Growing Up in a World Transformed1
When we started the school in 1968 we knew right from the outset that there is a tremendous chasm between traditional education and what we set out to do. Now you all have a photograph in your chairs and I want you to hang onto it--we'll be referring to it later. It shows a chasm. It exemplifies the chasm that separates traditional education from what we're doing. We'll talk about the rest of the picture towards the end.
All of us worked on ways to make people comfortable, to make it easier for people--parents, students, staff--to cross that chasm with confidence. We never really understood why we didn't succeed in convincing them. What we were missing in making that leap a lot easier puzzled us. And then we finally got it. We finally caught on. You don't jump over a chasm unless somebody or something is chasing you. It's just not something you do in everyday life. So the question we asked ourselves was, what chased us? What led us to make that leap? Even though we've been talking about this and writing about it, it's only recently become really clear that what chased us were tremendously strong historic forces from which you can't escape. What I want to do tonight is explain that--explain what I mean by being chased across the chasm by historic forces--and hope that that'll help other people to get it, too.
In the beginning
We know that evolution created people as an animal species--sort of the end result of the evolution of mammals--and we were endowed by nature with all the tools of survival that mammals, especially the higher mammals, had. We were able to learn, we had curiosity, we were creative. We were able to communicate; all animals certainly can communicate. We knew how to play; all animals play. We had initiative, we nurtured a certain amount of creativity, all of which even animals do. We too lived in a situation where there was a complete integration between adults and children--adult and young. We all lived together. We expected the young to develop into effective adults, mainly because nature expected it. Evolution requires children to have an absolutely irresistible drive to become adults. It is clear that there's no other way for a species to survive. So you don't have to develop that; you don't have to teach kids to want to be grown up. If they don't know it on their own from what they've gotten through their genes and through evolution, you can kiss the species goodby.
So we lived as bands of hunter/gatherers, which you probably know a great deal about. If you've read Peter Gray's articles, "Freedom to Learn"2, you'll see that he writes a lot about hunter/gatherer societies and how they live. But we have something else. With the emergence of the human species, there was the first great revolution in the processing, transmission, storage and development of information--a major information revolution. And that revolution, of course, was language. It's worth just contemplating the nature of that revolution and asking, what is the essence of language?
The essence of language is the use of the word. A word is an incredible invention because a word is a symbol--a really compact oral symbol--that represents a tremendous amount of human experience. Every single word represents within itself a sort of a summary of experiences that individuals have. Even the simplest words, if you think about it. Plato goes to great length to show, for example, how many experiences are involved in just the word "chair." So much so that you can't really give a good dictionary definition of "chair" because every time you try to define it, something else pops up that also is called "a chair" by people. And the point of that is, that words are shorthand. And if you have shorthand for experiences, that means you now have a mechanism for manipulating experiences--for working them around, for combining them, for putting them in new order which doesn't involve having to have the whole experience over and over again. It's incredibly powerful. You can now, in your brain, using an abstraction that represents experience, put them together in different formations.
This is the first appearance in nature of an advanced information processing system. It receives information, it categorizes it, it is able to work with it and put it in different order, and it's even able to come up with new combinations that hadn't been programmed into it. It tremendously enhanced, obviously, the ability of human beings to think, to plan and to do all kinds of things that couldn't be done before language appeared on the scene.
So now we understand how evolution played a role in creating coherent bands of human beings who were able to work together, plan together, do things together that couldn't be done before. But there's another side to the story of evolution--maybe not a dark side, but a very puzzling side--because evolution also provided human beings with a very advanced brain, so advanced that it enabled people to modify their environment and radically transform their mode of existence. So we could use our brains to create situations that were contrary to evolution, that were not presented to us by nature, and to in fact put us in situations for which evolution hadn't prepared us.
Evolution gave us the tools to create environments which it hadn't prepared us at all to meet, to know how to behave in. That itself is a lot to contemplate, because it puts the human species in a situation where it can appear in environments that it couldn't be ready for. That's a special kind of challenge, because how do you figure out how to adapt to something that nature and all of the history of your species hasn't in any way prepared you for?
These kinds of new environments that transcend what we prepared for are what I call transformations. There is a difference between change and transformation. Transformations are not changes in the environment. Changes happen all the time. Heraclitus once said, "you never step into the same river twice". There is always change. Nothing stays permanent. So when people tell you, "Oh, the world is changing," they're not telling you anything, because the world is always changing. when you're asleep, when everybody's asleep, as we know it did before any life appeared. The difference between change and transformation is that a transformation is like a tectonic change--something enormous, like a huge upheaval in the environment that cannot be traced to anything in the past that looks like it. I like to think transformation relates to change as the Rocky Mountains relates to Nobscot. Nobscot's a ripple in the earth; the Rocky Mountains are the result of tectonic plate movements producing something really different on the surface of the earth. This doesn't happen very often. New Andes haven't been created in my lifetime or, as far as we know, even in the lifetime of the human species.
