Retooling the Mind

The continuing explosion of new knowledge is so basic to our entire economic life that “ it is upsetting many of the traditional relationships in our social system,”says NEIL W. CHAMBERLAIN, professor of economics at Yale. In the article which follows, Professor Chamberlain suggests methods whereby education may become a lifetime process.


ON OUR home front we have been preoccupied for some time with problems of jobs and job security, automation, and unemployment. The issues which dominate our thinking relate to the impact of income, unemployment, health, education, and age on a person’s place in his culture. But only in the last few years has there come a growing recognition that many of these problem areas cannot be set right by legislative action touching on them directly, or by private initiative on the part of managements or unions, acting either independently or jointly. These can help, but they cannot cure.

The fundamental change which has taken place in our culture is a speeding up of the rate of accumulation of knowledge, an acceleration so much in excess of what we have been accustomed to that it is imposing unexpected strains. The number of people receiving higher education has increased enormously, and more of them are devoting their time to the pursuit of new knowledge, financed by ever growing sums from public and private treasuries. The productivity of the knowledge-makers is being augmented by better-organized and betterequipped facilities in an expanding number of specialized research units and institutions. The stream of new knowledge has swelled into a flood, but we act as though the environment had not changed at all.

The most spectacular developments have occurred in engineering and the physical sciences, but these are only indicative of what has been going on in all fields. Gordon Brown of the M.I.T. School of Engineering has pointed out that an engineer taking his undergraduate degree in the years prior to 1950 would have had at best only a slight brush with nuclear physics and engineering, feedback control and inertial guidance, information theory, computer technology and its applications, solid-state physics and electronics, plasma physics, and half a dozen other subject areas which have joined older subject matters or displaced them in importance. Yet a high proportion of our practicing engineers date from that pre-1950 period.

A. C. Monteith, an official of Westinghouse Corporation, has picturesquely described the consequence of such rapid growth of new knowledge by saying that a graduate engineer now has a halflife of about ten years. That is, about half of what he has learned will be obsolete in a decade. Monteith adds that half of what that same engineer will need to know ten years from now is not available to him today. Modify the proportions however you will, depending on the field, and the general conclusion remains the same.

The most immediate impact is felt in the professions. The older a man grows the less professionally adequate he becomes. For a period, perhaps an extended period, he may compensate for this obsolescence of his professional capital by the experience he acquires on his job. As a specialized researcher in a laboratory, he may come to knowmore and more about his subject. As an administrator, he may acquire skills in dealing with other professionals. As a teacher, he may develop competence in imparting knowledge to students. But the odds are yearly becoming greater that at some point in his career, while he is still in his prime, the subject he has researched, or the functions which he administers, or the body of knowledge he has to teach will have changed so greatly that his lack of current professional competence will stand revealed.

The new knowledge will be in the possession of a younger man who will have just come through a period of instruction that had winnowed out the older, less useful knowledge and substituted for it the new, more relevant knowledge. And then that younger man, once on a job, will himself begin the process of professional deterioration.

It has been reliably reported that one large corporation, whose name is a household word, has concluded that because the knowledge which will be important to its profitability, and indeed its continuity, is of ever younger vintage, promotions will no longer go to men past forty.

The same phenomenon is evident in the skilled manual trades. To exaggerate only slightly, it is highly unlikely that the tool-and-die maker completing his apprenticeship today will ever again possess as much relevant knowledge as he has now. The exaggeration can be wholly removed by saying that at some point early in his career his competence to deal with the new and developing technologies will be subject to steady erosion.

When labor leaders in their search for the cause of persisting unemployment point the accusing finger at automation, they are attacking only one aspect of a much more general phenomenon — the rate of knowledge accumulation and application. And when they concentrate their fire on the unemployment aspects of this phenomenon, they are distracting our attention from a more pervasive problem — the steady downgrading of the occupational competence of all who are employed.

The younger the age-group, the better its education, both in terms of the number of years of schooling and the currency of its knowledge. But as long as the younger contingent cannot fill all the positions which need filling, there will be need for older workers even if less well trained. The fact that older people are comparatively at a disadvantage does not mean that their services can be dispensed with. But two considerations reduce the soothing effect of this assurance. First, the more demanding assignments, the strategic positions and responsibilities, will inevitably go to those with the relevant knowledge. And second, the sense of personal frustration of older individuals who are pushed aside cannot be compensated by higher pay or the guarantee of some job.

Thus the effects of automation, whether unemployment or downgrading, are not a result of misguided managerial zeal in wresting the last dollar of profit from a business; they are aspects of a larger social phenomenon in which the manager, no less than his employees, is caught up. As long as we treat the threat of automation as something to be met by reduced work weeks, or longer vacation periods, or accelerated retirement, or more aggregate spending, we are refusing to recognize the real nature of the problem. The “explosion of knowledge,” as it has sometimes been dubbed, is so fundamental that it is upsetting many of the traditional relationships in our social system; the relationship of the young to the mature, of a man to his job, of experience to knowledge, of acquired education to achievement, of hierarchical position to functional authority.

IT TAKES no special insight to spotlight our educational processes and philosophy as the major cause of the sputter in our social engine. We are still operating as though a person can acquire in the first twenty years or so of his life all the formal education he needs to keep him on an ascendingcareer line through the remaining forty years or so of his working life. But the fact is that the clock starts running down the moment a young man or woman steps from the commencement platform. be it college or high school.

