Overcoming the Educational Time Warp: Anticipating a Different Future

Education abridges the time required for individual and social progress by preserving and propagating the essence of human experience. It delivers to youth the accumulated knowledge of countless past generations in an organized and abridged form, so that future generations can start off with all the capacities acquired by their predecessors. However, today education confronts a serious dilemma. We are living in an educational time warp. There is a growing gap between contemporary human experience and what is taught in our educational system and that gap is widening rapidly with each passing year. Today humanity confronts challenges of unprecedented scope, magnitude and intensity. The incremental development of educational content and pedagogy in recent decades has not kept with the ever-accelerating pace of technological and social evolution. Education is also subject to a generational time warp resulting from the fact that many of today’s teachers were educated decades ago during very different times and based on different values and perspectives. The challenge of preparing youth for the future is exasperated by the fact that the future for which we are educating youth does not yet exist and to a large extent is unknown or unknowable. The resulting gap between the content of education and societal needs inhibits our capacity to anticipate and effectively respond to social problems. All these factors argue for a major reorientation of educational content and pedagogy from transmission of acquired knowledge based on past experience to development of the knowledge, skills and capacities of personality needed in a future we cannot clearly envision. We may not be able to anticipate the precise nature of the future, but we can provide an education based on the understanding that it will be very different from the present. In terms of content, the emphasis needs to shift from facts regarding the actual state of affairs in the past, present and future to the process governing the continuous evolution of the society and the deep drivers that are catalysts of that process. In terms of pedagogy, there should be a shift from emphasis on comprehension of what is taught to development of the capacity to think independently and creatively about the future. In terms of objectives, it requires a shift from promoting socialization to fostering individualization and from educating the mind to educating the whole person.

Education is the most remarkable technology so far invented by human beings. Education organizes knowledge and abridges time. It transmits the essence of humanity’s cumulative past learnings to future generations in a systematic and condensed form. It enables future generations to commence their productive lives with the essential knowledge acquired by countless generations in the past, rather than having to rediscover and reinvent all that has been learned by their ancestors. This extraordinary device enables society to convert individual experience into a possession of the entire collective. It also makes it possible for society to synthesize the external experience of the collective and apply it to develop the inner, psychological endowments and capacities of each of its members. Oriented in this manner, education becomes the catalyst for conscious social evolution.

Education widens our sense of identity from the family and community to larger social groups. It helps prepare us for responsible citizenship at the national level and for participation in the wider life of the global community. It provides a foundation for the spread of effective democracy and establishment of universal human rights. Education equips us with the practical knowledge and skills needed to productively and creatively contribute to the advances of modern economy, science and technology. Education expands our consciousness of the impact of human activities on distant places, on future generations and on the environment.

In 1870 one new PhD was awarded in the entire USA. Today more than 67,000 are awarded annually. During the same period, the number of BA degrees awarded rose from 9400 to 1.6 million. India’s higher educational system expanded from 1.1 million students in 1961 to accommodate 26.5 million last year. Over the last four decades, the world total tertiary enrollment in education has grown nearly five-fold from 37.5 million to 184.5 million.* Were it not for the enormous quantitative expansion and diversification of higher education, it is inconceivable that humanity could have made such enormous strides in raising food production, abolishing famine, eradicating a host of fatal diseases, reducing infant mortality, extending life expectancy, multiplying real per capita global income 12-fold, weaving isolated communities into a single global community through advances in transportation and communication, ending slavery and colonialism, extending rights to women and minorities, and drastically reducing the global incidence of war between nations and war-related fatality rates.

1. The Changing Speed of Time
Education expands our sense of time. It enhances our awareness of the movement of time and extends our conscious time horizons from the origins of the universe, the evolution of Homo sapiens, and the first stirrings of civilization into the near and distant future of individuals, societies and the universe itself. Education provides us with a sense of history and a historical perspective of current events. It generates awareness of the constant process of change occurring ceaselessly in the universe around us, in society and within ourselves.

