend on the student's background, and that this obligation is to the principal client.

Who is the principal client? Depending on one's point of view, it is either the society that gave the school its mandate and agenda, or the student who is receiving the knowledge. In a democracy, the difference may not seem great, but it can be very large indeed in a totalitarian state. Ideally, the student is the focus of the learning activity, and socialization into the broader society is for the benefit of the student as much as it is to fulfill the mandate of the state.

Neither can the universities suppose that this observation about life skills is relevant only to the grade schools. After all, what is the use of producing academics who are filled with ideas and techniques from their specialty, but who are non-functional in their society? Such learning may not have to be a large part of the curriculum for mature adults seeking new horizons, but for the student fresh out of high school, it is still a necessity.

Communications Skills

The ability to receive and transmit ideas, needs, and emotions is crucial at every level of participation in society. On the one hand the person who cannot be communicated to cannot be taught, and is therefore unable even to begin the pilgrimage to adulthood and responsibility as a member of a society. Indeed, it is precisely the ability to learn that delineates what professions or job roles are available to a given individual. On the other hand, from the infant who needs to inform parents of a dirty diaper to the Ph.D. in biochemistry trying to publish a potential Nobel-winning breakthrough, the ability to get a message out is equally crucial to functionality. The following maxim is offered to bring this critical need into focus:

A person who is unable to communicate beliefs, feelings, information, and knowledge efficiently and effectively might as well not have any.

The case has already been made in this book that the society of the future will be characterized as one in which suitably trained people will have instant access to all forms of information. Thus, the memorizing of many facts will take second place to the ability to acquire, manipulate, and transmit information--that is, to organize and communicate ideas. Since such communication will involve ideas as well as facts, those who do work in the future will have to work smarter, and the specific area of their learning that will need the most attention is the ability to communicate clearly and effectively. There will be much less tolerance of incomplete or erroneous communication, and there will be substantial pressure on all those using information facilities to ensure that they do so correctly.

Those who are able to master the techniques of working with and communicating ideas, which is part of being educated in the sense used here, may have enormous advantages over those who cannot, so this will be a critical part of future learning. At what point such training would become universal is not yet certain, but the assumption being made here is that by the advent of the major Metalibrary facilities, the ability to make use of them will simply be taken for granted by both workers and employers. Thus, reading for understanding and writing for the clarity of another's understanding will not simply be the goals of future learning; they will of necessity be its major acceptable outcomes.


No people can be understood, nor any culture perpetuated, without serious reference to its literature. The sophistication of the students will, of course, determine the complexity of the writings with which they can grapple, but books are essential for a people to know where they have been and who they are. For example, no serious study of Western civilization is possible without coming to grips with the Bible--the single most influential collection of books in this culture's literature. The British heritage and even the English language are heavily dependent on Chaucer, the Magna Carta, Shakespeare, and many others. Likewise, the writings of the founding fathers of the United States, including the Federalist Papers, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, are crucial to an understanding of American society and culture. Works of fiction also hold up a mirror to the soul of a people. It is no mere coincidence, for instance, that science fiction became so popular in the machine age, or that fantasy exploring alternate worlds, cultures and religions was on the ascendancy at its close. In both forms, this genre of literature is reflecting culture--the stable one of the mature part of the industrial age, and the changing, groping, and uncertain one of its passing. These observations are true of every language and culture; all express themselves in their writings, and no culture can otherwise be understood.

Likewise, the history of ideas is contained in books, and the modern person is treading on dangerous ground in dismissing the thinkers of the past on the grounds of supposed obsolescence. Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Kant, Luther, Calvin, Galileo, Newton, Locke, Marx, Freud, Einstein, and a host of others shaped the world and its views as they now are; modern culture cannot be understood without reading them. The great danger in making the transition to the new age is that foundational attempts to grapple with ideas will be dismissed as irrelevant simply because they are old, or were conceived of (and therefore are seen as tainted by) people whom the moderns do not view as politically correct.


