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Thoughts on a "School For the Future"

We entertain two main ideas. Ubiquitous and unlimited computational resources permit people to develop a new relation to the world in this primary social sense: most people see themselves as citizens of a place; people of the future may come to see themselves as citizens in time. Second, mission-oriented schools can provide people the opportunity to achieve worthwhile goals; a school committed to understanding the future as a development of the past and to affecting it in the present could be such a mission-oriented school for the future.

"American schools do well enough at making smart people, problem solvers,in quantities sufficient for our muddling through," so judged a friend at dinner one night and then he concluded, "We do not do so well, however,in making wise or just people." As the talk turned from politics to technology and back, I recalled for him my bathetic joke of the space-race era -- that while landing men on the moon involved many engineering breakthroughs,what our poor world really needs is a breakthrough in the field of wisdom. A difficult objective that, whatever it might mean. What might it mean to achieve a breakthrough in the field of wisdom? We will examine the issue through discussing the two main ideas of this paper: people can come to see themselves less as citizens of a place than as citizens of the city of man developing through time; the fundamental weakness of American public education is its purposelessness, that schools can only be healthy places if they are outward looking, perhaps even mission-oriented. The vision of a school for the future I offer is a romantic one, possibly utopian, and certainly radical. Be warned.


Let us begin with the premise that just values derive from decentrationand right knowledge of the world as it is. As minds develop through early adolescence and beyond, decentration proceeds. Children see themselves as family members, as one among their peers, as one member of a local community and as the enculturation of education programs progress, may come to see themselves as citizens of a nation state. Some few people break through the special views of the national citizen to place themselves as citizens of the world. A School for the Future could permit a different path fromthe one I describe above, one where a person comes to see himself less as a citizen of a place than as a citizen in time. This becomes a possibility in our day because there are new things under the sun -- these new things whose significance we all now suspect but few appreciate are computers, machines capable of embodying intelligence.

Does politics or technology determine the course of history? Men choose and will often choose whatever means they imagine will lead to their ends. Human choice determines which of many paths will be followed. But that is not all, for means influence ends -- not only instrumentally but also through permitting a vision of possible ends among which choices are made. The existence of intelligence-embodying machines presents a revolutionary potential for human development -- in both the individual and collective senses.

Piaget has described to us the child as scientist -- primarily as a physical scientist, one concerned with space, time, causality, and logical thought.Cybernetics sensitized scientists to a different category and dimension of reality -- the world as information. This science and its derivatives permit proposing a new and different view of the child scientist -- the child as information scientist. At a less abstract level of description (as one might describe different physical scientists as metallurgists or astrophysicists, for example), the child as information scientist could be a computerist, an econometrician, even a political scientist. How could such new possibilities come into existence?

Computers are calculating machines which achieve particular conclusions by assigning specific values to terms related abstractly by programs. That is, computers function by making the abstract concrete. By experience with virtual microworlds, concretized in computer models, people can put themselvesinto an observer's relation to processes in which formerly they were too deeply embedded as participants to comprehend. That is, computer-based microworlds permit a new form of intellectual decentration with respect to systems that have been too encompassing or too intimate to be observed (such as the world-wide economic system or the individual mind).

If people can model and better understand the working of societies in which they and others live and the functioning of their own minds and those ofothers, these new understandings of the social and personal dimensions of human experience -- with their undoubted emphasis on the processes of growth and development through time -- will lead people to relate to others less as cohabitants of a specific place and more as cohabitants of the processes of human cultural history.

Mission-Oriented Schooling

A major technological change creates a new reality to which cultures adapt as individual minds develop differently with new experiences, new concerns, and new competencies. We, as scientists of mind, may be interested in observing this process, but unless a School for the Future results in something more than a computerized context for the transmission of tired and true ideas, it will be a solipsistic failure, stillborn at funding. The "something more" that is required goes to the heart of children's plight in advanced societies: they are allowed no serious, present purposes.

Schools of today provide services to the community and the individual. For the former, the primary services are to isolate the students, to inculcatesocial norms, and to evaluate students' potential for fitting into various slots of the social structure. The students are in a significantly different relation because they are both the material to be transformed and the supposed beneficiaries of the process. It is the sense of being in-grown, of working over its own constituents, that makes schools unhealthy communities. A mission-oriented school, in contrast, would focus outward. Young people in such a school would be expected to develop and grow -- but that would not be the school's only or primary concern. Note well, however, that the mission chosen for an organization can affect profoundly the opportunities for growth of those who participate in its endeavors. What would be an appropriate mission for a School of the Future?

I believe that if we can make the world a better place for children, we can hope that more of them will grow to be better people and that there bythe world might avoid disaster. A School for the Future could be a SchoolFOR the Future in these senses:

- for in the sense of being focussed on understanding that future.

- for in the sense of shaping that future for the benefit of the following people:
* the individuals of the schools
* the children of America's cities
* children of other societies in the world
By shaping that future I mean the following: exploring what it would be like for children in that future world; exploring what children might want that world to be like; designing structures and infrastructures to help future children achieve their ends; advocating a child-acceptable vision of that future.

The central idea of this mission is to engage children in activities of cultural anthropology (local and comparative) and social engineering. We might agree that no one has a better right to plan the future than those who will live in it but part company on the issue of whether or not such designs should be taken seriously. We need not do so -- a mission-oriented school for the future is a natural adjunct of a Center for the Future where today's outstanding thinkers could apply their best knowledge and efforts to understanding the city of man through time.

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