What the 10,000 Year Clock Can Teach Us about Planning for the Future of Education

by Staff Writers

A recent Education Week article, In Education, Don't Sacrifice the Longview in the Heat of the Now, by Steve Berlin, the Senior Communications manager of the National Association of State Boards of Education, about the conflict between the right now urgency of politics and the long-range planning necessary to make education a success, got me thinking about a project that I had heard about some time ago – The 10,000 Year Clock. This TED talk by one of the Long Now Foundation innovators Stewart Brand explains the Long Now movement and the 10,000 Year Clock:

To put things in perspective, Pulitzer Prize winning author Michael Chabon, in a 2006 article on the Long Now points out that the 10,000 year timeframe of the clock is equivalent to the time from the first people's use of pottery until now. The sheer volume of time alone would indicate that the world will be a dramatically different place in 10,000 years, but the rapidly accelerating pace of technological innovation will make those changes even more dramatic than the ones that have occurred in the last 10,000 years. Given the advances that are likely, what would a long range plan for the future of education look like? Here's a guess based on the design specifications behind the 10,000 Year Clock.


Education is a fundamental component of human existence. Without education in all its many splendored incarnations there would be no learning and we would quickly relinquish our place as the dominant life form on the planet. Education in some form will endure regardless of what politicians do or say, how much funding is cut, or whether people value it or not. A long range plan for the future of education must include both a clear understanding of the centrality and enduring nature of education and a willful intention to support and promote it to ensure the survival of the species and the planet. Education should be the central pillar of our society over the next 10,000 years and will need to be if we are to survive. It should be elevated to a position of prominence as the key to our sustained success. Pushing education to the center of our society would give it the staying power to last as long as human society does.

The 10,000 year clock derives the power needed to run by harvesting energy from the sun and from those who visit it. One of the biggest problems with the current state of education is finding the "energy" to fund it. Because of its status as a societal burden, rather than a benefit or even a necessity, there is a constant battle to provide sufficient money to make the system into the most effective and efficient one it can be. A long-term plan for education will require that it be either self-funding, self-sustaining (requiring no funding in order to function), or funded in perpetuity.

In order to survive for the next 10,000 years, education is going to have to evolve to meet the changing needs of society and to overcome obstacles that will arise to prevent its continued existence. As a key example, education is currently facing such a challenge as the short-term necessity of are in direct opposition to a long-range plan for advancing education. The guiding principles of the Long Now Foundation offer some insights about how education can be evolutionary.

  • Serve the long view – Even though in-the-moment necessities might arise that seem like they require dramatic changes, such as radical budget cuts, closing of schools, bussing, etc., maintaining a focus on the long-term goals and survival of the institution might require making cuts in other areas so as to preserve the integrity of an institution that we intend to last in perpetuity.
  • Foster responsibility – Education is a core social institution and all members of society need to be made aware of that fact and be encouraged to take responsibility for ensuring the survival of it. This responsibility extends not only to supporting and funding education, but also to creating a culture in which learning is a key value.
  • Reward patience – The constant clambering for educational reform and perceived urgent need to do something "right now" work against maintaining a long-term trajectory for the growth and evolution of education. What educators need to do is to make the overall plan for education transparent to outsiders and to reward patience on the part of society by touting positive results in students. Those rewards can only come if society is initially supportive and patient and allows education to succeed.
  • Mind mythic depth – Education is a part of the human culture and efforts should be made to ensure that it stays that way. Looking reflectively, but critically back at our collective past can reveal much about methods that work and that do not work in education and can help guide us in determining how best to move education into the future.
  • Ally with competition – We are all ultimately in the same boat when it comes to the survival of education and humanity. Millennia from now our current political parties and their bickering over how much funding education gets will not matter. Partisan differences, prejudice, and the "me-first" attitude that pervades our society must be replaced with a long view which accounts for the whole of humanity, not just individuals or small group. Without a concerted effort to ensure the survival of the institution, neither it nor our society will survive.
  • Take no sides – There really are no sides to take in a discussion of the long-term future of education. There can be no "for" or "against" it. It is a part of who we are and a necessity for our survival. Without learning and education we can be assured of a relatively short dominion over this planet.
  • Leverage longevity – The very idea of long-range planning for education needs to be made central to the current discussion of the institution. Leveraging the idea of preserving, nurturing, and improving education as the one plan to preserve our society into the distant future is critical. Politicians do not want to hear about the future, preferring to focus on the now, so it is our job to make the future the focus of the conversation.

"The point of the Clock is to revive and restore the whole idea of the Future, to get us thinking about the Future again, to the degree if not in quite the same way that we used to do, and to reintroduce the notion that we don't just bequeath the future—though we do, whether we think about it or not. We also, in the very broadest sense of the first person plural pronoun, inherit it." (Michael Chabon, 2006)

Writing this post feels largely like writing a work of science fiction. I keep thinking of the Eloi and the Morlocks from H.G. Wells; The Time Machine (1895). That book, and the 1960 film adaptation, offer one view of what the future of humanity may be like. You have to wonder if the future of the Eloi and Morlocks would have been different if there had been a long-term plan for education in place. Let's make sure that we don't end up like either the naïve cattle Eloi or the cannibalistic Morlocks by starting to plan to educate humanity for the "Long Now."

(MGM, 1960)

Contribute your view of the "Long Now" of education on Twitter @drjwmarquis and on Google+