This topic and its importance have been remarked upon extensively in this book. In order for citizens to understand their place in society, and their potential to contribute to or change that society, the learning of its history is essential. The cultural bond of any society is not just with its current citizens, but with all those who made the society what it now is, and with those who will follow. When the motivations and techniques that brought it to the present point are understood, and the points at which the major decisions were made for stability or change have been identified, it is possible to begin informed consideration about new directions. Otherwise, decisions are taken in a vacuum of historical knowledge. Being ill-informed, these are as likely to bring harm as good and so the mistakes of history come to be repeated.

As for the literature of a culture, so for its history--the present cannot be understood without the past, and the past exists for the present primarily through its books. Fail to read these books and see where society has come from and why, and the student will surely be unable to determine where it is going and why.


It is also insufficient (and impossible) to study the values of a society in a judgement-free context, as if they were of no real account for either the present or the future. Both the values being studied and those of the one examining them are inseparable from their respective cultures. These are not relativistic; they are part of what makes a society and a people unique. When they are discarded, the people lose their distinctiveness and become, even if only partly, some other people. This is the case of every truth that a people holds to be self-evident, for such a statement is an assertion that its values are absolute and essential to their distinctiveness. Moreover, it has been argued several times in this book that it is impossible for a society to exist at all without a collective conviction of what constitutes "good" for that people. If all go their own way in this, doing what is right in their own eyes without concern for anyone else, then there is no society, just a collection of individuals, centered upon themselves and groping about in an increasing chaos.

Moreover, an absolutist ethic holds that there are "goods" that transcend all cultures, and without an agreement on them, humanity itself may be at stake. That is, the commonality of good and evil applies to the community of nations as well as to each country individually. Lesser values may pertain to the survival of a culture; but greater ones may have an impact on the continued existence of humans on the planet. Since each generation must work these things through in order to avoid extinction, values are a part of every education, whether this is acknowledged or not. On the big issues, some of today's students will eventually make the decisions that might precipitate or avoid a global war, cause or avert an ecological catastrophe. For a myriad of others, they will have to live life and share a community participating in its understanding of how to apply the good and the right.

In addition, since the lives of teachers are an open book to their students, and can be far more persuasive and compelling than the content of the formal curriculum, it is often the teachers' moral actions that students will imitate more than their words. Thus, the ethics that are caught will depend only somewhat on the subject matter in schools; they will depend much more on who does the teaching and how. Students are very sensitive to the total classroom context; their response to the subject matter is much more dependent on the teacher than it is on their peers. This observation applies to all who teach, including the popular media and its stars. Indeed, the more popular the media, and the more hero-worship offered to its major figures, the more potential those people have for influencing change, and the greater the responsibility if by that change, the values of the society are replaced by others.

Once again, the dilemma of democracy is highlighted, for students must learn to allow and even to hear voices that would destroy freedom in the name of the absolute of free speech, but if they do not also learn a self-imposed restraint along with their commitment to such absolutes, they will have the power to obliterate democracy in a single generation.

Sex Education

This discussion highlights one of the most controversial curriculum items of all. Every person must come to terms with sexuality; it must be understood, for it is a part of being a human person. Sexuality is not just a collection of anatomical facts and techniques, but a critical aspect of humanness, and an essential part of the most important relationships one forms. Sexuality is critical to knowing and participating in cultural rituals and to understanding literature; it is an undeniable part of everyone's life. It has the potential for enormous pleasure and satisfaction in the closest of all possible bondings two human beings can form. The corresponding dark side shows as a great a capability for harm, for evil, for disease, for perversion or exploitation, and even for death.