This obsolescence is not confined to professional or white-collar workers. The view still prevails, particularly among the rank and file of manual workers, that a brief period of breaking in is all that is required to warrant a promotion once one has climbed far enough up the seniority ladder. At least that had been the view until automation appeared on the scene, making whole processes and plants obsolete and giving sudden currency to that overworked word “retraining.”

It has now become an article of faith among manpower specialists that there is no place in the modern world for the uneducated and the untrained. But there is only a tenuous difference between the uneducated and the undereducated, the untrained and the undertrained, and once we admit that in most occupations knowledge runs ahead of the pace at which a worker can keep up with it, we are driven to find some means of providing for our continuing education throughout our lives.

The forms which continuing education might take are several. If we were to move rapidly to mobilize all our educational resources, including teachers and facilities now involved in adult education, military training, and industry-sponsored instruction, we could effectively capitalize on the drive for reduced hours of work. If we were to assume a normal work week of forty hours, we could explore the feasibility of a partially subsidized movement to thirty-two hours of work coupled with eight hours of instruction. We could preserve the concept of forty committed hours every week but make variable the division between work and education. People would continue to be paid for forty hours, but with rising productivity we would find it feasible to channel an increasing proportion of working time into learning programs. By this device we could develop a sense of continuing obligation to learn on the part of our total work force much more readily than if, with hours already bargained down to thirty-two a week, we were to try to induce employees voluntarily to spend eight additional hours in the classroom.

At the same time, we could encourage a much wider use of educational leaves of varying duration. We might allow a person to renew his formal education repeatedly, perhaps at intervals of three to five years. Just as a person now accumulates weeks of potential unemployment benefits by weeks of actual work, so might he accumulate years of potential educational benefits in ratio to his years of employment. Special degrees might even be created to encourage a return to the classroom. Some combination of public and private support for such a program could be as readily worked out in education as it has been in retirement, health, accident compensation, and unemployment.

This kind of repeated formal discipline of continuing education would be especially valuable to our teaching corps. The teacher at age forty or fifty usually suffers the same kind of obsolescence of knowledge as any other professional person. If we are to disseminate more rapidly the fruits of new knowledge, we should do our best to ensure that not only the younger instructors are adequately equipped. Academic tenure gives teachers the freedom to voice heretical ideas and challenges to traditional thinking, secure against loss of their jobs. But if our teachers are to be given lifetime tenure, do they not have an obligation of lifetime updating of the instruction which they pass along to our youth?

In addition to the sabbatical leave for purposes of research, which itself is far from universal even in the universities, we should make it possible for teachers to return as students to the classrooms and laboratories of those in their profession who are breaking the new ground. Surely a year off at full salary at least once in every seven — though there is no magic in that religiously inspired number is a reasonable price for both society and the teacher to pay for the maintenance of high standards of instruction.

But even if such programs are established, geared to the needs of people in all walks of life and on all sorts of schedules, will we as a nation willingly accept such a lifetime commitment to learning? Absorption of knowledge is sufficiently demanding for many people to find it distasteful. We have the problem of the dropouts with us now, dropouts at age sixteen or after grade eight. If we talk of formal lifetime education in any literal sense, will not the dropout rate approach almost 100 percent as one person after another, at some age level, gives up the struggle to extend the reach of his mind? The dreamers may conjure up utopias where all men are philosophers, but if one is talking of twentieth-century United States, let us face it — learning is hard work.

That argument serves only to underscore the extent of our problem. Education is hard, but within the lifetime of many of us our society has moved from a philosophy that college education is the luxury of the few to the belief that it is a necessity for the many. Many children who today debate not whether they will go to college but which college they will attend or which will admit them have parents who in their day would scarcely have given college a serious thought. We are currently in the process of extending still further that mass sense of the need for advanced education, as the swelling enrollments in our graduate and professional schools bear witness. A longer educational expectancy has become normal!

In the same way the notion of a lifetime of education can become the sort of thing which is expected of people in our kind of culture. How quickly such an expectancy can be developed will depend in part on the opportunities which we create for those who wish to pursue the learning process further, and in part on the effect of success, or lack of success, in career terms.

The still prevalent fear that lengthy leaves threaten a person’s career advancement is already losing its cogency. It is not the interruption of additional study that would threaten a person’s achievement so much as the lack of relevant knowledge and capacity to deal with new developments. If occasional leaves could be provided for prolonged periods of formal instruction on paid scholarship — perhaps of a year or more, as often as once every three to five years for those who wanted and could profit from such intensive doses we could make great strides toward keeping up to date the stock of working knowledge of our people.

Those who might be worried over whether our society could afford such stepped-up programs of popular education might reflect on the fact that the expenditures for it would be a form of investment, increasing the productivity of our people. Thus the cost would be, in a sense &emdah; perhaps unmeasurable but nonetheless real —self-liquidating.

To be sure, there would always remain some members of our society who would lack the stamina or capacity to meet the discipline of a lifetime of study. It would be no easy task to create a nation of intellectual Spartans. But the possibility that some may fall by the wayside should not deter the rest from reaping the benefits.