ASK Dr. Soedjatmoko about the most pressing need of the 21st century, and you get a direct answer. ``A poor man's learning system,'' he says. The outgoing rector of United Nations University - a 12-year-old research institute headquartered here and focused on global problems of human survival and economic development - is not talking about educating the underclass in Western democracies. He's concerned about the vast numbers of yet-to-be-born children in the less-developed countries.
With global population expected to double in the next century, he says, the poorer nations will not even have money enough to build classrooms - never mind hire teachers.
So the central question of education reform, he says, is: How do you educate without classrooms?
``What has become clear,'' says the former Indonesian public official, social scientist, publisher, and ambassador to the United States, who leaves United Nations University at the end of August, ``is that the methods that we use to impart education are too expensive. To hope that a simple replication of existing methods and hardware - classrooms, schools, and so forth - can keep up with the population increase is an illusion.''
``We are reaching the outer limits of what our school system can do,'' he added during an interview in his office, his back to the distant view of Mt. Fuji. ``We will have to look for new learning systems, new learning strategies that go beyond our basic concepts of education.''
The Harvard-educated Soedjatmoko - his one and only name, though his friends call him ``Koko'' - is well equipped to think about such new strategies. ``I consider Koko to be one of the most unusual world humanists that I know,'' says Clifton R. Wharton Jr., a specialist on Southeast Asian development and former chancellor of the State University of New York. He currently serves with Soedjatmoko on the board of the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies. ``He's an individual who grapples with fundamental issues,'' Dr. Wharton adds.
Where does Soedjatmoko see 21st-century education turning to solve these problems? To modern communications technologies - and principally to television. The challenge, he says, is that government-run television systems, which are common in developing nations, can be used in two ways: to ``centralize'' authority through the ``great manipulative power'' of the medium, or to liberate and educate entire populations.
Shifting television from the first to the second role, however, may not be easy. ``One of the problems is that many third-world countries have governments that are afraid of their own people,'' he says, ``and therefore are reluctant to give them the technology or to allow the technology to be used in a decentralized fashion.''
Nor has any nation made great strides in using television as a kind of open classroom - although many, like Niger, use educational TV and some have active satellite systems, like the one that links Indonesia's many islands. ``We have not even begun to mine the educational use of television or video as a learning tool,'' he says.
How will such learning benefit the world? Soedjatmoko casts the issue in two broad molds. The first concerns the need to make scientific knowledge more widely available to the developing nations - in order, for instance, to counteract the increasingly global effects of the destruction of the world's rain forests.
``Who destroys the forests, apart from the big logging corporations?'' he asks rhetorically. ``The poor, because they have no alternative. They know better. Ecological, environmental knowledge is a sort of common wisdom that is transmitted from generation to generation. But because of their dire needs, [the poor] simply have to stop thinking about long-term effects.''
The question, he says, is: ``How do we make scientific knowledge accessible to them? That is as important as making that kind of knowledge available to the decisionmakers - because they are the decisionmakers, in the end.''
The second mold concerns the need to deal with the growing numbers of youths carrying arms - in guerrilla armies, terrorist organizations, or private gangs. ``It's all very young people,'' he says. ``Now, what do you do? Give up on them?''
The problem, he says, is to find ways to reintegrate these young people, once the violence abates, into the fabric of society. ``What do you do with the people who have lived a large part of their life in camps? Just establish schools? It won't be enough.''
``As long as the violence is there, there's nothing you can do,'' he says. ``But afterward? Nobody's taking care of that problem. People speak about integrating them into new host countries, or rehabilitating them in their environment. But from what has happened to the inmates of camps in World War I and World War II - how deep, how long the trauma is!''
Can the current educational institutions cope with problems such as these? Soedjatmoko worries that teachers are ``entranced by their own problems - legitimate problems of protection [and of] the avalanche of knowledge.'' That, he says, produces ``understandable reasons for the rigidities, for the defensiveness, of so many [teachers].''
Of one thing he is sure: The need for worldwide educational reform won't be met by education ministers applying a few new programs. The problems, he feels, run much deeper.
``The need in the world now,'' he notes, ``is for a university to be an open university in various regions of the world - broadcasting the material over the heads of obsolete universities to a hungry, rising middle class [and] to a needy peasantry.''
One difficulty he finds in many developing countries, however, is the heightened sense of nationalism - and the consequent suspicion of any trans-border broadcasts and data transfers.
``I think it's important to realize that many nations of the third world are new nations,'' he says. ``The state is an instrument for their defense - the defense of their identity. However poor, however corrupt, however weak, it is their major negotiating instrument with the rest of the world.''
``At the same time, if you look at Europe, countries are transcending national boundaries. They are beginning to think ... in terms of larger social units than the nation-state. The third world hasn't reached that point - but their concerns are no less legitimate as a result.''
``So there won't be any universal answers. There is not going to be one center that broadcasts all the knowledge that there is. You have to work with local units.''
The resulting progress, he notes, will be slow. ``We're just beginning to get the sense of the problem,'' he says. ``So I can only state the problem to you. I cannot come up with clear answers.''