Sunday, July 09, 2006

The Future of Humanity - Isaac Asimov

Excerpts on learning and education from Isaac Asimov's lecture on The Future of Humanity, Newark College of Engineering, November 8, 1974

Well men have to learn the process, which is something we are adapted for, is pleasurable...unless the pleasure is beaten out of us in childhood...very carefully and very doggedly!!! Give mankind half a chance!! And learning is a delightful process that he will do all his lifelong! In fact people do do it. Even those who are most dead-set against book learning will learn things that they like; the best way to bowl, the latest baseball scores, who knows what! What they want to learn, they learn with great facility.

And the thing is in the 21st century, if we survive, we can imagine that our technological society will advance even further. There will be even more computerization and automation. The dull work of the world will be done by machines. Men and women themselves will be able to do the kind of work they want to do. Undoubtedly, some of them will want to be research scientists, or symphony conductors, or they will want to be great artists, or writers, who knows! There will be enough people who will want to be that, and there will be people who will want to learn how to bowl perfectly, or how to collect leaves, or how to build battleships out of toothpicks. What's the difference? Whatever it is you do that makes you happy, and adds to the joyousness of the world, is justified. And there will be room for everything. And in an extended life span, if say when you are forty, you decide to start all over again and study Greek, and become a big expert in Greek literature, who's to stop you? I foresee a 21st century in which the educational process will be organized so that every human being has a right to institutional help for education in any field he wishes, in any direction he wishes, at any age he wishes. Education and learning will be the name of the game.And when that happens, I'm sure it will be surprising how completely useful people can be throughout their lives, until actual physical senility hits.

I was asked a few days ago...really was, I'm not making this up...whether I didn't think an intellectual elite ought to run the world. And I said, by an intellectual elite, you mean people like me? Because I didn't know what he meant by an intellectual elite. I thought maybe it might mean people like him, in which case no!And he said: "Yes, people like you". And I said no, that would be no good because I'm only smart in certain ways, and very stupid in other ways. And if everybody was like me, and we were running the world, we'd all be smart in the same way, and all be stupid in the same way, and it's the stupidness that's going to kill us. I said, what we need are people of all kinds running the world! Some of whom are smart in one way, and some of whom are smart in the other way, and with everyone's smartness in different directions, so that they can sort of cancel out; so that everybody's stupidity can be caught by someone else's smartness in the same direction.

In the same way, that's what we want. The greatest...the greatest gift that mankind has is it's vast gene pool. All the different genes it has. All the different characteristics; the smart and the stupid, the strong and the weak. Because it's the variety that makes it possible for us to meet different emergencies, and what is weak under one set of conditions might be strong under another, what is stupid at one time is smart at another, and so on. We can't throw out anything for fear that that's exactly what we'll need someday.

The way I like to put it is, naturally we all think it's much better to be a brilliant nuclear physicist, than to just be a plumber. But, who would you rather live next door to, brilliant nuclear physicist or a plumber? And unless you're married to one, think: how often would you wake up in the middle of the night badly needing a nuclear physicist?

Science can be introduced to children well or poorly. If poorly, children can be turned away from science; they can develop a lifelong antipathy; they will be in a far worse condition than if they had never been introduced to science at all. - Isaac Asimov

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