Jack Uldrich
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Needed: Ambassadors to the Future

Posted in Futurist

(Editor’s note: I was honored to be among the world’s top futurists selected to contribute a chapter to After Shock, a book commemorating the 50th anniversary of Alvin Toffler’s seminal work on futurism, Future Shock. Below is my contribution.)

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” –Alvin Toffler

The above quotation has been instrumental in my work as a professional futurist and even inspired me to write a book on the subject of unlearning. I was surprised therefore to discover upon re-reading Future Shock that it is both a misattribution and a misquotation. Toffler does, in fact, write that human adaptation can be enhanced by instructing students how to “learn, unlearn and relearn,” but the other half of the quotation comes from Psychologist Herbert Gerjuoy who wrote “Tomorrow’s illiterate will not be the man who can’t read; he will be the man who has not learned how to learn.”

In addition to requiring me to “unlearn” my own history of the quote, my re-reading of Chapter 18 (“Education in the Future Tense”)–the chapter from which the quote was inspired–caused me to reflect more deeply upon the words Toffler concludes the chapter: “Education must shift into the future tense.”

Sadly, a half-century later, our educational system remains stuck in the past and seems incapable of even shifting into our present era–where Toffler’s warnings of accelerating change are more pronounced and relevant than ever. 

What then is the solution? How do we shift education into the future tense? Toffler’s proposal for a “Council of the Future” offers a promising framework. He rightly suggests that in addition to professional educators, planners, and businesspeople serving on the council, students are integral to its success because they are the ones who will “invent and inhabitant the future.”

Toffler underscores the vital importance of giving students the skills and knowledge necessary to engage in creative tasks, make informed critical judgments, anticipate direction, and understand the rate of change. These traits, he argues, will provide students the foundation necessary to adapt to an ever-changing future. Or, in his words, it will instill in them “cope-ability.”

I would now like to take Toffler’s idea of the Council of the Future a step further and propose that rather than constructing a curriculum of courses to provide students these foundational skills, every student should be appointed an “Ambassador to the Future” at an early age and charged with the duty and responsibility of making peace with their future. This simple act will re-orientate students from “facing backwards” and point them toward the future.

Now, contemplating the future is no easy task, and there is no perfect place to start, but Toffler steers us in the right direction when he states that students currently “have no heritage to the future.” To address this shortcoming and to get the students thinking about their “heritage,” there is no need to overthink the issue. We can awake our educational system from its “silence about tomorrow” by charging students with the responsibility for thinking about the future for the simple reason that they are going to spend the rest of their lives there. In other words, if they are going to be the ones who imagine, invent, create, and safeguard the future, they must first begin by thinking about the future.

At this point, the reader may ask does “the future” mean five years in the future? Twenty years? 100 years? Or even 500 or 1000 generations? The answer is not ours to determine. It is the students’ to decide.

Different ambassadors will select distinct timeframes according to their unique perspectives, needs, and interests. The beauty of this approach is that ambassadors with varying horizons of time will bring fresh perspectives and unique questions into play. In addition to debating the issue of how far into the future society’s responsibility goes, other questions might include (but are certainly not limited to): Are we disenfranchising future generations? How many natural resources do future generations have the right to expect? How do the needs of other sentient beings factor into our decisions? What does it mean to be human and to have consciousness? Do people have a right to live 120, 150 or even a thousand or more years into the future? To whom does deep space belong? What will replace money? How can be better communicate with one another? How can we better govern ourselves?  And how might we consider the possibility of low probability but high impact events?

The differing perspectives will cause ambassadors with shorter timeframes to expand their minds to consider a deeper future, while the ambassadors with a longer horizon will be required to roll up their sleeves and contemplate the realities of more near-term future scenarios.

These perspectives and the questions they engender, more than any prescribed course, will begin shifting students into the “future tense” and, in the process, hone their critical judgment skills and sharpen their reasoning capabilities.

Serious thought on the future will lead the students into economic, political, scientific, and technological issues as well as a panoply of moral and ethical considerations. To better perfect their skills and techniques, the students will come to appreciate that it is to their benefit to listen to a wide variety of disparate and diverse voices. They will also come to understand the need to think probabilistically, embrace ambiguity, challenge assumptions, and stay open to the ever-present need to unlearn whatever it is they think they know. In short, the responsibility of these ambassadors to the future will be to train themselves to deal with uncertainty, handle the unknown, and expect the unexpected. 

Student ambassadors may also begin to construct vibrant and multi-layered scenarios to help inform other people’s thinking about how society can move in the direction of favorable futures while avoiding negative ones.

Answers to the future will always be impossible to ascertain with complete certainty, but by focusing on “root questions” as Toffler suggested, these ambassadors will understand that it is their heritage at stake, and if they are to meet their mighty responsibilities to the future, they–the students–must be the ones who bear the ultimate responsibility for “shifting education into the future tense.”

Will such an idea work? I don’t know, but education cannot remain “silent about tomorrow,” no longer.

Toffler was spot on when he wrote, “Creating curiosity and awareness is the cardinal task of education” One way to do this is to give every student the title of “ambassador to the future” and then get out of their way and allow (again in Toffler’s words) “a multiplicity of visions, dreams and prophecies–images of potential tomorrows” to flourish. For it is the students’ future to create.

Jack Uldrich is a global futurist, keynote speaker, and a best-selling author of twelve books, including “Higher Unlearning: 39 Post-Requisite Lessons for Achieving a Successful Future.”


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