Because of its power, pervasiveness, and importance for both personhood and socialization, human sexuality generates a wide range of moral issues. This creates an irresolvable dilemma for schools. On the one hand, a child must learn to become a responsible adult, and sexual education is too critically important to leave out of the curriculum. On the other hand, information about sexuality cannot be transmitted free of values, for it is behavior that is in question, not simply facts. It is impossible for children to be taught about their sexuality without some indication (even by implication) of what is appropriate behavior; the attempt to require teachers to do so itself makes the moral assertion that there is no moral question involved. For example, if students are encouraged to use condoms in order to prevent AIDS, they may be given the message that sexual indulgence carries only disease risks, and is otherwise morally acceptable--a stand that contradicts traditional beliefs. Yet, not to tell them about condoms at all might well be irresponsible; the school is in a dilemma from which no easy exit exists.

Likewise, one cannot teach about homosexuality without making value statements, for its practice is not merely a lifestyle issue, but a moral one. There are also health implications to such practices.

In the ensuing debate, one side correctly points out that lives are at stake if students remain ignorant; the other rightly complains that merely "factual" education both ignores the relational aspect and undermines moral values learned in the home. Some wish children to learn that sex was designed for free use only in the context of strictly monogamous, permanent, and heterosexual marriage. Others view it clinically--as a body appetite to satisfy, and no more a moral issue than eating--one takes precautions to avoid tainted food, but nothing else. Schools are caught in the middle of the conflict, unable to meet important needs without causing offense.

There is no escape from this dilemma in an ethically fragmented society. Sex education is essential, but can never be value free, and schools are unlikely to gain a mandate to lead culture, especially in its values. The advent of new killer sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) has merely sharpened the controversy. In some communities, the short-term consequence may be a renewed emphasis on private schools, many of which are religious in nature, so that families can ensure the transmission of their sexual morality to the next generation. Of course, such families generally do so at home; their private schools often do not teach such things because they are established without such a mandate. Such a fragmentation of schooling is inevitable when a portion of society changes direction and adopts a new world view, but it bodes ill for consistency, unity, and cultural survival into the future, for there are often other forces, such as racism, working to divide the school system as well. In the longer term, there must be a new consensus on this issue as well, for a society cannot be built on diversity alone.

Science, Technology, and Mathematics

Since the society of the future will be even more wedded to high technology than it is now, far more of its citizens will require some technical knowledge in order to function. Just as the factory workers of the industrial age had to be trained to run the machines, so also will any who wish to work in the future be required to have some technical literacy. This is not the narrow training of the late industrial-age specialist, but rather the ability to understand and effectively use the new technology and the information it provides. For example, it will no longer be possible for even the most ivory-tower of academic intellectuals to work without using computing equipment, for their publishing too will be accomplished in this way. It will also not do for any citizen to be ignorant of basic science, for far too much of life will be directly affected by and constantly changed by the new discoveries.

Yet, while necessary, the objective of infusing broad technical training into education will continue to be difficult to achieve. The majority of students abandon even the modest general science courses offered in today's high schools at their earliest possible opportunity. There are a number of reasons for this, but the chief one appears to be an early loss of interest in mathematics, without which any further science education is impossible. As such organizations as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) are too well aware, much of this problem is probably traceable to the lack of qualified or even interested mathematics teachers. In North America, it is rare for an elementary school to have a mathematics specialist on its staff. Even at the junior secondary level, many of these courses are taught by the great surplus of English and social studies teachers, regardless of what mathematical background they might have. Math avoidance can be perpetuated from one generation to another by elementary teachers who may themselves be afraid of the subject, and by high schools that are too busy with a broad agenda of other problems to attempt the costly and time consuming rehabilitation of the avoiders. For their part, most universities operate on the assumption that the student chooses the major, and outline the curriculum within that narrow choice. Few of them operate the traditional liberal arts curriculum and demand at least a few courses from each of the major areas of study, and their students can easily depart with little or no mathematical literacy. Yet those who do avoid mathematics cut themselves off from a broad range of careers, including most of those that will be at the center of the action for decades to come.

Some of this problem is cultural, for there is a broad perception that mathematics is not necessary for many occupations, and indeed the very abstract materials often included in the curriculum are not. However, it is exactly these types of jobs that are threatened as the industrial age closes, and it is the ones requiring greater technical knowledge and presupposing some mathematical literacy that are multiplying.

