Coping at the Crossroads: Societal and Educational Transformation in the
Glenn E. Baker
Richard A. Boser
Daniel L. Householder
As the nature of a workforce changes over time, one
broadly-defined group of workers diminishes in numbers
while another group increases in numbers. For example,
during the period 1890-1910, the major proportion of the
workforce in the United States shifted from agriculture to
industrial production (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1975).
Figure 1 presents the concept. Relentless technological
developments gave rise to new job classifications and to
increased employment opportunities in industrial
production. At the same time, technological developments
diminished employment opportunities in another field, in
this case, agriculture. Over the long term, then, one
might expect that demand for groups of occupations will
increase over time, but will be expected to decline when
that employment sector is eclipsed by yet another
employment sector, driven by a new technological wave.
The intersection of the two curves charting the demand
for agricultural occupations and industrial occupations
occurred during a time of rapid societal change, which was,
in turn, a significant impetus for major educational
change. Moreover, because these times of change have
historical precedents, they may have a relatively high
degree of predictability. Indeed, Toffler (1990) suggested
that recent events are shaped by "distinct patterns . . .
[and] identifiable forces" that once understood allow us to
"cope strategically, rather than haphazardly . . ." (p.
To explore the hypothesis that educational ferment is
a naturally occurring phenomena at the juncture of
technological ages, selected economic transition points
will be juxtaposed with developments in the evolving field
of technology education. From this perspective, the
recently-recognized shift in employment patterns from
manufacturing-based employment to information-based
employment has influenced the shift from an industrial
materials content base to a technology systems base in
contemporary technology education programs.
FIGURE 1. Labor force transition and educational reform.
PACE OF CHANGE
Zias (1976) argued that practitioners need a
comprehensive historical understanding of an educational
field in order to confront contemporary problems
realistically. Without the underpinnings of a strong
historical perspective, educators may confront the present
with the naive belief that no previous situation has been
characterized by such rapid and sweeping change. However,
since the onset of the industrial revolution, rapid
technological change has been characteristic rather than
unique. Way (1964) noted that:
Change has always been a part of the human condition.
What is different now is the pace of change, and the
prospect that it will come faster and faster, affecting
every part of life including personal values, morality,
and religion, which seem almost remote from technology
. . . So swift is the acceleration, that trying to
'make sense' of change will become our basic industry.
It appears that Way's prediction has already been realized.
Snyder's (1987) interpretation of the composition of the
U.S. workforce places more than 50% of the labor force now
as information workers. The task of making sense of change
has become a basic requirement of everyday life.
WAVE THEORY AS AN EXPLANATION OF THE CHANGE PROCESS
The explanation of social change and the prediction of
likely future change through applications of wave theory is
not new. Toffler (1970, 1980, 1990) has written extensively
about the three great waves that have transformed human
society: agricultural; industrial; and post-industrial, or
information. In a contemporary analysis of economic
activity, Van Duijn (1983) compared the economic wave cycle
theories of Mensch, Jantsch and others. This seminal work
condensed the thoughts of many theorists in many languages
and emphasized the influence of technological innovation on
economic and industrial growth and decline. Van Duijn
cited Mensch, in particular, as depicting technological
innovation as driving cyclical periods of increase and
decline. Ayers (1990) identified five long economic cycles
since the beginning of the industrial revolution, and
concluded that "advances in technology, together with, and
exhaustion of, certain natural resources, have combined to
bring about a series of coordinated technological
transformations that are correlated with waves of economic
activity" (p. 3). Combining the agricultural, industrial,
and information waves delineated by Toffler with the five
economic cycles described by Ayers clearly identifies
periods of unusual social stress. This analysis also
provides a useful framework for reviewing the relationships
of social stress and changes in education. The analysis
also poses predicative implications.
Figure 2. Transformational waves and long economic cycles.
THE FIRST LONG CYCLE
According to Ayers (1990a), a cluster of inventions in
Great Britain about 1775 made possible the development of
the steam engine, wrought iron, and cotton textiles (Ayers,
1990a; Kicklighter, 1968). These developments, coupled
with a shift to coal as a major energy source and the
construction of an inter-linked canal system, fueled the
first long cycle. Power, manufacturing and transportation
were the hub of the new technology which emerged.