Four Great Transformations in Human History
I want to talk about four great transformations in human history because they're crucial to understanding where we are today. You'll recognize them as being special and different from any other changes and variations that happened throughout history. Every one of those four is intimately related to an information revolution. Every one of these transformations changed the ways adults lived. Every one of them changed the way children lived, and every one of them changed the way children grow up to be adults. And there's another point about these transformations: historically there's an acceleration in how frequently they occur. The first one occurs at a certain time. We'll come to that in a minute. The second one occurs at a certain time, the third one much more quickly, and the fourth one more quickly still. And that too is significant as we will see.
The Development of Agricultural Urban Civilization
The first one happened over eight thousand years ago--it's not quite clear when--when the hunter/gatherer civilization turned into an urban agricultural civilization. That's something we all know about, we've all heard about it, it's pretty much a cliche. People like to idealize it as a nice life in the woods where you sort of spend all day looking, picking fruit off the trees, killing animals and eating them, with children playing around happily, and so forth. People don't usually talk about the hard side of the hunter/gatherer society, which was the frequent difficulty in finding food, a lot of sickness, being prey to large animals, toxic insects and snakes and such. Also people had a short life span and a really hard existence, even though they didn't have a lot of work all day. The development of an urban agricultural society provided an environment where there was a lot more stability. You grew your food. Of course, there were droughts and there were famines, but basically your food supply was much more secure. And it even produced a certain excess even that enabled the introduction of a certain amount of leisure for a leisure class. In fact, it brought about the beginning of a class society. Now, people talk about all that. But I think what people don't really focus on enough is that the whole point of urban civilization, the whole way it developed, the whole thing that enabled it to flourish was the second great revolution in information, which is writing.
Writing is critical and central to the development of an urban civilization because writing does something completely different from oral communication. Writing enables you to vastly increase the storage of information and thereby its availability. You don't have to depend anymore on what one person can remember or even what a group of people can remember. You can now put things down in a permanent record that's accessible to everybody and keep that record going so that over time, and with a large group of people, you can figure out all kinds of things that you never were able to before. It has a snowball effect because the more you see, and the more you hear about what other people do with their brains, the more ideas it suggests to you. So you can see how writing is closely connected with--in fact is the major factor in developing--culture. Culture evolves out of a lot of people sharing their thoughts and producing new ways of expressing themselves in every way--new ways of thinking about things, new ways of categorizing things, new ways of writing, new ways of recording history. All of the things that we know about culture happen because you have writing, because people can transmit it and build on what people before said and what people who are contemporaries are saying.
Writing creates a stable society by enabling the creation of laws and government. You can't really have a government of laws unless laws are recorded and disseminated, so that everybody can know. Without it you have an arbitrary society where everything depends on what somebody says here and somebody says there. It was very early in the game of writing that laws became an important feature of urban societies. We all know about the Code of Hammurabi and how that transformed history and we certainly all know that Roman Law was the glue that held together a stable, albeit loose, empire for hundreds of years. That's an incredible phenomenon because the world in which that empire was held together had so little technology to keep a lot of disparate places together. Law and courts are stabilizing factors in society. They enable the development of governments that in turn become able to control larger and larger entities and larger regions. People no longer have to live in tiny areas and tiny groups. The larger the group with which you can live and exist, the more creativity, the more culture, the more knowledge, gets produced. It's really a very simple thing. The amount of innovation, the amount of creativity, the amount of richness that comes out of a group of people is directly related to the number of people who have direct access to each other in producing and developing this richness. What five people can do, five hundred people can do more than a hundred times better because they're collaborating with their brains.
Let's go back to speech for a moment. Speech enables us to link ourselves to someone else's brain. That to me is the key motivator for children to learn how to talk. I always used to wonder about that. Why do kids struggle so hard to talk? Yet they keep trying, they keep getting it wrong, and they keep trying until they semi get it right. It takes years but they work at it like devils. Why? Talk is communication, but it's more than communication--it's gaining insight into what's going on in the other person's brain, which is amazing. When you have a conversation with somebody else, you are in a sense joining your mind to theirs and basically growing your ability to think by linking to another brain.
That's one of the things that writing does wonderfully. You have somebody sitting in Athens, in Ancient Greece, thinking about a problem. And somebody brings him a piece of philosophical writing that was written by a Greek in Asia Minor. Suddenly, a new light dawns. He suddenly has a link to a complete stranger who he'll never meet, never have a conversation with, but who is thinking about whatever subject it is he's interested in. That's almost unbelievable in its power to raise the level of the human race to create new thoughts and new culture and to advance itself in any direction that it wants.
