10.6 Schooling in the Fourth Civilization

There are other factors influencing schooling, and it is time now to consider the effect of major new technological revolutions on the organized school system. If the specific machines discussed in the last section have had mixed and ambiguous effects on schooling, the same cannot be said of the societal changes being driven by the major technological revolutions discussed earlier in this book. Organized schooling did not exist at all in hunter-gatherer societies, and was an individual or small group affair arranged directly with the tutor in agrarian ones. During this time it became possible to divert surplus production to the systematic maintenance of scholars who could spend their time generating and examining ideas. The greater the prosperity, the more such people could be afforded, and thus the university came into being, and was an important fixture before other types of institutionalized schooling existed. Indeed, part of being a member of the elite ruling class came to mean either having an education, or having an educated advisor available, but there was no motivation even to teach the general population how to read, for they had little use to which to put such skills.

It was only with the economic and social demands for the schooled labour force of the industrial age that it became necessary to organize grade school and technical training on a widespread, even universal basis. As techniques became progressively more sophisticated, so did requirements for training in their use. Gradually, higher and higher levels of schooling became necessary in order to function effectively in the society. First grade school, then secondary school became all but compulsory, and college began to have a similar imperative by the close of this period. At the same time, education became, like many other enterprises, far too large for any but the state to organize and control. However, industrial age assumptions that drove learning to become mass training in technique, and all but obliterated education in the process, are no longer valid.

To consider what changes might take place in the next civilization, it is important to examine the potential effect on learning of all four of the major modern technological revolutions.

The Computer and Information Revolution

Aspects of the effects of this have been discussed in Chapter 4 and in this chapter. On the one hand, the reception in classrooms of computers themselves has been mixed, and they have yet to have practical uses established in the lower grades. On the other, the information they make available so universally must eventually change learning dramatically even if only in curriculum. Much more emphasis will be placed on communications skills and broad techniques--including those of information--and on ideas, because far less time will be required to develop deep, narrow specialists, since these will not need to retain as much information in their own minds.

This new emphasis will, among other things, involve teaching students to use terminals to gain access to data bases, and ultimately, the Metalibrary. It seems much less certain that most of them will ever need to know how to program the machines, or that they will need to learn how to use many business applications, especially in the younger grades, but widespread use of word processing causes a new emphasis on typing skills at a younger age.

In an earlier chapter, it was remarked that the Metalibrary had certain potentials to become a universal teacher, storing and reproducing by student need and demand lessons on every subject and at any level. Perhaps a live teacher could be simulated, and so could the ability to answer questions interactively. One could even claim that schools at all levels as they are now known are already obsolete, and that machines will eventually suffice for all learning. This might sometimes be the case for adults engaged in continuing training, for they need only to add new techniques to an existing background of general knowledge. They usually already know how to do this and are interested in achieving training quickly and efficiently--not jumping through a series of arbitrary hoops established by a school to flesh out its programs and provide further reasons for existence. Such incremental skills may be learned individually and by machine to a great extent, though it might be some time before this method becomes common, much less universal.

However, the obtaining of essential background knowledge and cultural context as a child is a different matter. Here, the learner is finding out what it means to be a human being and how to be a part of the culture. However attractive teaching machines may be, they are not role models, for they have not experienced the culture, lived in it, observed it, known new life, cried over death, and pieced together the memories of a typical human being by living them out one day at a time. Even if the Metalibrary were to have available the whole vast store of facts, it would still be something altogether different from a human being. While it may be possible to obtain facts and background information from a Metalibrary, it is questionable whether it is possible to learn how to be a functioning human being from a machine.

The same objections could be made, say, of an ambulatory artificially intelligent (AI) device built to look roughly human--even if it were smarter, faster, and more capable in every way than a human. Unless it were possible to certify that such constructs are identically human, it seems inadvisable to turn over to them the responsibility of teaching children what it means to be human, for they lack the capacity to understand and to model the role they are supposedly teaching, and these are the most important aspects of the learning process. Unless the machine had understanding and intentionality, it could scarcely teach what either of these meant.

A similar reservation could be held when it comes to education in general. The entertainment, creation, and evaluation of ideas is a distinctly human activity, for ideas are held and examined within the context of a person's total cultural and world views. There is no reason to believe at this point that a machine can be provided with anything resembling a human world view. If it were other than exactly human, then it would either not be capable of sharing the human commonality of culture, experience, and world view, or it would be able to have a distinct non-human one of its own--perhaps in common with other machines. It ought not be expected that a non-human device would share much, if any, of the human commonality even if it could be regarded as intelligent in a meaningful sense and even if it could initially be given much (all) human knowledge. What is more, no such device ought to be expected to have human interests in mind--if it can be said to have a mind--but rather its own interests, and these are unlikely to include teaching human children to be the best they can be in order to advance the human race.