Education response. From this shift from agrarian to
industrial economies, two societal stresses also developed,
First, populations shifted to urban areas, and secondly,
demands for trained industrial workers began to develop.
From the initiation of industrial activity, changes in
society created conflicting viewpoints on the proper
education for changing circumstances. During the first
cycle, the Calvinist ideals championed by Francke and the
sense-realist approach favored by Rousseau exerted
significant influence on education. The Schools of
Industry which proliferated in Austria, Germany, and
Britain sought to develop the habits of industry among the
poor (Bennett, 1926). With the development of such
practically-oriented programs, education was viewed as
important for all individuals growing up in the society.
Education was also viewed as a contributor to the solution
of social problems.
Rousseau is credited with opening a new era in
education by recognizing that "manual arts may be a means
of mental training" (Bennett, 1926, p. 81). Rousseau
believed that the education of children should be a
natural, spontaneous affair catering to the natural
curiosity of children. The concept of "learning by doing"
has developed a rich educational tradition that flourished
in the work of Pestalozzi, Fellenberg, and Froebel. These
ideas all contributed to educational influences in the
United States as this nation underwent similar shifts in
economy and society.
THE SECOND LONG CYCLE
The first and second long cycles together make up what
is commonly referred to as the industrial revolution
(Ayers, 1990a). The second cycle, which began in Britain
about 1825, was stimulated by technological inventions and
improvements that led to the railroad construction boom of
1838-1843 and the accompanying telegraph network. These
two innovations created a faster, more efficient
transportation system coupled with a new communication
network. Together, these systems established an
infrastructure which further expanded the opportunities for
economic development. In the United States, the events
were somewhat later, but very similar. Fulton applied steam
to boats in 1838, the telegraph spanned the continent in
1861 and the historic "golden spike" connected the railway
systems of the east and west in 1867.
Educational response. While workers in the first cycle
of industrialization needed only minimal skills to perform
their jobs, many second cycle workers were required to
develop much higher levels of technical competence. By
1875, few U.S. students finished high school and fewer had
employable skills despite a growing need for technically
proficient workers. Society was expecting schools to
prepare its youth, but the schools were based on a
classical educational pattern. This societal impetus
influenced the thoughts of Runkle at MIT, Woodward and
Dewey (Bennett, 1926).
Other schools of applied science and engineering,
which built on the "learning by doing" precepts of the
first cycle, also appeared throughout Europe. A
significant response in the United States was the Morrill
Act of 1862, which established land-grant colleges for the
study of agricultural and mechanical arts in each of the
states (Bennett, 1926).
THE THIRD LONG CYCLE
The third cycle, the second industrial revolution,
began about 1870 (Ayers, 1990a). Major technological
breakthroughs of this era included the development of
steel, the widespread application of the internal
combustion engine, the creation of networks to transmit
electricity, and the evolution of a manufacturing system
based upon mass production and interchangeable parts. In
the third cycle as never before, much of the technological
innovation was devoted to the development of consumer
products and services: interurban trams, telephones, and
Educational response. By the time of the 1920 census
(U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1975), employees in the
manufacturing sector outnumbered agricultural workers in
the United States for the first time. The crossing of the
employment curves, as in Figure 1, signalled the need for a
change in educational direction. While the need for
educational change was clear, the direction that the change
should take was hotly contested. The social and education
turmoil of this era is well documented (Barlow, 1976;
Bennett, 1937; Glatthorn, 1987; Luetkemeyer, 1987). In
highlighting some of the concerns of the day, Law (1982)
In the last decade of the 19th century, marked by
unrestricted capital speculation, violent clashes
between labor and industry, social unrest and political
turmoil, there was a mounting wave of criticism
regarding the elitist posture of the public high school.
In a period when private and public secondary schools
combined served only 6.7% of the age group, and colleges
1.5% of theirs, the inherent failure of the public
school system had become a burning issue. (p. 19)
During this period of social upheaval, the
Smith-Hughes Act, which was passed in 1917, marked the
beginning of federal funding for secondary vocational
education in the public schools. Passage of the
Smith-Hughes Act could only be accomplished through the
formation of a remarkable coalition comprised of diverse
special interest groups (Hillison, 1987). Bennett (1937)
observed that the Smith-Hughes Act was likely the best
compromise possible, given the turmoil of the time. Even
critics of the Act, such as Law (1982), conceded that no
other legitimate alternative seemed possible.
