Some observations from The Third Wave by Alvin Toffler

by Alvin Toffler (1979).

Children in industrial cultures were taught to tell time at an early age.  Pupils were conditioned to arrive at school when the bell rang so that later on they would arrive reliably at the factory or office when the whistle blew.

Children began and ended the school year at uniform times.

By setting up mass education systems, governments not only helped to machine youngsters for their future roles in the industrial work force but also simultaneously encouraged the spread of the nuclear family form.  By relieving the family of educational and other traditional functions, governments accelerated the adaptation of family structure to the needs of the factory system.

Together these three — the nuclear family, the factory-style school, and the giant corporation — became the defining social institutions of all Second Wave societies.

Caught up in the crack-up of the old, with the new system not yet in place, millions find the higher level of diversity bewildering rather than helpful.  Instead of being liberated, they suffer from overchoice and are wounded, embittered, plunged into a sorrow and loneliness intensified by the very multiplicity of their options.

Never before have so many people in so many countries — even educated and supposedly sophisticated people — been so intellectually helpless, drowning, as it were, in a maelstrom of conflicting, confusing, and cacophonous ideas.  Colliding visions rock our mental universe.

There are movements aimed at literally turning back the clock — like the back-to-basics movement in United States schools.  Legitimately outraged by the disaster in mass education, it does not recognize that a de-massified society calls for new educational strategies, but seeks instead to restore and enforce Second Wave uniformity in the schools.

The Third Wave also raises non-economic and non-technological concerns to primary importance.  It makes us look at education, for example, with fresh eyes.

When the colonial powers introduced formal education into Africa, India, and other parts of the First Wave world, they transplanted either factory-style schools or set up miniature, tenth-rate imitations of their own elite schools.  Today Second Wave education models are being questioned everywhere.  The Third Wave challenges the Second Wave notion that education necessarily takes place in a classroom.  Today we need to combine learning with work, political struggle, community service, and even play.

To operate these factories and offices of the future, Third Wave companies will need workers capable of discretion and resourcefulness rather than rote responses.  To prepare such employees, schools will increasingly shift away from present methods still largely geared to producing Second Wave workers for highly repetitive work.

In education, we need to begin paying attention to matters routinely ignored.  We spend long hours trying to teach a variety of courses on, say, the structure of government or the structure of the amoeba.  But how much effort goes into studying the structure of everyday life — the way time is allocated, the personal uses of money, the places to go for help in a society exploding with complexity?

Over the long pull we can expect education to change.  More learning will occur outside, rather than inside, the classroom.  The years of compulsory schooling will grow shorter, not longer.  Instead of rigid age segregation, young and old will mingle.  Education will become more interspersed and interwoven with work, and more spread out over a lifetime.

What Third Wave employers increasingly need are men and women who accept responsibility, who understand how their work dovetails with that of others, who can handle ever larger tasks, who adapt swiftly to changed circumstances, and who are sensitively tuned in to the people around them.

The need for new political institutions exactly parallels our need for new family, educational, and corporate institutions as well.

The decisive struggle today is between those who try to prop up and preserve industrial society and those who are ready to advance beyond it.

Put differently, the most important political development of our time is the emergence in our midst of two basic camps, one committed to Second Wave civilization, the other to Third.  One is tenaciously dedicated to preserving the core institution of industrial mass society — the nuclear family, the mass education system, the giant corporations, the mass trade union, the centralized nation-state, and the politics of pseudorepresentative government.  The other recognizes that today’s most urgent problems, from energy, war, and poverty to ecological degradation and the breakdown of familial relationships, can no longer be solved within the framework of an industrial civilization.

The defenders of the Second Wave typically fight against minority power; they scoff at direct democracy as ‘populism’; they resist decentralization, regionalism, and diversity; they oppose efforts to de-massify the schools; they fight to preserve a backward energy system; they deify the nuclear family, pooh-pooh ecological concerns, preach traditional industrial-era nationalism, and oppose the move toward a fairer world economic order.

By contrast, the forces of the Third Wave favor a democracy of shared minority power; they are prepared to experiment with more direct democracy; they favor both transnationalism and a fundamental devolution of power.  They call for a crack-up of the giant bureaucracies.  They demand a renewable and less centralized energy system.  They want to legitimate options to the nuclear family.  They fight for less standardization, more individualization in the schools.  They place a high priority on environmental problems.  They recognize the necessity to restructure the world economy on a more balanced and just basis.