by Daniel McCool

Learning Vision

Throughout history there has been a fairly sharp distinction between those who look to the past as a model for the future and those who have, in today's parlance, "vision" – that indefinable mix of imagination, boldness, prescience, and knowledge. When leaders are without vision, they cannot perceive of a future different from the past. This is often accompanied by a singular kind of hubris that assumes the present generation has somehow achieved an apex in thinking. For example, in 1899, Charles Duell, the Commissioner of the U.S. Office of Patents, declared confidently that "everything that can be invented has been invented." In 1952, a successful businessman, enamored with nuclear technology, predicted that "nuclear-powered vacuum cleaners will probably be a reality within ten years."

How does one avoid such thinking and instead develop "vision"? The first step is to develop an understanding of the world and what we know about it. Ironically, in this Age of Information, this is getting increasingly difficult; we suffer from an embarrassment of information riches. In centuries past, it took scholars and researchers hundreds of years to double the total accumulated knowledge of humankind; each doubling period consumed numerous generations. But the contemporary rate of knowledge creation has reduced this doubling period to about three years; by 2001 humankind will have twice as much knowledge as it has today. Thus, knowledge is being created at a rate faster than we can absorb it; by the time you finish reading this, you will be more ignorant, relatively speaking, than when you began, because more knowledge was created than you absorbed during that period.

Who will lead us through these mountains of data, this great forest of words, this ocean of ideas? Who will develop systems of organization that allow us to select only the new knowledge we need? In the past, knowledge creation was the biggest challenge; today it is knowledge systemization (see "Hardwired," pg. 22). This requires new ways of thinking, new organizations, new forms of analysis, and – perhaps the toughest job of all – an understanding of how it all fits together. In a word, it requires vision, and this in turn requires a propensity for change and innovation. Author Charles Handy offers a positive view of this process: "Change, however, does not have to be forced on us by crises or calamity. We can do it for ourselves . . .changing is . . . only another word for learning." Peter Senge, in his path-breaking book, The Fifth Discipline, focuses on the relationship between learning and vision: "Building shared vision fosters a commitment to the long term. Mental models focus on the openness needed to overcome shortcomings in our present ways of seeing the world."

The impact of vision and learning on the economy has become one of the great landmark trends in contemporary society. In recent years the labor market has evolved into a two-tiered system. American society is being separated into two classes: those who know how to manage and utilize all this new information, and those who are being bypassed by it. What we might call the "knowledge class" is well educated, well paid, and in high demand. Those left behind in this learning process form a pool of low-skilled labor at a time when demand for such labor is falling drastically. The bad news is that these low-skilled workers face a life of low-paying jobs with little or no job security, job satisfaction, or status. The good news is that each individual is free to choose to pursue an education in order to avoid living under such conditions.

This brings us to the role of a university in contemporary society. As President Machen stated at his recent installation, a university is not merely a job-training facility; its role is much larger than that. The great task for the University is to create a learning atmosphere where minds can grow; where people are free to conceive the inconceivable; to turn the unheard-of into the commonplace; to turn problems into opportunities. In short, the University should be a place to develop vision. This learning environment does more than merely enhance employment prospects. Ultimately it will help create individuals who, by using their new-found abilities, will give more to society than they take, and develop an understanding of how to keep both an economy and a government free and independent.

– Daniel McCool is a professor of political science and director of the American West Center at the University of Utah. He is the author of numerous books and articles on natural resource management and water rights, and recently completed a book with his students titled, Contested Landscape: The Politics of Wilderness in Utah and the West. (University of Utah Press, forthcoming.)

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