Thus, at all levels, the education of humans in culture and ideas probably ought to be undertaken by human beings, rather than by machines, even if some training may be done by machines, and even if there may be short-term economic benefits to replacing teachers by such devices. The need to be distinctively human has a higher priority than the need to save money.

If these arguments prevail, what would the effect on schooling be from the information revolution alone? Elementary schools would show little change in the first grades, and there might be some use of teaching machines and later Metalibrary terminals in the higher ones. Secondary schools might split into streams emphasizing education on the one hand and training on the other, with teaching machines playing a more important role in the latter. Universities could consider going back to their original business of education in ideas and not directly use teaching machines very much at all, though they would use computers even more, but technical institutes, trade schools, and community schools could use such devices extensively.

On the other hand, proponents of using technology in learning have always been persuasive with both the public and the educational hierarchy, and the possibility that all learning will actually come for a time to be mechanized in the name of efficiency and lower cost cannot be completely discounted. Since such a transition, even if only partly achieved, would be extraordinarily expensive, it would also add weight to an earlier suggestion that more of the funding would have to come from the private sector. The great initial capital outlay required would also give such an experiment a life of its own and a necessity to succeed that would in itself fuel demand to see it through to completion, regardless of whether it could be shown to be effective. Moreover, private funding would imply private objectives, and there may be more likely to include training than education, so be more likely to use machines in the process. Indeed, the university that wished to be a place of ideas might find that no one was willing to provide funding for such endeavours.

The Effect of the Second Industrial Revolution

The advent of large-scale robotization of many manufacturing processes, and widespread use of efficient office machines will likely continue to obliterate many jobs and create others, with the new ones tending to be either more technical or more service oriented. Up to a point, the computing industry will continue to have very large personnel needs, though computers will eventually be utilized in much of their own design, manufacturing, and programming. Many field engineers and technically trained construction workers will be required for new habitat creation and any expansion off planet. After all, robots have to be much more complex and mobile to be useful on a construction site than inside a factory. Other people will be employed in the biochemical and pharmaceutical industries.

Since, as earlier observed, new human workers in such fields can only be drawn from among those who once would have been content to leave school early and take a low-skill factory job, there will have to be a much larger and more effective participation by children on the training side of schooling, and for a longer time. At the same time, the service sector, and knowledge-related and other technical industries will all expand, but these changes will create a sellers' market only for those with the appropriate skills. There might also be more people with the time, inclination, and need for an education in ideas, and more older workers who must return to the learning process either for retraining or for an education. These trends would seem to indicate that a larger percentage of the population at all ages will be involved in formal learning in the future. Since not all of this activity will ever be mechanized, even if the full Metalibrary becomes a reality, the result of these workforce realignments alone is likely to be an increased demand for both training and educational facilities for the indefinite future, though not necessarily an increase in the number of teachers, because of the decline in the number of children.

The Intelligence Revolution

The effects of AI research on learning are very hard to guess. If the most optimistic scenarios prove to be accurate, there are two ways in which the success of AI efforts could render moot the entire question of humans learning from humans. On the one hand, if AI devices are built that are faster and more knowledgeable than humans, and in the unlikely event that they are also capable of autonomous decision making, then they might deem it to be in their best interests to dispense with the human race entirely.

On the other hand, if partially programmable intelligence-enhancing devices like the PIEA are built, the factual part of learning could take place through a simple electronic transmission or through the addition of a new ROM (see Chapter 6). A practicum could then follow to allow the skills transmitted to be experienced, but on the whole, little interaction with human teachers would be necessary for factual learning. It is not clear whether ideas could ever be handled in the same way as facts and skills, for if it is possible to electronically represent ideas and the meta-idea of evaluating them, then AI might already have been achieved, and these methods might be unnecessary.

There is a certain efficiency-related attraction to such approaches as this one, though there is likewise an opportunity for the truly comprehensive statist to plan the production of trained people as never before. If the state determined it needed 5000 doctors, it need only produce 5000 sets of physician ROMs and sell them to or implant them in selected individuals. If it wanted a million soldiers, it would do likewise with a ROM programmed with efficient killing routines. These last considerations ought to give pause to the idea of taking some of these technologies to their logical conclusions, however attractive some of them may seem to be on grounds of efficiency.

A third possibility is that intelligence may become somewhat enhancible via implants, drugs, or genetic engineering, but that current teaching methods would survive. Education and training would then take on a somewhat different character, but would be natural and straightforward extensions of what is being done now.

All three of these possibilities are interesting, but speculative, for as previously indicated, the nature of any achievements for all the hard work in AI is not yet clear. In any event, dramatic changes in learning due to AI work may be some time in coming; the fourth of the technical revolution has more immediate probable implications.

