Performing as a futurist–a self-styled predictor of the world of tomorrow–is a good gig. When one adopts the role of big-thinking visionary, he creates a safe and happy space for his ego. He positions himself as a forward thinker–a modern sophisticate–and perhaps more importantly, as one who knows something which you don’t.

Conveniently, there are double safeguards to a futurist’s prophecies. First, there’s the protective posture of an uncommon intellect: if you question his forecast of flying cars or settlements on Mars, it’s only because your smaller mind is limited by quotidian experience. More importantly, there’s no way in the present to prove the visionary wrong. In twenty years, long after the cocktail party, conference presentation, or IPO has ended, no one will remember to point out the inaccuracy of that jetpack prediction.

Adding drama and excitement to the visionary’s technique is the notion that things are going to change faster. (Here again, there can be a patronizing attitude towards the audience: Buckle up, rubes–you may not be able to handle what I see coming.)

Gerd Leonhard, a German, self-proclaimed futurist speaker “who spends his life traveling through worldwide meetings…on transformational change,” cautions his audiences about accelerating technologies and “what is at stake as we enter a world run by machines and algorithms.” “We’re at the pivot point of exponential technological change,” says one of his presentation slides. Leonhard expects linear-minded humans will struggle with this and be forced to “change more in the next twenty years than in the past 300 years.”

An image from futurist Gerd Leonhard’s website

Like Leonhard and other futurists on the speaking circuit, media outlets routinely report that big uphevals approach rapidly. Consider these typical recent headlines:

The World is About to Change Even Faster Having trouble keeping up? The pace of innovation and disruption is accelerating.” (Bloomberg)

Why is the World Changing So Fast? “There is certainly no chance of developments slowing down.” (Oxford University Press blog)

Global Trends: The World is Changing Faster Than at Any Time in Human History (Pearson presentation)

Meanwhile, the publishing industry also regularly cranks out utopic and dystopic forecasts about the incomprehensible changes which loom. The latest futurist fashion builds on artificial intelligence as it adds a little technical pretence for the popular vision of exponential acceleration. Thus, Moore’s law about the ineluctable doubling of chip capacity serves as a microcosm of the larger disruptions which will quicken apace. For example, consider these recent, dramatic book titles:

The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology

Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era

The Master Algorithm: How the Quest for the Ultimate Learning Machine Will Remake Our World

Beyond Digital: Six Exponential Revolutions That Will Change Our World

It sounds like a lot is going to happen to “our world,” and quickly. But what else is new?

Unfortunately, this big-change sensationalism also pervades commentary on higher education, and it brings with it the notion that schools must rapidly adpat to survive. Listen to any speech about education by a college or university president and you’ll likely hear comments about how unprecedented, accelerating developments in technology will require agile responses by academia to prepare the Workers of Tomorrow.

For a more specific example, consider a recent publication by the World Economic Forum, host of the annual Davos conference for the uber-elite. On the WEF’s website, the title of an article by Andrea Bandelli declares, “Education Can’t Keep Up With Our Fast-Moving World. Here’s What Needs to Change.”

Bandelli’s essay includes all the characteristics which are typical of big-disruption futurism. First, he begins with the assumption that there are “radical changes in our society.” He adds, “The skills needed to work today change so fast that no education system can keep up with the constant need to reinvent how we work and live together.”

He also introduces a buzzword for what’s coming: “The Fourth Industrial Revoution (4IR).” Also in typical fashion, he dazzles the reader with a glimpse of bizarre, future-is-now techno-magic, in this case involving a story about a “bio-printed defibrillating organ that can be implanted in the human body…built using parts from an electric eel.” Provocatively, he adds, “What if humans can give birth to a non-human species? Technically, it may soon be possible.”

With respect to education, Bandelli’s point is that traditional methods can’t keep up with all of this. He writes, “How do we plan for something we can’t predict? This is the challenge facing the education field today….It’s clear that following the traditional path of transferring skills by means of education isn’t working anymore.”

Accordingly, Bandelli makes the reasonable argument (shared by many others) that schools must now focus on developing soft skills and preparing students for constant, adaptive learning. He writes, “The solution lies in shifting the discourse from learning new skills to enabling the processes that create these skills.” Here, though, one must ask of Bandelli: is this situation really any different from any decade or generation before?

A presentation slide from Gerd Leonhard promoting the familiar theme of a faster, less stable future

Writing in The Atlantic, Jeffrey Selingo provides a less sensational and more thorough assessment of this challenge. Selingo has written thoughtfully about education for decades and should not be confused with a hype-generating futurist. However, in his essay on “The Third Education Revolution,” he does promote the idea that we’re in the midst of unusually broad disruption:

“The world of work is undergoing a massive shift. Not since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries and the Information Age that followed in the last century has the scale of disruption taking place in the workforce been so evident. An oft-cited 2013 study from the University of Oxford predicted that nearly half of American jobs—including real-estate brokers, insurance underwriters, and loan officers—were at risk of being taken over by computers within the next two decades. Just last fall, the McKinsey Global Institute released a report that estimated a third of American workers may have to change jobs by 2030 because of artificial intelligence.”

To his credit, Selingo does not suggest that this massive shift is completely unprecedented. Rather, he identifies two prior waves of big changes in American labor systems which led to corresponding adjustments in education. First, the “high school movement” of the early 1900’s broadened access to secondary education in response to “the changing needs of the economy.” Second came the “college for all” movement of the 1960’s which arose to meet the needs of a “changing workforce.”

With the upcoming, third education revolution which he predicts, Selingo anticipates that schools will further expand and offer perpetual learning, which will be necessary for workers to function successfully in a hyper-dynamic world. He writes, “The third wave is likely to be marked by continual training throughout a person’s lifetime—to keep current in a career, to learn how to complement rising levels of automation, and to gain skills for new work.” Of course, as Selingo notes, this concept raises questions of who provides this ongoing education and who pays for it.

In Part 2 of our analysis, we’ll assess the validity of the prevailing notion that we’re entering into a distinctive period of change. And, in Part 3, we’ll consider if schools have any hope of successfully responding to such a disruption, if it truly exists.