Now the problem with this is that there were limitations with writing. The major limitation with writing was that it was really difficult to reproduce. Very few people actually pick up a pen today and write anything long. That was how I grew up. When thoughts would come to me, I would write them down in longhand. I was doing what had been done for thousands of years. Unfortunately, other people weren't. (Eventually I learned how to use another mode of recording ideas!) Writing is long, writing is tedious. But longer and more tedious than writing is copying what somebody else wrote, because it isn't yours. It's also a little boring, even if you want to know what's in it. If I want to know what's in something, I'll read it, but making me sit down and copy it longhand isn't something I do.
So a small subset of society appears in ancient times, and keeps going for millennia: scribes, people whose job it is to reproduce, page by page, sentence by sentence, what somebody's written in a book. That's the limitation. It puts the reins on this wonderful gain that writing provides for information processing and dissemination. In other words, the number of brains you can link into is the number of books that you've read and there are damn few, because who has books? There aren't many of them. But slowly cultures build libraries.
Even back then they worried about the information explosion; about what do we do with all this knowledge, which by our standards isn't a hell of a lot. They started creating libraries where you could go to research. The greatest library of all of ancient times, the Library of Alexandria, lasted for hundreds and hundreds of years but was destroyed in the seventh century. It purportedly was like the Library of Congress, holding copies of all the books written in the ancient world. There were other libraries and, after Christianity, libraries were kept in most monasteries. Things were very carefully and persistently copied. In addition to that, people started classifying knowledge on its own. The first great classification of knowledge that was written was Aristotle's. Aristotle, around 300 B.C., sat down and created a whole bunch of fields. There were no fields before Aristotle. People had knowledge--it was all over the place, lots of it. But Aristotle felt the need to actually invent fields so that this stuff could be categorized and mastered piece by piece. He invented the field of logic--not logic but the field of logic--the field of rhetoric, the field of physics, the field of metaphysics. It just goes on and on. And he wrote all the first textbooks in all of these fields. People were thrilled with it. They were excited with this categorization that enabled them now to have in front of them some grasp of the information explosion, the information overload. It was so powerful that Aristotle's books remained the textbooks for all of human culture in the Western world for something like twelve to fourteen hundred years. I think a lot of people who write textbooks would be very happy if they could keep their sales going for twelve hundred years. So you understand the limitation.
Now let's take a look at the daily life of adults. What was it like to be an adult in this urban world with the written word sort of floating around somewhere and with very few people who knew how to read, because there was no point in it since you had nothing to read. Most adults lived a very grinding life. It took a lot of work. If you are a farmer, you work hard. You work seven days a week, from morning until night. It's hard labor. And there's very little time off. You usually manage, if things are okay, to produce that excess that we talked about which leaves some people in the society to have the leisure not to work that hard. So you get the beginning, in urban and agricultural society, of a class society, which is going to become very significant for us as we move forward, where a small veneer of every group lives well and lives without too much hard work, because they depend on other people's hard work. That couldn't have happened if there wasn't an excess, and that excess couldn't have happened if there wasn't agriculture--all of which fits together very nicely. And children of the elite lived very differently from other children. They didn't work that hard. The children of the elite lived privileged lives and learned to perpetuate the elite class, which is what you'd expect children of elite to do.
Now I just want to stress that this state of information distribution and dissemination and collection led to tremendous stability in society. The stability is really staggering. It lasted from ancient times until around the 16th century. And in fact if somebody had disappeared--a Rip Van Winkle--in the year 400 B.C. and been plopped down in the middle of Europe in the year 1200 A.D., they would not have had a tremendous culture shock. There would have been some different things, some different tools and different kinds of houses, but they would have recognized very quickly where they were.
There was a concept introduced in historical writings about the nature of society during that long stable period called the Great Chain of Being. It's a useful one to describe that period. The Great Chain of Being is a supposed chain that extended from God to the angels, to the kings and elites, and so forth down the road of humanity, in which every person who was born had a place. Your place in the Great Chain of Being was fixed, and that's a comfortable thought. It's a thought that gives you a certain security. You're not going to be subject to storms and hurricanes and sudden changes. I was born here, I know my place, I fit into this wonderful world, I have food to eat, there are people above me who are smarter and who know how to run things, there are angels who watch over me. The whole thing works really nicely. Within the framework of that world, that stable world for over a thousand years, that was a good picture of what happened.
