Education for a New Era

President Charles M. Vest's remarks on the occasion of the award of the Queen's Anniversary Prizes for Higher and Further Education, London, England, 14 February, 2001. The other main speaker at this occasion was Lord Simpson, Chief Executive of Marconi plc.

© Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2005. To reprint or excerpt for publication, please contact Laura Mersky at
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I grew up in the years following World War II, in the state of West Virginia. It remains one of the more isolated and less affluent regions of the United States. Needless to say, my experience of the wider world was very limited.

But following up on one of my father’s passions, I spent many hours of my boyhood glued to our short-wave radio. One sound is still imprinted in my mind, wafting through the ether, amidst static and whistles: the unmistakable chiming of Big Ben, the signature of the BBC Overseas Service. For me as a boy, the sound of Big Ben represented everything that was alluring and important about the outside world. And no one – no one – ever sounded wiser or more certain than the announcers of the BBC.

If you can picture me then, you will appreciate what a privilege it is for me to be here in London this evening, together with my wife Becky, at this grand gathering of educators in the historic Guildhall. It also is humbling to be asked to share some thoughts about the future, from my vantage point as an American academic, with such a distinguished assembly.

What a different world our students face today. A world with thousands of authorities, and therefore none. A world defined by limitless access to truly vast amounts of information. A world in which absolutely everything is uncertain and exciting and urgent.

So here is our great challenge as educators: How must we adapt and evolve – now, and twenty years from now – to prepare our young men and women to thrive in the coming reality? In effect, how do we make ourselves effective tour guides for a world we have never experienced ourselves?

Honestly, I wish I knew! But I do have a fair idea of some of the most critical fields of inquiry that we will explore over the next fifty years, and some sense of the consequences for education. Let me begin with just three areas that will likely revolutionize our thinking and our lives. They are the vast challenge of environmental sustainability, the study of the human mind and brain, and the advent of nanotechnologies.


Take the whole question of "sustainability" – a distressingly indefinable term attached to a field with dreadfully concrete consequences.

The world will need to double energy production by the year 2050 – at a minimum. Limiting the increase in greenhouse gases will require massive cuts in CO2 emissions and in our reliance on dwindling supplies of fossil fuels. And that only begins the painful list of ballooning human need – from food to housing, water to waste disposal, transportation to Internet access, livable cities to sustainable industry.

How to respond? Personally, I’m skeptical of our ability – as individuals or nations – to swear off the comforts of the developed world. But I believe new technologies can lead to some real answers – from dramatically cleaner running cars to genetically engineered strains of highly productive, disease-resistant rice, a staple for 3.5 billion people worldwide.

But above all, we need to understand the problem of ensuring a "sustainable" future as a scientific and entrepreneurial opportunity – not as the permanent enemy of economic growth. Real progress is possible – if scientists, economists, politicians, and business leaders seek the solutions together.


Now, let’s zoom in from the planetary perspective to look at something very familiar but eternally mysterious: the human brain. How does the human mind exist within the brain? How do we learn? How do we remember – and why do we forget?

Until now, answers to questions like these could be no more than an educated guess. But thanks to an important new technology called Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, for the first time in history we can actually observe the brain at work, from the inside, in extraordinary detail, in real time.

With these and other tools in our pack, we are embarking on the great scientific adventure of this century – one that has tremendous medical, philosophical, and even economic consequences. We should expect dramatic new treatments for disorders like depression, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer’s disease. And as educators, we should prepare ourselves for unexpected new insights into how we learn – and how we ought to teach.


And finally – a field that focuses on objects nearly as hard to see as human thought.

In 1959, the great physicist Richard Feynman wrote an article that analyzed how little energy computers might use if they could be constructed by working with individual atoms. In this century, Feynman’s flight of fancy will come true.

Working together, chemists, physicists, engineers, and materials scientists have already developed new microscopes that allow us to observe atoms and molecules – and they have built new laser tweezers or fingers that allow us to manipulate them. Using these tools, we can already create unique materials and structures. In coming decades, we will begin to build tiny nanomachines.

We may well build computers with a thousand-fold increase in power but that draw only a millionth the amount of electricity. Or we may develop materials far stronger than steel but with only ten percent the weight, or sensors that can detect tumors when they are only clusters of a few cells. Some believe that the ramifications of the emerging nanotechnology portend an entirely new industrial revolution.


Now – I’ve drawn your attention to three distinctly different fields. But they have some important qualities in common – qualities that have everything to do with how you and I should respond strategically as educators. Each of these fields promises dazzling breakthroughs for the next generation.

But those breakthroughs will only come if we are preparing our students to work at the highest levels of complexity, and across every traditional boundary – between academic disciplines; between academia, industry, and government; and between nations and peoples around the globe.

And as we try to keep up with the demands of a knowledge-based economy, we need a workforce prepared to meet those challenges – men and women with the necessary technical skills and the ability to keep refining them. In this regard, we must be sure that our institutions of further education are addressing job preparation to meet the needs of the future, not the past. Their leadership in this regard will be crucial.

Which brings me to perhaps the supreme emblem of this new complex, interdisciplinary, global reality – the Internet.

Will the use of the Internet and other information technologies play a major role in the education of coming generations? I believe the answer is unequivocally yes.

Will those same technologies do for the residential university what jet travel did to the ocean liner – transform it into a quaint and irrelevant luxury? I believe the answer to that question is unequivocally no – though believe me, as president of a residential university, the thought has crossed my mind.

The truth is that the Internet and the whole burgeoning family of new educational technologies will be like the telephone – powerful . . . exciting . . . transformative. But more than 100 years after the birth of the telephone, it is still true that there’s nothing like a conversation face to face. And it’s still true that there’s nothing like the magic of learning your way around a laboratory – or a poem, or an economic theory – side by side with a gifted and enthusiastic teacher, in the company of talented fellow students.

Technology for education is in its infancy. Yet some things are already clear. We are able to use brief, targeted, electronic "packages" of information to help people routinely upgrade their skills and knowledge, and prepare for career changes. Tutorial tools and simulation-based learning make many subjects dramatically easier to master. And in time, machine language translation will sharply enhance our ability to share our educational blessings with a much broader segment of humankind.

Web technology will also make it possible for colleges and universities to share their libraries and faculty with other institutions around the world – allowing scholars and students everywhere to shape their own courses of inquiry and pursue the very limits of their curiosity. The Web will also make it possible to deliver the basics of a traditional lecture-style education to literally millions of people, for a fraction of the cost.

All of this is good news. But as educators, we need to demand more from the new educational technologies than just faster or more convenient ways to do what we already do. We need to use these new technologies to transform the experience of learning – making it possible, for instance, for a thousand students to "handle" an original manuscript by Darwin, to hear their own compositions played by an "orchestra", to "experience" zero gravity travel in space – and to do countless other things we only dream of.

In this kaleidoscopic, interdependent, global world, none of us will be leaders if we try to lead alone. Research universities and those of you involved in the increasingly important work of further education share a common mission: to prepare our young people to live and work in an increasingly complex and challenging world. None of us could have a higher calling.

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