The Worst…and Best Possible Future for Education

A significant portion of current education research, entrepreneurship, and policy is dedicated to the pursuit of one goal: efficiency. Specifically, efficiency in terms of acquisition and absorption of content or subject matter. I am rather fascinated by this obsession and we can see it what the logical conclusion is as we continue following this road. The ultimate end-goal here is something along the lines of The Matrix  in which there are programs and machines that can literally download everything from content to skills into our brains almost instantaneously. The promise of various education technology startups sounds very similar, highlighting especially the ease and speed with which one can learn. In other words, there is something really attractive and alluring to us. Rather than asking why, I want to ask a much more poignant question based on my last post: what if we succeed?

Let us imagine this scenario: you can acquire any skills and all information you desire within 5 minutes. Why stop there? What if we could transfer all skills and all information to all people within the span of 5 minutes? So now we have a world full of people who can know and can do anything and everything in the world. So what? Initially, this might be rather exciting, but…what then?

The Worst and Best Possible Future for Education

We currently believe that content (information) and/or capacity (skill) limits us in our lives. If we can, all of a sudden, know and do anything, we overcome both of these limits. What does that mean? There is no challenge in attaining either. No one can trick you by withholding knowledge or suppressing skills because all is knowable and practicable by all. And so the challenge moves elsewhere. Specifically, it moves inside of us. The reason is simple: now that we can know and do everything, we need to find out how we want to live with it.

After all, if we are so focused on our inability to know all and inefficiency to do all, then we distract ourselves from understanding to what end we desire either. By succeeding in this pursuit, I do not think that we have actually solved that much – I think that we are exacerbating a deeper question. Our inabilities and inefficiencies are limitations only insofar as they literally hinder us from reaching our goals, but if we are not clear as to what those are, then how can anything limit us?

I prefer to look at our present situation as a gracious gift for two reasons. First, it compels us to work together and especially to help each other. By focusing on different areas of knowledge and sets of skills, we declare our intention to help everyone else through them. Second, it compels us to focus on what is important to us. If we believe that it is inefficient to know and do all, then it makes no sense to not devote most of our time and energy toward learning about that which advances us along the trajectories of our passions. Therefore, by completely eliminating what we perceive as our current limitations, we in fact bring the deeper (and, for most, more uncomfortable) question not just closer to the surface, but directly into the spotlight!

What do we actually want to do? This is the question we will encounter in that light. Or: What is so compelling to us that we cannot not pursue it? What if we found something that we enjoyed exploring so much that we actually wanted to slow down? And then speed up with a purpose? Of course, efficiency is important even under these conditions, so that we can not only explore faster when we want to, but also attain basic skills faster when we need to. If we succeed in attaining the kinds of ‘download efficiencies’ that we are currently pursuing, then we also need to succeed in addressing the kinds of ‘existential effects’ that follow. I am not sure that we currently equip our students with the tools and mindsets to handle the success we seek. While it might be the best possible outcome as we perceive it right now, it might also be the worst one because of what it uncovers within our lives. And so perhaps the age-old adage is appropriate at this point: let’s be careful what we wish for.

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