The Modern Era
Then we come to a second tremendous transformation--a tsunami. The modern world explodes on us. This happened about five hundred years ago. It takes almost no time to develop. It all happened thanks to another information revolution, printing. Printing was the thing that drove the modern world. You can see that everywhere. Because the whole point of printing was that it enabled knowledge to be dispersed much more widely and much more quickly. Printing took the tedium out of reproducing and spreading knowledge. Overnight things that had been written before and barely available became available by the thousands and tens of thousands. The first book that was printed was the Bible. Gutenberg's Bible was the first classic book. Gutenberg, who was the first man to make a successful business out of printing, decided that he would start with an immediate best-seller because he figured everybody was religious and everybody wanted the Bible. There was only one problem, which was that the Roman Catholic Church, which was the only real Christian church that had any power in Europe at the time, wasn't interested in everybody reading the Bible. So he didn't make a lot of sales. And the reason it wasn't interested is not that obscure. Most religions are not that eager for you to read their original Holy Book, because they're much more interested in your reading the interpretations of the Holy Book that have been made over the centuries and over the millennia by scholars who have studied it and gone into depth and really explain what it means.
Don't think this is so strange. This happens today. You see it right now in all the debates about the Supreme Court. Everybody reads the Constitution, right? I think I know what the Constitution means. Why, look, it says this and this. And then you find out that it really says what the Supreme Court says it says. And if you really want to know what the Constitution says you have to become a constitutional scholar and follow hundreds of years of precedents that have been written by Supreme Courts in order to interpret what you thought was easy to read. By the same token, the Church didn't want everybody to read the Bible. And Gutenberg in the beginning really didn't make much of a go of it. But eventually people picked it up and read it and what happened? Luther. The poor Catholic Church. Luther gets the Bible, hands it around, says, "Hey, look, this is what it says." Exactly what the church was afraid would happen. "It says this in simple black and white," he said, "and you guys are all paying attention to these scholars who are leading you down the wrong path." Overnight the whole of society is turned inside out--huge wars, thousands killed--over Luther's writings that suddenly appear in print. There were heresies before Luther, all kinds of big heresies, but you could limit them because nobody got to know about them really. You had to spread it by letter. How many people could read the letter? Consider the great Albigensian heresy in Southern France. Suppose someone sent a letter about it to Germany. Five months later it gets there, and a handful of people can read it! That's not going to do anything. But now Luther can spread it in his books. Before long you have Luther, you have Calvin, you have this one, you have that one. Everybody's killing everybody. That's the kind of turmoil that a transformation creates. It's not that the wars are new. This is a different kind of war. This is a war over information and knowledge.
Not only does printing transform something as serious as religion, printing transforms everything else. Printing raises commerce and trade to a completely new level. It makes wealth simply spring forward, because printing enables the production of the documents that are necessary for carrying on trade. Trade has to be carried on with all kinds of documents, contracts, agreements and so forth, but much more important than that books enabled information to be spread telling where the trading is good. You could discover America, but what was important about discovering America was that when you came home, you published it. And before long, everybody wanted to discover something new, conquer something new, have a piece of the action. Printing books made that interesting to other people as well.
I don't know how many of you have read the works of Thor Heyerdahl, such as Kon-Tiki and his other wonderful anthropological works. They may have sort of fallen out of favor, or maybe the younger generation doesn't know a lot about them, but they're very important books really. The reason I'm bringing that up is because he's one of those people who thought he had very strong evidence that Phoenicians actually engaged in trade with the Western Hemisphere. He has marshaled evidence from his study of Central American culture, and this indicated to him that there was actual traffic back and forth between these distant cultures. However, one of the reasons we'll never probably know whether that's true is because they didn't write any books about it. Some day we may find a letter somewhere by some Phoenician buried under the Sahara Desert where he writes his uncle that he just came back from a travel of three months to the West across the ocean and brought back these weird Indian artifacts, and then we'll know he was right. But few people knew about it. The information spread too slowly.
Printing made exploration possible. Printing made it possible to have increased trade. And printing made it possible in general to disseminate all the great discoveries that happened in the Modern Era. Printing created the Modern Era. It's all a result of the freer exchange of ideas. The more people read, the more people wrote, the more brains you could link into; it's a geometric progression. That transformation--that revolution in information--led to a complete transformation of society. In modern times, suddenly, you have the ability to create effective governments over much larger swathes of land. It's no accident that until modern times the whole of the world was a collection of small satrapies and kingdoms and dukedoms and earldoms. That's no accident. That's the range which could really be governed effectively when you had limited abilities to communicate through writing.
Once you have printing, once you have the ability to send out laws and decrees, to manage armies, to control people through a medium that can be quickly changed, quickly reproduced and transported, you can now govern large territories. Governing large territories brings nation states. Nation states bring national cultures, and a whole different world emerges.
