Education Lessons from Alvin Toffler

Less than a year before I was born, Alvin Toffler who recently passed away, published a book that would later inspire me think more deeply about the impact of change in society. In this book, Toffler popularized the term “future shock”, the disorienting result of living in times of rapid and constant change. This first book extended to two more, The Third Wave, and Power Shift. Through these books and other efforts, Toffler established himself as one of the most known and influential futurists of the last fifty years. His ideas inspired a generation of futurists, not to mention a growing interest in trying to make informed predictions about the future impact of emerging cultural and technological trends in the world.

Among other things, Toffler popularized and introduced many to the concept of information overload, a theme that certainly gained traction even more as the Internet emerged. Amid that development, many people found it easier to understanding the implications of trends that Toffler spotted decades before the expansion of our contemporary digital world. In fact, people today will use the phrase without realizing Toffler’s role in shaping its usage.

Toffler saw and wrote about many future innovations. These ranged from cloning to cable television, the Internet to mobile devices and communication; as well and many sociological, psychological and economic implications of these and other developments. While he certainly did not invent such things, his writing sparked curiosities that influenced what came to be. After all, when you have as large of a forum as Toffler developed, your predictions quickly blend into a shaping of the future. In fact, he knew this well and stated as much when he wrote, “Our moral responsibility is not to stop the future, but to shape it…to channel our destiny in humane directions and to ease the trauma of transition.”

Toffler on Education

Already in Future Shock, Toffler developed a growing perspective on the future of education, partly represented in a widely used quote from the text, “Tomorrow’s illiterate will not be the man who can’t read; he will be the man who has not learned how to unlearn.” Yet, I sometimes lament that this quote is truncated from the surrounding sentences in the text which provide an even richer set of ideals and context.

By instructing students how to learn, unlearn and relearn, a powerful new dimension can be added to education. Psychologist Herbert Gerjuoy of the Human Resources Research Organization phrases it simply: ‘The new education must teach the individual how to classify and reclassify information, how to evaluate its veracity, how to change categories when necessary, how to move from the concrete to the abstract and back, how to look at problems from a new direction—how to teach himself. Tomorrow’s illiterate will not be the man who can’t read; he will be the man who has not learned how to learn.’

This grew out of his larger observations about the rate of of change. If the future will perpetually arrive prematurely, as Toffler noted, this has massive implications for life, work and education. The knowledge and skill necessary for a given job will change more rapidly resulting in the need to both learn and relearn. This also means more shifts from one job to another as certain jobs become obsolete or at least in lesser demand. In such a context, it is no longer about building a set of skills that will serve you well for a lifetime as much as developing the capacities to adapt, learn, unlearn, and be the the designers of your own learning goals and pathways.

The Affect and the Future

Yet, some might miss that Toffler also tempered this with the need for people who have more than head knowledge and skills. The world of the future, as Toffler saw it, needs compassionate people as well. “Society needs people who…know how to be compassionate and honest…Society needs all kinds of skills that are not just cognitive; they’re emotional, they’re affectional. You can’t run the society on data and computers alone.”

Shaping the Future as a Moral Responsibility

Toffler was far from a luddite. While he wrote about the dark side of the future, his writings indicated a conviction that we can help shape the future by our words and actions. He further challenged readers to neither put their heads in the sand nor to completely resist change. In fact, he saw change and the emerging future as an opportunity for us to bring about more favorable conditions in our communities and world. At the end of his book, The Third Wave, he said it this way on page 443: “The responsibility for change…lies within us. We must begin with ourselves, teaching ourselves not to close our minds prematurely to the novel, the surprising, the seemingly radical.” Similarly, he warned that our accomplishments of the past are no guarantee of similar outcomes in the future, represented in another widely shared quote, “The first rule of survival is clear: Nothing is more dangerous than yesterday’s success.”

Multiple Futures

I do not agree with many of Tofflers political and ideological positions, but his work unquestionably influenced my thinking and provided me with insight into the role of future studies in education. Yet, among all his ideas and words, there is a single quote that continues to inspire my work and writing. In fact, this quote is partly behind a core part of my vision for the future of education, namely the idea that there is not one future but many, that the most humane and compelling future of education is a vision of multiple futures. On p. 463 of Future Shock, he wrote: “We need a multiplicity of visions, dreams and prophecies – images of potential tomorrows.” In education, I expand this to say that we do not just need multiple visions and dreams. We need for multiple visions and dreams to become a reality.

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