There are institutional reasons for these problems as well. Many school administrators not only believe (or are forced to act as though they do) that anyone can teach mathematics, they also act as though it can be taught anywhere, anytime, and with no equipment. Thus a high school mathematics teacher may be handed a piece of chalk and sent to the sewing or drafting room or to a vacant science lab. The same teacher may be required to use decades-old books and lack the budget, facilities, or expertise to produce local materials. For social and cultural reasons, the few well-trained teachers of this subject are still far more likely to be male than female, despite the fact that their high-achieving students are more likely to be female. In such circumstances, the female students will lack role models appropriate to breaking out from stereotypes.

There is no easy or short term remedy for these problems, but those countries that are successful in engaging the attention of and convincing their peoples of the necessity for mathematical and technical learning will be the big winners in the economic sweepstakes of the future--provided that this is simultaneously combined with the learning of effective communications skills. There is no indication at this point that such a happy realization will soon come to North America. If it does not, the unchallenged scientific leadership it once had will surely pass elsewhere.


In a sense, the industrial age majored on techniques--the many narrow specialities of the academic, the tradesperson, and the industrial worker. The information age demands techniques of its own--those of finding, assigning meaning to, and using information. Thus the education of professionals must change dramatically, for they will no longer need to be factual repositories when they have machines to take over this function. Instead, they will concentrate on being finders and users of facts as necessary, and on the creative artistry that has always separated the many mundane practitioners from the few truly brilliant ones. Doctors and lawyers will have to change their ways most dramatically, for they are currently the most dependent on knowing facts when needed. However, every step toward the Metalibrary will force similar changes on many other professions, and their techniques will grow much more similar with the passage of time.

Thus, training in skills will tend to concentrate on the finding of appropriate information, which, being about the idea of technique, is actually a matter of education more than it is training. Alternately, one could term these "meta-techniques." Education in the new civilization must be much more concerned about the process or ability to learn. This is something many theorists had already hoped it would be, and studies of education have usually called upon it to be, but there is little evidence that it has been delivered on in the past. If suppositions here about the nature of work in the next civilization are close to the mark, future education must become more concerned about both the process of learning and the ability to learn. The difficult task will be to devise the techniques to bring it about.

The Big Ideas

This in turn means that more people in the future will have to become assessors of ideas, for this ability is part of the technique required by the information paradigm. Implied by this is a reduced emphasis on some of the discrete and narrow specialization considered important in the industrial age, and an increased one on the activities of the mind itself. Certain very broad questions that have always been important to philosophers will become part of the education of the future, because they touch directly upon the assessment of ideas. These include:

o Classical Metaphysics, or the study of ultimate reality and meaning. This is the discipline that provides the frameworks within which to create world views, such as those of the scientist. In it, one also studies questions about the origin and development of the universe (cosmology), about the nature of being or existence (ontology), about the existence and characteristics of God (philosophical theology), and about the nature, role, and destiny of humanity (anthropology).

o Epistemology, or the study of the nature of knowledge statements, and the sources and meaning of knowledge. Though this word as such has not previously been used in this text, epistemology has been at the heart of several of the discussions thus far. It bears on the truth value of statements, on the reliability that can be ascribed to various forms of knowledge, on whether truth is relative or absolute, and on whether knowledge is subjective or objective. It helps to distinguish whether knowledge is based on another's authority, is revealed by God, comes from a reasoning process, is intuitive, or is empirical and derives from the senses. Clearly metaphysics and epistemology are closely, even circularly, related, for one needs a theory of reality to say reality can be known, and a theory of knowledge to say that one knows that reality exists. These are important questions to the serious knower, and need to be considered by the would-be assessor of ideas.

o Axiology, or the study of values. This usually includes ethics, though that topic has been treated separately in this book. It also includes aesthetics, which expresses cultural values in art. Because it relates to the imagination and creativity of a people, and because artistic media tend to express the history and other values of a people, an understanding of aesthetics is important to the knowing of a people's soul. The answers to questions such as "What ought I like?" or "What ought I consider beautiful?", are important to the would-be member of a culture, and are not techniques, but appreciations, without which both communication and functionality are seriously impaired.

