Fifteen years ago futurist Alvin Toffler was already calling the country's education system a ''hopeless anachronism.'' Since then, he says, little has changed. But that does not surprise him.
Mr. Toffler - whose name became a household word with publication in 1970 of ''Future Shock'' - says experience has taught him that, when it comes to monopolies, meaningful reform is not easily accomplished.
''What we see going on now, with all the talk about education reform, is not restructuring - it's just some premonitory rumbles,'' he says. ''It's a classic response to a need for fundamental change - the initial tendency is to work the old system harder.''
Seated comfortably in his brown-and-white, spotlighted Madison Avenue offices , Toffler explains that he learned this while acting as a consultant to AT&T in the late '60s and early '70s. His pokings into the nooks and crannies of the telephone giant, set against the changes he saw coming in the world, told him that his client was going to have to break up.
He told AT&T as much in a report, but ''they hated it. It was absolute blasphemy.'' (Fifteen years later, that report has been published in book form, ''The Adaptable Corporation.'' As for Toffler's prediction, that is now history). What he learned, he says, is that ''no monopoly breaks up easily. I suspect the same will hold true for education.''
Toffler readily admits that he is not an expert on education. But he says that, as one who works to understand the direction our civilization is taking, he must keep a keen eye on three sectors that influence our lives most - the family, the corporation (or employment), and education.
The first two of these have evolved and continue to evolve to meet people's needs, as society changes, he says: The family is alive, but no longer confined to the two-parent, multi-child model; and business continues to diversify, with small companies providing much of the sector's innovation and prosperity. But the schools, he adds, remain largely a monolith, with little diversity of method and expression.
''Right now schools discourage adaptability and creativity,'' Toffler says. ''Schools convey the idea that creativity is something that artists and ballerinas have. But those are the qualities that all children are going to need to keep up in a rapidly changing society.''
The Toffler office-apartment is an appropriate setting for this discussion. The living arrangement reflects the fledgling return of work to the home, a trend futurists such as Toffler say will accelerate as home computers are tied into the office and as consumers seek more ''home grown'' products, such as hand-knits and jewelry. In the sleek white bookcase that serves as a backdrop to the conversation, a striking number of books have glossy jackets displaying digital- or computer-style print used to connote things future.
Mr. Toffler says the country's ''factorylike schools'' fulfilled the task of preparing students for a productive life in industrial America. The problem is that America is fast leaving the industrial era. It's time, he says, that schools prepared the nation's youth for the post-industrial period we are entering.
''Mass schooling was a brilliant innovation,'' he says. ''It accurately pre-adapted children to the world they were going to be in. It was mass education for a mass society.''
But now, he says, new technologies have reversed the cost of diversity. The United States is ''de-massifying,'' in everything from the media and business to consumer choices - and the schools, he insists, must follow suit.
At this point Toffler's wife, Heidi, enters the room and the conversation. And, as the two Tofflers begin their verbal rally, it provides a glimpse of how the creative-thinking process works in the Toffler home. It's a bit like watching a heated tennis match from front row, center.
''Ours is a marriage of two radically different minds,'' says Mr. Toffler. ''We've been bantering like this for 35 years. It's not polite; it's rough-and-tumble . . . .'' He has not completed his sentence when Mrs. Toffler comments: ''We argue all the time, but basically, Al needs to know the big picture, while I build from the bottom up. I have to fight for my ideas, which helps me formulate them better.''
Viewing what is clearly an equal match, the observer is not surprised to discover that Heidi Toffler has been a collaborator in her husband's work since ''Future Shock.'' But, because she spent a good part of her time raising their daughter, she always resisted joint crediting for the Toffler work. That will change, however, with the book on authority in the US that the couple is now researching. Says Mr. Toffler, ''I finally talked her into a co-byline.''
On the way to a seminar on education at Columbia University, Heidi Toffler has the BMW's passenger light on, as she pores over articles she has clipped on education.
''I find it amusing that the Japanese school system is so often given as an example of where we should be going,'' she says. ''You know, they adopted our system after World War II and honed it to perfection.'' By that, she says she means the rigid structure, lack of experimentation, and the learning by rote.
''But if there's anything our trips to Japan have shown me, it's that they are dissatisfied with the results,'' she adds. ''It's a school system that does not produce thinking people, creative people. And that's exactly the conclusion the Japanese have come to.''
At the seminar, the Tofflers outline their view of the country's ''anachronistic'' education system. Mr. Toffler then makes it clear that he very much favors a public school system - but one that allows for more variety and individual attention, and inculcates the ability to discern and adapt. Still, he says he expects alternative schools - from parochial to other private ones - to prosper, as parents' dissatisfaction with ''mass education'' continues.
Noting that as much as 10 percent of some products' cost is the result of industry training, Toffler says he expects a growth in business spending on in-house education to continue - especially if the schools' product remains unsatisfactory.
The seminar, titled ''Innovations in Education,'' has been a part of Columbia for the past 12 years. Each month it attracts perhaps 25 educators, mostly from colleges and universities, to discuss some aspect of education with a speaker. On this night, a number of the participants appear dubious of what the Tofflers have to say.
One says he doesn't see much chance that schools, just now entering a phase of more rigid standards after the looser '60s and '70s, will embrace the kind of experimentation and diversity the Tofflers advocate. Another says there is no indication that there is a need in our economy for more than ''5 or 8 or 10 percent creative people.'' Still another says he is concerned that the Tofflers seem to be advocating an education system whose goal is to meet the needs of business and industry.
Regardless of who is right, it is evidently not lost on the Tofflers that their audience is largely from the education community they fault for not evolving with the rest of society.
Mr. Toffler says he thinks some of the most promising innovation in education is going on in business and the military, but adds that educators ''have a tendency to be dismissive about the education that goes on outside of the schools.
''Why is it that education puts so little into R&D (research and development)?'' he asks. ''No other living industry could do that and survive.'' His question is answered by Mrs. Toffler, who says, ''The assumption is that they (educators) know what they want . . . . (They're) making assumptions about the kind of society we're going toward 10 to 20 years down the line, but the assumptions are wrong.''
For both Tofflers, one direction to consider is ''a much closer communication net'' between schools, business, and the military. Not that they are interested in ''promoting the military,'' or want an education system that ''responds to the latest knee jerk of business.'' But according to Alvin Toffler, the university community does not have the monopoly on knowledge and creativity that it sometimes believes it has.