Another thing emerges in the modern era, which is important to our story: before, there were an elite class and a working class, but in this new world we get the emergence of a new phenomenon--the middle class. The middle class is precisely the group of people who are benefitting most from this new spread of knowledge. They're not the elites, they're not rulers, they're not playboys and they're not out there doing their fancy duke stuff--playing polo on their horses, or whatever. They're actually engaged in trade, they're engaged in professions, they're engaged in all kinds of stuff that gets them wealthy and smart. They become much more self-conscious and self-confident. They are aware that they are a significant part of society. And that's very, very unsettling. It is an unsettling factor that the people on all sides are beginning to sense, and getting nervous about, and there's some fear of instability because part of the old order is collapsing. Anybody who studies the history of England in 16th and 17th centuries knows that all of that is rumbling around. The middle class, the squires, the people with money are shaking the walls to get out of their confinement. They want more of the action, they want more of a say in their governance.
That was the beginning of a feeling that society was becoming unstable. No one's talking any more about the Great Chain of Being. Nobody's that comfortable with the idea that everybody has his place in society. People are now agitating for more recognition, more power. And that leads to a lot of fear even among the people who are agitating. You begin to see much more fear throughout society in modern times and much more of a desire to clamp down, be conservative and not rock the boat too much because of the fear that the instability will somehow blow things apart. That fear was palpable in the way governments were formed and in the way societies were organized.
How about the daily life of children? Well, the daily life of children was still hard work. But it wasn't all on the farm anymore. Now children, because of a much larger and more productive society, started participating in all kinds of social things. They become apprentices, they become interns, they become young sailors, young carpenters. Children become part of the adult world as soon as they can. But they do so in a lot more diverse ways than ever before.
The Industrial Revolution
Now we come to the third major transformation. You can see that it comes a little more quickly. The first one happened about 8,000 years ago. The second one, in the 15th century. The third comes a mere 300 years after the second. This is another huge societal transformation--the Industrial Revolution. It's worth focusing on the essential factor that led to the Industrial Revolution: a collection of revolutions in information dissemination and production. That collection was the key to the Industrial Revolution.
Consider the introduction of high-volume printing. That sounds sort of banal--"high-volume printing". What's the difference between that and printing before? Old printing presses have a frame of letters that was set by hand. Then was lowered onto paper, then lifted to take the paper out for drying with clothes pins on a string, so that another piece of paper could be inserted, one sheet at a time. Then you had to bind them together into a book or pamphlet. To be sure, that's a heck of a lot quicker than writing. But high volume printing, where you have cylinder presses, or linear presses that go back and forth and back and forth--this is a qualitative change, not just a quantitative change. It introduces a different level of information distribution and dissemination that makes more and more people seek to become literate. It becomes more interesting to become literate because everybody can buy books, because there are so many of them. Now things are printed by the thousands. And they are far less expensive than before; now you don't have to be rich to buy a book. When you read about some of the encyclopedias that were put out in 18th century England, you see that they would announce an encyclopedia in the newspaper and people would subscribe to it. You could get a whole encyclopedia for fifty pounds. Fifty pounds was a lot of money, but quite a lot of people could afford it. And there weren't a lot of encyclopedias before highspeed printing.
Another aspect of information distribution is fast travel. You don't usually attach travel to communication and distribution, but travel is how you get the information from one place to another. The only way you got information in the early days before writing was by talking to someone. The only way you got it after writing was either by talking or giving people something handwritten. The only way you could give it to them was by getting it there physically one way or another. How many ways could you travel before fast transportation? You go across land on a camel, on a donkey, on a horse. You could walk. That's not very fast. You could go by sailboat. Not very fast. But because of the introduction of new modes of propulsion, you suddenly get the ability to get things from one place to another really quickly.
During the whole 19th century you see another spectacular development--highspeed direct transmission of information from one place to another. Here is a wonderful story. You've all heard of the Rothschilds, a very famous banking family. In England, they made a killing. They had trained carrier pigeons. They had somebody stationed in Europe at the Battle of Waterloo, with carrier pigeons. The trading markets in England all depended on who's going to win. If the English won, markets would go up. If Napoleon won, markets would go down. So it was essential for somebody who wanted to make a killing to get the first news of who won the Battle of Waterloo. So Rothschild has his pigeons, they're released the minute the Battle's over, they get to London, he gets the message, uses it to make a huge killing; while all the other people have to wait for a fast boat to cross the England Channel to bring the news. The reason I'm telling this story is just to impress you with the fact that this is just 200 years ago, and you transferred information most quickly by carrier pigeon and boat!
Starting with the 19th century, a number of developments enabled information travel more quickly. Electricity, telegraph, telephone, wireless radio, television, all happened within a period of 100-125 years, and all of these were made possible by the fact that the people inventing them could communicate with each other through highspeed printing--through newspapers, through books, through scientific journals. You didn't have all this stuff widely available before you could print quickly. You can imagine what upheavals that caused.
