Sudbury Vaccinates Young People Against Future Shock


Alivin Toffler was a highly influential big-picture thinker whose writings have influenced global leaders, entrepreneurs, technologists, executives, and others in the vanguard of societal change.  The recent passing of this self-described “futurist” generated a flurry of articles reflecting on his life and the impact of his prediction that those unprepared for the accelerating change in society would suffer from what he called future shock.

Future shock, wrote Toffler, was the “shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time.”  It is a “real sickness” – a “disease of change.”

Research he conducted during the 1960’s had left Toffler “appalled” by how little was known about our ability to adapt by the very people who “call for and create vast changes in our society or by those who supposedly prepare us to cope with those changes.”

Earnest intellectuals talk bravely about “educating for change” or “preparing people for the future.”  But we know virtually nothing about how to do it.  In the most rapidly changing environment to which man has ever been exposed, we remain pitifully ignorant of how the human animal copes.

Toffler assembled his research into the famous 1970 book Future Shock which details his predictions and suggests ways we can mitigate the effects wrought by the accelerating change of society.  One of those ways, suggested Toffler, was a complete restructuring of the education system.

As Toffler saw it, the education system was woefully ill-equipped to teach young people how to deal with change.  The problem, according to Toffler, is one widely shared by critics of the education system today.  That it is a relic of the industrial age and produces adults ready to enter a world that no longer exists.

What passes for education today, even in our ‘best’ schools and colleges, is a hopeless anachronism.  Parents look to education to fit their children for life in the future.  Teachers warn that lack of an education will cripple a child’s chances in the world of tomorrow.  Government ministries, churches, the mass media – all exhort young people to stay in school, insisting that now, as never before, one’s future is almost wholly dependent upon education.

Yet for all this rhetoric about the future, our schools face backward toward a dying system, rather than forward to the emerging new society.  Their vast energies are applied to cranking out Industrial Men – people tooled for survival in a system that will be dead before they are.

At the time of its creation and implementation during the early nineteenth century the compulsory education system produced the kinds of adults needed for the industrial age.

The problem was inordinately complex.  How to pre-adapt children for a new world – a world of repetitive indoor toil, smoke, noise, machines, crowded living conditions, collective discipline, a world in which time was to be regulated not by the cycle of sun and moon, but by factory whistle and the clock.

The solution was an education system that, in its very structure, simulated this new world.  This system did not emerge instantly.  Even today it retains throw-back elements from pre-industrial society.  Yet the whole idea of assembling masses of students (raw material) to be processed by teachers (workers) in a centrally located school (factory) was a stroke of industrial genius.  The whole administrative hierarchy of education, as it grew up, followed the model of industrial bureaucracy.  The very organization of knowledge into permanent disciplines was grounded on industrial assumptions.  Children marched from place to place and sat in assigned stations.  Bells rang to announce changes of time.

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 rigid 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 an instrument of adaptation for its place and time.

The industrial age school system was widely adopted in the 19th century and is still with us today in its general forms and structures.

Toffler succinctly identifies what he sees as the many of the weaknesses of industrial education.  From the “anti-adaptive” rigidness of the organizational structure to a curriculum that is a “mindless holdover from the past” Toffler convincingly explains why the industrial education system threatens society by producing homogenized adults prepared for a world that has already passed away.

Future society will not need millions of workers toiling in unison to the sounds of a factory whistle.  It will need, Toffler presciently writes, people “who can make critical judgments, who can weave their way through novel environments, who are quick to spot new relationships in the rapidly changing reality.”

But then, as today, the most important question is “How?”  How do we create an education system that molds the adults of tomorrow?  How do we teach young people the skills they’ll need in the future?

Toffler has no shortage of suggestions and recommends a variety of changes such as integrating the schools with the communities and reviving apprenticeships and mentors.  He envisions lectures giving way to “a whole battery of teaching techniques, ranging from role playing and gaming to computer-mediated seminars and the immersion of students in what we might call ‘contrived experiences.'”  He suggests changes to the organizational structure so young people experience a multitude of varied social and organizational arrangements.  He advocates for a curriculum that it would allow “educational diversity” to flourish.  Young people, Toffler writes, must learn how to learn.  They must learn how to relate to each other.  And they must learn how to make choices in world with more and more options.

All of the problems identified by Toffler and all of his suggested reforms point towards a common theme – freedom.  But unfortunately he never embraces the concept.  Just like the proponents of industrial education before him, Toffler writes with the familiar voice of one soberly assuming authority over the educational lives of young people.  This is a shame and we wonder where his insightful and imaginative mind would have taken him had Toffler embraced freedom.  Because what else, besides freedom, is flexible enough to adapt to the future?

And what school besides Sudbury embraces freedom?  Integration with the community, a “battery of teaching” and learning techniques, varied social and organizational arrangements – Sudbury has it all.  A school that embraces freedom seeds its environment so the “educational diversity” Toffler sought bursts forth naturally into the splendidly unpredictable patterns of life itself.  Democracy and personal responsibility guide the ever-expressive nature of freedom.  Not by containing it, but by making its power known, understood, and respected by both the school community and the individual alike.

So how does Sudbury vaccinate a young person against future shock?  By giving them the time and freedom to be present in their own lives.  Toffler, in addition to structural changes, believed that the new schools needed to have a future time-bias that would keep the students’ attention turned towards the future.  Whereas industrial schools have a present time-bias and traditional education had a past time-bias, Toffler writes that the new education system needs to “shift our time-bias forward.”

Sudbury integrates these time-biases by having no time-bias at all.  Young people with freedom have the chance to live out all three time-biases in the present.  Only freedom permits these biases to combine with infinite complexity.  Toffler seems to think that by forcing young people to have a future time-bias he will prevent future shock.  But is the cure worse than the disease?  Insisting on a future time-bias seems just as wrongheaded as insisting on any time-bias.  Any education system that does so will probably create new diseases – Past Oblivion or Present Unconsciousness.

The future, after all, is only a concept used to guide our present behavior.  Only our minds can travel into the past and the future.  We remain fixed in the eternal present.  Young people often experience this reality when they are bored.  Perhaps they turn to video games or lose themselves in a book.  Or perhaps they keep boredom and anxiety in check by adopting the values and meeting the expectations of others.  But a complete education demands that we eventually wrestle with the most important questions.  Ones about our own lives.

Toffler points out that young people often never confront these questions in part because of the mistaken assumption that schools have stopped inculcating values therefore discussing them would seem impertinent.

Today it embarrasses many teachers to be reminded that all sorts of values are transmitted to students, if not by their textbooks then by the informal curriculum- seating arrangements, the school bell, age segregation, social class distinctions, the authority of the teacher, the very fact that students are in a school instead of the community itself.  All such arrangements send unspoken messages to the student, shaping his attitudes and outlook.

Worse yet, students are seldom encouraged to analyze their own values and those of their teachers and peers.  Millions pass through the education system without once having been forced to search out the contradictions in their own value systems, to probe their own life goals deeply, or even to discuss these matters candidly with adults and peers.

Nothing could be better calculated to produce people uncertain of their goals, people incapable of effective decision-making under conditions of overchoice.

The message Sudbury students receive from day one is freedom.  Consequently, they must wrestle with the big questions from the beginning.  Often these questions are answered quietly, unnoticeably even, as a young person flows through their education.  Then, when the time comes to answer questions with great future impact (Should I go to college?  What should I study?  Should I get married?) they’ll be guided by an education that was as much about themselves as it was about the things they studied.  In this way Sudbury not only inoculates young people against future shock, it prepares them for the vagaries of life itself.


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