Effects of the Biospace Revolution

Many of the changes in medicine will have little direct effect on learning. However, the cumulative result of new life-saving and prolonging techniques, and the outcome of longevity research will almost certainly have the effect of substantially increasing life spans. This factor would lengthen the number of potential working years, and along with a rapidly changing economy, guarantee a continued strong demand for re-training. Indeed, continuous training on the job so that job holders change with their jobs will probably become the norm. Longer life means more time for ideas as well, and it seems likely that it will result in new pressures on the educational part of the learning system, provided that people will want or be able to continue having or considering new ideas at an advanced age. One result could be a considerable increase in the demand for learning facilities at the university and technical school level.

However, longer life creates population pressures and this, combined with other economic factors, will put very strong downward pressure on the birth rate. This long-term trend is already clear in Western countries. There will continue to be fewer children, fewer schools, and less need for teachers. Since the skills and expertise involved in training and educating adults are different from those involved in teaching children, surplus teachers cannot simply transfer to other levels without themselves retraining. Thus in many jurisdictions the attrition of resignation and retirement may be insufficient to rationalize the greatly reduced demand, and there could be layoffs as well.

Paradoxically, there could be dramatic increases in short-term demand for teachers in newly developing areas (new towns or suburbs). Families with young children, or who are still childless, are highly mobile, and are among the leaders in migration from the city core to the suburbs and other regions for economic purposes. This creates a demand for new facilities in some areas, even while those in others are being closed for lack of use. Moreover, in many parts of North America, a high percentage of the teaching force is close to retirement age and must be replaced over the next few years. Even more important is the fact that in much of the world it is not the transition to the fourth civilization that is underway, but the one to the third. Thus, outside the already industrialized West, the population is still increasing, especially in the cities; it is still very young; and it is still relatively uneducated

All these factors taken together may mean that there is little cause for concern in the overall teacher employment picture in the near term. Teachers will have to scramble from one level to another and from one geographical area or country to another in large numbers to stay in the occupation, and many will decide it is not worth the effort and will find other employment. Such dramatic turnover does present a unique opportunity for standards to be raised and for teaching to become professionalized, but in the midst of such turmoil, it may be that this aspect will not receive much attention.

In the long term, the need for K-12 teachers in the previously industrialized countries might be very much less, even if governments do not impose limitations on births. At the same time, training schools and universities could need far more teachers, and they may obtain these by retraining and re-educating some of the ones they have temporarily placed in the K-12 schools to take care of their short-term boom. In addition, developing parts of the world will need K-12 teachers in great numbers and for a longer time than Western ones, unless arbitrary birth control measures are adapted there. However, this would only create a demand for Western trained teachers if language and culture were not regarded as barriers.

Should the habitat-expansion scenario develop to any great extent, the formal learning system may actually expand in absolute terms, even though the K-12 portion eventually seems likely to become a much smaller part of the overall educational picture.

The Overall Picture

Overall trends affecting the size of formal learning systems are mixed, with some factors increasing demand, and some reducing it. The number of trainers in specific techniques will undoubtedly increase, though these too will need constant updating as techniques in all fields continue to change rapidly. The number involved in the education in ideas seems likely to increase as well, but there could eventually be sharp declines in the workforce at the K-12 level. Certainly, there will be very substantial pressure to cut costs here, and this will be the most difficult in which to obtain private sector participation.

One possible means of cutting costs is to move to a more effective utilization of resources by using schools for twelve months instead of nine or ten. In theory this could produce a fifteen percent efficiency improvement. In practice, there would be many difficulties to overcome in making such a change, and great resistance on the part of families and teachers to the potential loss of summer vacations. The future of this oft-proposed (and just as oft disposed of) idea is still cloudy.

Since present schooling practice is highly labour dependent, great cost savings could also come from a substantial reduction in the relative number of teachers, by whatever means. They might in turn respond to this in one of two ways. They could further unionize and refuse to entertain any cuts in staff on the threat of a strike, insisting that staffing levels remain as they are regardless of the use of machines or the number of students. This reaction would be consistent with the economic self-ism and tendency to fragment so prevalent in the late industrial period. It would also promote both the privatization and the automation of education, for strikes by teachers are easily seen by students and parents alike as betrayals, and could both lower teacher status and promote a determination to replace at least some of them at any cost. On the other hand, teachers could, even in the face of a reduction in their numbers, professionalize and attempt to raise their status--something that would take much more courage and foresight, but that would be more in accord with the spirit of the information age.

The trends to more local and participatory forms of government discussed in Chapter 9 will also have a substantial impact on schools at all levels. These ought to mean that more decision making authority is devolved to the local level from the state, and that many individual schools will have far more control over budget and hiring than in the past. Along with greater local control will go greater local supervision, and this may mean higher expectations, and ought also to promote the professional model for teachers.

At the university level, the situation is more complex. At the same time, there is a greater independence, flexibility, and understanding of change. Thus, in theory at least, there is a greater potential to discern these forces and restructure to meet the needs. The potential for this to happen is the subject of the next section.

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