It shifts our time horizon from the past to the future. It instills belief in humanity’s continuous progress, which is one of the defining characteristics of global society today, distinguishing the modern era from earlier more static, conventional periods focused almost exclusively on preservation of tradition. It alters our underlying motivation from a reverence for what has been to an anticipation of what is yet to come. It replaces the sense of fatality defined by historical determinations beyond our control with a sense of freedom, self-confidence and self-determination. It modifies our psychological orientation from conformity to individuality. It transforms our spiritual orientation from blind submission and adoration of ancient beliefs and practices to an intense aspiration for greater knowledge and higher accomplishment.

Education abridges and accelerates time. Historically, our sense of time conveyed continuity with the past, our relatively insignificant place in a slow, unending progression of repetitive events and historical cycles. Awareness of the brevity of our lifetimes and the inevitability of death reminds us of the severe limitations within which we move, act and aspire. Before the advent of literature, ancient and medieval humanity lived in an eternal present, unconscious of the very long, slow incremental evolution of the universe and civilization. The prevailing sense was that things were and always will be more or less as they are now. Our sense of duration in time was also severely constrained. During the Elizabethan Age, ancient Greek myth and contemporary histories, such as Shakespeare’s, established both the boundaries and expanse of the social time sense. A mere three centuries ago, Sir Isaac Newton’s quest to discover the unchanging universal laws of a static, immobile universe was conducted side by side with his study of Biblical sources to determine the exact beginning of the universe some 6000 years ago. Time seemed to almost stand still in Timeless India, where history, literature and education for millennia depended exclusively on oral traditions.

All things change, including time. Time is no longer what it used to be. At least our sense of it has been dramatically altered. The invention of the printing press coupled with the Reformation and the spread of education gradually altered the time sense in Europe. As consciousness of history expanded, so did awareness of change. Thomas Malthus’ concern about the dire consequences of rapid population growth, Adam Smith’s writings on the nascent Industrial Revolution, and Darwin’s treatise on the origin of species arose from a growing awareness of evolutionary changes impacting on human beings and the world we live in. It took tens of thousands of years for the world’s population to reach 100 million, but only 18 centuries to multiply another ten-fold to reach one billion. Since 1800 it has multiplied another seven-fold to cross seven billion. Over the same two centuries, global real GDP multiplied 84-fold. Parallel changes in transportation, communication, life expectancy and every other aspect of life signaled a fundamental change in the speed of time. Things began to change far more rapidly than in the past. Moreover, the spread of education ensured that an increasing proportion of humanity were informed of the fact and understood at least some of the factors and forces that were altering the speed of time and the future of humanity.

2. Time’s Challenge to Education
Today the speed of time is accelerating exponentially and society is more conscious and observant than ever before. It is accumulating and analyzing enormous quantities of data every second, generating new inventions and discoveries every hour. More than two million patent applications are filed annually. According to Google, a total of 129 million original book titles have been published since the dawn of printing five centuries ago. We are now adding another 2.2 million a year in addition to the innumerable other forms of text. Born in 1991, the Internet now contains more than one billion websites. These facts provide just a distant reflection of how rapidly global society is changing, how much new information it is acquiring, and how great is the challenge confronting the world’s educational system to keep pace with the lightning rate and gargantuan quantities of facts, experiences, events, discoveries and ideas that contribute to development of knowledge and human capabilities.

Education as we know it involves the transmission of knowledge from one generation to another. In practice there is usually a two to three generation gap between what instructors learned from their own instructors when they were students, what they teach to students when they become instructors, and the world in which these students will live and seek to apply what they have learned in future. A single generation ago, the Cold War, Soviet Union, Communist Bloc and 70,000 nuclear weapons were dominant realities of the day. The World Wide Web, the Human Genome Project, nanotechnology, iPods and smartphones did not yet exist. Two generations ago, Europe was still recovering from devastation of the Second World War, the US had just landed its first contingent of combat troops to fight in Vietnam, the Berlin Wall had only just been constructed, world population was less than half what it is today, Martin Luther King was just launching the American Civil Rights Movement, and the Green Revolution had not yet emancipated more than billion people from the perennial threat of famine. Three generations ago, the Great Depression still dominated the world economy, the world war was still in its early stages, penicillin was not yet in use, the atomic bomb had not yet been invented, and the population explosion had not yet begun.

Garry Jacobs: CEO, World Academy of Art & Science; Vice President, The Mother’s Service Society
* United Nations Statistical Handbook for 1978, NY, 1979, and UNESCO On-line Database

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