Let's just talk about some of the upheavals. First of all, you have an almost unbelievable growth in accumulated culture. Minds just connect. They connect all over the place in a way that they've never connected before. Culture just springs forward. Somebody makes a discovery in Scotland. The discovery gets heard about in France, in England, in The Netherlands. Other people work on that. It gets taken across the sea with by a highspeed steamboat. People start experimenting on it in America, soon all over the world. All this happens in no time flat. Can you imagine the excitement? All the world is connected now. People are connected in every profession. You can imagine how this affected the development of industry and of wealth. You would not have the huge growth in industry without rapid dissemination of information; because advances in industry depended on people having the most advanced technology available quickly. If you had had people limited to creating their own factories, and their own assembly lines, and their own machinery, here and there and elsewhere, hardly knowing what each other was doing, how fast do you think industry would have developed? It developed because people were able to access all the innovations in production through a kind of global connectivity that you never had before.
Inevitably, there emerges again a fear of information overload. In the 19th century people really begin to worry about what to do with all this. You've all heard of the Renaissance Man; that was fine for the Renaissance. The Renaissance Man could be a person who more or less had all of culture at his fingertips. There were no Renaissance Men in the 19th century. By then what you really had to do was build tremendous repositories of all kinds of information. That's when the huge libraries started being constructed in every town, every city, every country. These libraries were the result of information overload, and they proliferated even more in the 20th century. The place you went to do research was a library. When I was young, I was doing research in the history of science. My chief access to information was the stacks in the Columbia University library--rows and rows of dusty books. That's where you got your information. It was wonderful. I could connect with all these writers from the 19th century, 18th century, and earlier, in the stacks, which existed because of information overload. People felt they had to have stacks in order to make information accessible. And if I couldn't get it there, it was hard to get it anywhere. That was a fearful thing. You were always uncertain because you never knew whether you had actually gotten all the sources. That was the fear that information overload led to--that I didn't have it all, and that I've got to have it all in order to understand. It's out of this Industrial Era fear that the whole way of traditional education developed.
I'm not interested here in the public schools that developed in the middle of the 19th century which trained workers. That was not really the origin of our current educational system. That was the origin of a different kind of education. It wasn't the three R's. The three R's was the system of education that was designed to break children, to discipline them, to make them good workers from a very early age with just enough knowledge to be effective robotic workers in factories. It was education for the working class.
Traditional education developed for the middle class. What the middle class cares about was an accumulation of knowledge that they could have at their beck and call, so that they could control their environment in the explosive information situation created by the Industrial Revolution. That was a real challenge, since there is constantly more and more information accumulating. The libraries are getting bigger, and your anxiety is growing as well. You're middle class, you want to make it, you want your kids to make it, you want to keep your wealth, you want to keep your positions in society--in universities, in the professions, in commerce. You want to make sure your kids have all the information thrust into their heads so they can maintain these advantages. That is the ultimate result of the fear of information overload that emerges in the Industrial Era. You worry that you've got to stuff as much as you can into children's heads in order to make them succeed.
That leads to a curriculum that's fuller and fuller, and never stops growing. If you look at the curriculum guidelines that pertain today in the public schools of any state, there are collections of subjects that every single child has to learn. Every line in the huge curriculum books is a line representing some subject, some load of information, like, "How the lower Egyptians traded with the Sudanese in the 15th century," something every 8th grader should learn in their history or social studies class. And people take it seriously. People think they have to teach that. That is clearly an industrial age idea, and in that context it makes a certain amount of sense. You have this collection of information that now everybody has access to, and people are afraid that if their children don't have access to it they're not going to make it. They've got to have it all at their fingertips.
The Information Age
Now we come to the fourth great transformation, which you're all familiar with. The fourth great transformation, which began about fifty years ago and is increasing in pace. That had to do with what you all know of as the information revolution--the tremendous revolution in storage, processing, and distribution of information. And that has completely changed the picture. That's a historic force which has really transformed society once again the way it was transformed from pre-writing to writing, writing to printing, printing to highspeed printing, and now to a whole new way of dealing with information that has really very little relationship with the old ways. The most important single feature of it is that now, in principle, and soon enough in practice, every single person on the globe has unlimited access to all human knowledge, past and present, period. We're really close to that now and we're getting closer by leaps and bounds.
We're just at the beginning of it. I can't get over the speed at which these things happen. I cannot get over the fact that the internet just became a factor really about fifteen years ago. That it was only twelve years ago that we at SVS made our first website. At that time we were one of three million web pages in the world. Twelve years ago? Can anybody count the number of web pages in the world today? This is an amazing transformation because it is really heading towards the creation of a "global mind".