These three areas of study, while often regarded as unimportant, and not really needed by many people, are a part of the intellectual makeup of every human being alive. If not taught, they are caught, but they are learned. Perhaps the difference in the future is that they will be explicitly identified and discussed, for there will be a greater realization that it is not behaviour that gives a person an essential identity, but beliefs and values, for these shape the emotions, the experiences, and the behaviour.

The Social Studies

In this final category are included all the studies of the behaviour of humankind, both in the mass of society, and as individuals. Such disciplines as economics, politics, psychology, and sociology are represented here. As indicated in the chapters on the economy and on the state, these too will become progressively more important as time goes on. However, if the projections of this book are even close to correct, there could be a long period of dramatic social change in the immediate future. This would increase the desire to develop social techniques and the yearning for such disciplines as economics and sociology to become full-fledged sciences, but the turmoil will seriously hinder the ability to achieve this goal.

It should be recalled at this point that social change initiates new techniques, and is caused by the interactions and conflict that arise out of new ideas and inventions once they have been implemented. Thus, the rate of social change and the rate of technological innovation are closely linked, and it may often be unfruitful to enquire which of the two came first in a given instance.

Will the Generalist Come Back?

There was a time, not too many hundreds of years ago, when it was possible for a well-educated person to contain within a single mind virtually the whole body of scientific and literary information known. Ideally, such a person would have attempted to read all the works of philosophy and theology available, and would have striven toward being the complete scholar. Such a day passed away with the scientific and technical revolution of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when the pool of knowledge became so vast that no one individual could hope to comprehend it. Even artificially lengthening the adolescence of young scholars by keeping them in school until their mid twenties could only produce a "doctor of philosophy" who could be so narrow a specialist as to be almost non-functional outside the tight little world delineated by the final dissertation.

In the hard sciences, particularly physics, it could take several more years for the student to arrive at the frontiers of knowledge and begin to do useful and original research. The minuscule overview the student received of all those fields outside the speciality was hopelessly out of date even by graduation. However, in the information age, remembering all the facts all of the time will become less and less important. Being able to find the facts, associate them, and use them will be of first importance. That is, in a given project, it will still be necessary to assemble the factual information, for this process is fundamental to integration and synthesis, but it will not be necessary to personally retain such information in order to continue functioning in one's profession. This necessity to learn for skills rather than information is most pronounced in the computing and information sciences themselves, where material can become obsolete by the time it has come to the attention of the person who proposes to teach it.

All workers in the next civilization, but especially its leaders, will have to be more articulate communicators, broadly educated, with at least some technical and some business background. Once certain minimum skills have been obtained, and without diminishing any of them as broad, basic requirements for functionality, the man or woman of the new age may be free to specialize. The present day stereotype of the able science student who is nearly completely illiterate in the English language will probably have to vanish. The equally stereotyped arts major who fears, distrusts, and is wilfully and even proudly ignorant of modern science and technology will be equally out of place.

The quote from Heinlein at the beginning of the chapter provides a good starting point, but men and women do not yet have the multi-century lifespan of a Lazarus Long that is required to become knowledgeable in every field. Moreover, if new progress is to be made in technology, specialists are needed to make it. The amount that these specialists will have to know, the way they will work, and the demands society will place upon them to enable them to function at all are changing dramatically. The new civilization belongs to those who will specialize enough to earn their bread and butter as distinct individuals but who will be generalist enough to qualify them as functional human beings in a society where information management and communication skills are paramount. They will have to use their knowledge skills to work in several specialities simultaneously or serially, switching from one to the other as the need dictates. It is to such ends that learning is likely to be directed in the future.

The Fourth Civilization Table of Contents
Copyright © 1988-2002 by Rick Sutcliffe
Published by Arjay Books division of Arjay Enterprises