Education Automation: Freeing the Scholar to Return (1962)

I just finished reading Education Automation: Freeing the Scholar to Return(1962), by Buckminster Fuller. The work is incredibly prescient. Even more relevant today than when it was first written 50 years ago. Ideas of education, industrialization, democracy, et cetera.

By en:User:Edgy01 (Dan Lindsay) (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A few things that stuck out for me.

Prior to World War I, and up until World War II, people averaged 1300 miles of walking per year, about 3.5 miles per day (just over 5 kilometres). As trains, cars, and the aircraft entered into the equation, people didn't walk any less, they just covered greater areas with the new modes of transportation. I did a quick Google search but I couldn't find any accurate numbers for recent times. My intuition tells me that people probably walk less now than they did back then.

Politics: Geographical-based Representation

We are now at the point where the concept of our geographically-basedrepresentation--which assumes that it realistically represents the human beings--is nolonger valid. The political machine alone will continue to stay local. It sees the people asstatically local. So those who are politically ambitious just stay put while society moveson, and, therefore, the static politicians become invisible to the swiftly moving bodypolitic, which cannot keep track of their static machinations since society does not staylong enough in any one place to be effective in reviewing the local political initiations. The political machines soon will have no one to challenge realistically their existencevalidity except the local newspapers, whose purely local political news becomesprogressively of less interest to a world-mobilizing society.

First off, this is a good argument in favour of a proportional representation of sorts, or at least a system not based entirely on geographic constituencies. It assumes people are too mobile to represented in the traditional static way.

What he did mistake was that "newspapers" would no longer be local. We have gone beyond that now. The primary driving factor of challenging politics is driven by the web. News is global. Even local concerns and interest stories get broadcast around the globe--almost at the speed of light, literally! Like when a user tweets about an earthquake and the message is received by another user of twitter before the shock-wave is felt.

The USGS operates a really neat email/SMS earthquake notification service (earthquake.usgs.gov/ens/) that allows fine-grained control of notifications.

Direct Democracy: The Two-Way TV

With two-way TV, constant referendum of democracy will be manifest, and democracy will become the most practical form of industrial and space-age government by all people, for all people.

Bucky hits the nail on the head. No commentary needed on this one. Just to reiterate that these are ideas that he had in the 1950-60s--prescient. Again more relevant today than it was then because of the internet.

Education

I'll start with the childhood aspect of education, since I have 2 kids now, one in kindergarten and another not too far away. What Bucky had to say:

...in order to be able to clean the house for the family, tohave the children out of the way for a little while. The little red school house was not entirely motivated by educational ambitions.
There is also a general baby-sitting function which is called school. While the children are being "baby sat," they might as well be given something to read. We find that they get along pretty well with the game of "reading"; so we give them more to read, and we add writing and arithmetic. Very seriously, much of what goes on in our schools is strictly related to social experiences, and that is fine--that’s good for the kids. But I would say we are going to add much more in the very near future by taking advantage of the children’s ability to show us what they need.

That annoyed me a little. Especially the last sentence. Annoyed by the fact this was clearly known and articulated 50 years ago (probably longer) and not much has changed since. As I write in a previous post, Educational Facilities, the innate curiosity and inquisitiveness of our children drives them to learn--the motivation is there, let them use it.

Eamonn at the edge of the Bay of Fundy.

Eamonn at the edge of the Bay of Fundy.

I do see some change at the elementary level. Outdoor schools is a promising start if implemented correctly.

Now when we talk about "higher" education, at the university level, we are beginning to see change, albeit slow. Though Bucky may have not predicted the exact nature of the modern MOOC, he did spell out how the material should be sourced and designed:

I am quite certain that we are soongoing to begin to do the following: At our universities we will take the men who are thefaculty leaders in research or in teaching. We are not going to ask them to give the samelectures over and over each year from their curriculum cards, finding themselvesconfronted with another roomful of people and asking themselves, "What was it I saidlast year?" This is a routine which deadens the faculty member. We are going to select,instead, the people who are authorities on various subjects‹the men who are mostrespected by other men within their respective departments and fields. They will give their basic lecture course just once to a group of human beings, including both theexperts in their own subject and bright children and adults without special training intheir field... They will make moving picture footage of the lecture as well as hi-fi tape recording. Then the professor and his facultyassociates will listen to this recording time and again. "What you say is very good," his associates may comment, "but we have heard you sayit a little better at other times." The professor then dubs in a better statement. Thusbegins complete reworking of the tape, cleaned up, and cleaned up some more, as in the moving picture cutting, and new illustrative "footage" will be added on. The whole of auniversity department will work on improving the message and conceptioning of apicture for many months, sometimes for years. The graduate students who want to bepresent in the university and who also qualify to be with the men who have greatpowers and intellectual capability together with the faculty may spend a year getting adocumentary ready. They will not even depend upon the diction of the originallecturer, because the diction of that person may be very inadequate to his reallyfundamental conceptioning and information, which should be superb. His knowledgemay be very great, but he may be a poor lecturer because of poor speaking habits orfalse teeth. Another voice will take over the task of getting his exact words across. Others will gradually process the tape and moving picture footage, usingcommunications specialists, psychologists, etc.

Having taken my first few MOOCs, at Udacity and edX, and gone through a number of videos at Khan Academy, I saw first-hand what Bucky described. Salman Khan gave a brilliant TED talk illustrating a more contemporary view of this:


I have been tracking down Bucky Fuller's work online and in the library. He's been dead for 30 years but his ideas were ahead of his time. Definitely up there with the great minds of the 20th century.

I find myself thinking a lot about the structures society has built lately. I hope to write more about it in the coming months.

I am working on a number of blog posts of a technical nature. Mostly programming related, some Math, and a few commentaries on code of mine that I will be uploading to GitHub. These take a little longer.


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