A global mind. We can't even comprehend the extent to which that's a change. I'll tell you who can comprehend it, for whom it's totally natural--six year olds, seven year olds, eight year olds, the kids sitting in the internet room; they're all pretty young--even the oldest ones who are fourteen, fifteen, were born into that era. They know what I'm talking about. There's a global mind. There are no limits. Saying to them, hey you're talking to somebody in China, or in Turkey, is irrelevant. It's totally irrelevant. Nationality is irrelevant, religion is irrelevant, place is irrelevant, age is irrelevant. Basically, I'm just interacting with you; I don't even know who you are. I just know that you're a source of information that I want and that I can find quickly. I can find any niche of information that I want. That is a global mind.
One of the things that happens as a result of that is that all of the categorizations of disciplines that we've lived with since Aristotle's time and that survived all of these other transformations--right through the Industrial Age you still had physics departments, math departments--towards the middle of the last century you started to have people saying, well, let's have some cross-disciplinary study. They sense that the old way isn't always quite making sense. Today of course it doesn't make sense at all. You can't categorize something that's infinite. It doesn't make any sense. It all flows into each other. A person doing physics can be using art to enrich his physics, can be using math, can be using biology. There is no sense in even almost talking in these categories. You're not studying a subject, you're studying a problem. You're studying something that interests you. And you take the solutions to that problem wherever they lead. Once you have the disappearance of disciplines, the whole foundation of traditional education falls apart. There's no point to it.
The universities become laughably obsolete. What does it mean? These things sort of creep up on the universities. They have "University Professors", distinguished people. Who's a university professor? What's the definition of a university professor? It means a professor who doesn't have a department. Literally. A professor who can teach whatever he wants, wherever he wants, any time he wants, and he's paid a lot of money for it because he's a big name. And soon that whole thing will become ridiculous because what does it mean to be a professor of physics anymore? What would my old profession have been? It becomes meaningless. You want people who give you help in solving the problems you're interested in. You don't want people who are married to categories that no longer have meaning in the search for meaning and information and problem-solving that now encompasses all of human knowledge that you can access.
There is a limitation I want to talk about here. We have to keep in mind that we have barely even seen the beginning. We haven't seen anything. We're at the place in the Information Revolution, to give any kind of analogy, that the Industrial Age was like in 1810 or 1815 when somebody got the idea that they might put a big clunky steam engine on a boat and sail up the Hudson River. And people said that's crazy, you can't have a steamboat. That's where we were then. Very imaginative people who were writing futurist works in 1810 were saying, "Oh, some day there's going to be steamboats, I'm sure there will be. They might even cross an ocean." We can't imagine the future. We just can't. And that's important because once you acknowledge that you know you're in an era that is transforming that quickly, right under your nose, you let go. You let go of the idea that you control anything about the future and that it's worth controlling anything about the future. You completely let go of that.
Of course, what this leads to is incredible fear by adults. Adults are terrified. I haven't met an adult who isn't terrified of what's going on, one way or another. Adults are becoming obsolete at a terrific rate. Adults were raised in the industrial model of knowledge and education. The brain has now created this post-Industrial Information Age which has blown us out of the water and for which we're completely unprepared in any way, shape or form. And so we're terrified.
The Traits the Information Age Needs
Now, I just want to list the traits that you need to negotiate the new reality successfully. In this new reality, what are the characteristics that a person should have to be comfortable?
They have to be flexible and adaptable. They can't be stuck in any rut. That's obvious. They have to be able to interact seamlessly with the whole world. They have to be comfortable with interacting with their environment. And the environment now means the globe. That's what an effective adult has to be in this new era. They have to be able to pursue their passions and develop their strengths because that's all that counts now. All that counts now are people who are really pursuing their strengths and doing something that interests other people. They have to have the ability to collaborate with others. Because if you have a global human mind, and you don't know how to interact and collaborate with others, you're a loner. You might as well go out on an island and forget about it and go into your sustainable corner. And they have to be able to be creative, innovative and original. That's obvious.
They also have to be able to participate in a self-governing milieu. This is important because the very essence of the new era is lack of control. You see that going on around you right now in the world. The world is clearly politically entering a stage where no one knows how to control anything. No one. It hasn't anything to do with party. It has nothing to do with political philosophy. We don't know how to control our financial system, we don't really know how to control our political system. What does it all mean? It means that we have no idea how to run anything. It's just gotten away from us. And we're not going to know, because in this new age, you can't run anything. The only thing you can hope to run is something you participate in running directly. Self-governing entities are the only way. And these entities will not be entities that run a whole nation or a whole city. They'll be entities that determine in various activities what happens in them, and will know how to collaborate with others. Now I'm being a futurist here, but I'm being a futurist based on the inevitability of what happens when control breaks down.
I'm now going to list the traits that children are endowed with by nature, that they're born with. I talked about this right in the beginning, about how we evolved. Now I'm going to list the traits that children have. They might sound familiar. Children are flexible and adaptable. If you've ever had a kid, you know they're flexible and adaptable. They all adapt to anything and they'll flex everywhere. They interact seamlessly with the whole world. It doesn't mean they don't cry and they don't give you a hard time, but to them the world is just their oyster. They want to interact with everything. They want to touch everything, they want to experience everything. They're curious. They want to do whatever they can do. They have passions and they have strengths. And you know it when you knock up against their passions because they let you know. They learn pretty quickly to collaborate with others. When they're very young it's hard for them, but they realize after awhile they've got to figure it out. And when they're left in their groups, they work it out eventually, especially if you leave them alone because they know they have to. They know how to be creative, innovative and original.
Those are exactly the traits you need as adults. Those are the traits people are born with. So how should children grow up to be adults in this era? By being left alone. By not being stopped. By not stripping them of what they've got. You want them to end up with what they started out with. If you want somebody to end up with what they started out with, you don't block them in the middle and you don't change what they started out with. You get out of their way and support them and watch and enjoy.
Today there's almost a reversal of roles between children and adults. It doesn't even make sense for adults to guide children. Children know more than adults nine tenths of the time. For children today, schools have become irrelevant. Even the children who go to schools and even the children who say they're okay there and they don't want to leave, even for them schools have become irrelevant. They find their interests elsewhere. Even the ones who get A's and who say they love their teacher and they love their subject. We have this experience here over and over again. A kid comes into the school and you ask him, what do you like to do? They might say, "Oh I love biology." And you listen. Okay, no problem. You come here and do all the biology you want. Then they come to school and they don't do any biology. They never even pick up a biology book, they don't talk about biology, nothing. In the beginning we thought what's going on here? Were they lying to us? And of course they weren't lying because in the environment they came from where everything else was deadly, the least deadly thing they had to do during the day was biology. So they liked biology. The minute they get into an environment where they can really do what they're interested in, they don't have to fool themselves anymore.
Kids are way ahead of the adults. The kids know how to maneuver themselves. For kids today, the traditional school stuff is irrelevant. They can access what they want at home, with their friends, late at night, weekends. If they have to do homework, it's an irritation, but the real thing for them is what's going on directly between them and the world. For kids today, adults have a marginal use as being sources of information and wisdom and friendship. Adults are there to be companions so kids can listen to their stories and to their wisdom. But the adults are not there to intervene in their lives.
There is an irony here. And the irony is that we are as far from the hunter/gatherer society as you could possibly imagine. Think back to where we started. There's the hunter/gatherers, here we are. This is like different worlds. But the traits needed to maneuver in this new world of what we'll call the Information Age, are basically the same traits that we were evolved for in the hunter/gatherer society when we first evolved. That's the traits children are born with. It's no accident that they're born with it because that's what they were evolved to. So evolution has played a funny trick on the human race. Evolution gave us the power to change our environment. We've done it over and over again, transformed it, changed it. Nothing remains that looks like the Garden of Eden, but we now have the same traits that we had back then in the Garden of Eden--sort of a historic irony.
Look again at the picture at the top of this article. The picture is of a Sudbury Valley student leaping over a chasm. Sudbury Valley students aren't afraid of leaping over a chasm. Sudbury Valley parents, generally, are not afraid of leaping over a chasm. He's chased by a passion which actually led him to national fame in that world of mountain unicyclists, doing all the kinds of tricks that unicyclists do. He had the ability in our school environment, which is the environment that makes sense in this world, to practice, and practice, and practice for thousands of hours. If any of you have read the book, Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell, then you'll know his chapter on 10,000 hours. If you want to be really excellent on something, you should spend 10,000 hours at it. That's the road to greatness. Well, this young man leapt a chasm. And that's what Sudbury Valley's really about. It's about the ability to leap chasms and not be afraid to do it. And when history is breathing down your neck, you're not going to have any choice--you either leap the chasm or you're going to fall in.
A Final Note
What I want to end on is a note that's really tangential to this. You might realize that during the entire evening I have not said a word about ethics. I was talking about historic forces. All of the transformations I talk about which were historically real were value-neutral, every one of them. Good or bad could have happened at any stage, and did. I don't need to give you examples of good and bad in prehistoric times and historic times, during the Industrial Era, during the Modern Era, and even today. You can identify it. That's just the reality. But this is one of the main features of Sudbury Valley and the Sudbury model which are most precious to me--that the Sudbury model doesn't only provide an environment that is appropriate for children to grow up with in a transformed world, it also provides an environment based on values--principles of justice, of respect, of responsibility, accountability, and community--things that most people associate with goodness. That's what makes Sudbury schools uniquely valuable to parents today, and to children, and is probably the thing we're most proud of.
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