The crises of this period were addressed by the
promulgation of the seven cardinal principles which were
adopted by the NEA and which formed the basis of the
comprehensive schools of the next several decades
(Kozak & Robb, 1991). These principles, when combined with
the Smith-Hughes Act and the guidance movement, formed the
educational structure that effectively launched a reformed
educational approach to address the societal needs of the
time. Included in these new reforms were industrial arts,
as distinguished from manual training, manual arts, and
vocational education -- especially as developed by Bonser
and Mossman at the Speyer School of Columbia University
THE FOURTH LONG CYCLE
While the fourth long economic cycle did not have a
clear starting or ending point, Ayers (1990b) located its
origins in the depression of the 1930s and its end in the
mid 1970s. The leading economic sectors in this cycle
included the automobile, electrical and electronics,
chemical, and aerospace industries. Ayers noted that, in
spite of the array of technological developments, only
television, semiconductors, and electronic computers were
new technological innovations of this era.
Educational response. Glatthorn (1987) described four
major approaches to curriculum development that were
popular during the period, 1917 to 1974. The major
societal strains involved in accommodating the shift to the
industrial era were relatively well stabilized by the time
of the passage of the Smith Hughes Act and the
establishment of support for formal programs of vocational
education in 1917. A relatively stable period followed in
education until about 1940. Three identifiable curriculum
orientations (developmental conformism, scholarly
structuralism, and romantic radicalism) appeared in
succession as the industrial age gave way to the service
and information ages. Coincidentally, 1974 marked the shift
to a new curriculum orientation, privatistic conservatism
(Glatthorn, 1987), and the approximate transition point
between Ayers' fourth and fifth cycles.
Bell (1973) identified 1956 as the date when number of
white collar workers surpassed total employment of blue
collar workers for the first time. Toffler (1980) also
noted 1956 as the approximate beginning of the Third Wave.
The educational impact of these transitions was eclipsed on
October 4, 1957, when the U.S.S.R. successfully launched
the first space vehicle into orbit around the earth.
The change in workforce demographics, coupled with the
response to Sputnik, released a massive burst of school
reform and curriculum innovation. Conant's (1959) work
reemphasized the need for a comprehensive high school
encompassing the arts, humanities, science, math, and
vocations. Conant also stressed the need for high standards
in the comprehensive high school. Cochran (1970) observed
that the 1960s produced more change and modification in
industrial arts programs that any previous decade. The
Industrial Arts Curriculum Project, American Industry
Project, and Orchestrated Systems Approach were some of the
better known industrially-based curriculum projects of the
era. Further, the study of technology, first proposed by
Warner in the 1940s, received increased emphasis through
the work of Olson and DeVore (Householder, 1979). Olson's
(1973) concepts of interfaces stressed that a static
curriculum was inappropriate. These concepts, combined
with Maley's (1973) emphases on group synergy,
technological development, and research helped provide a
foundation for a systems approach where the individual
interpreted factors in solving technical problems.
THE FIFTH LONG CYCLE
The long cycles described by Ayers (1990b) averaged
approximately 50 years in length. They generally began
with a cluster of innovations that occurred during the
economic slowdown between cycles. The fourth long cycle
concluded in the mid 1970s; the fifth long cycle is still
evolving. But, as Ayers noted:
It is now widely recognized, and correctly so, that
'high tech' was the leading sector of the 1980s. Within
the present decade, or early in the next one, the
computer and telecommunications sectors are almost
certain to overtake the auto industry and its satellites
as the 'locomotives' of the world economy. Already,
computers and related automation equipment have become
the dominant form of capital equipment, and software
development and maintenance are becoming major sources
of employment. (p. 127)
Ayers suggested that the computer chip revolution has yet
to have significant impact upon manufacturing and that
computer integrated manufacturing (CIM) will "almost
certainly turn out to be one of the 'leading sectors' of
the fifth technological transformation" (p. 128).
Educational Response. Analysis of the educational
change that occurred in previous long cycles could be
addressed from the comfort of a historical point of view.
However, as this essay is written at the transition between
two long cycles, as defined by Ayers, and two technological
waves as defined by Toffler, the analysis of the present is
much more difficult, and the inference of the coincidence
of the two wave cycle patterns suggests enormous impact.
The early 1980s were characterized by numerous reports that
suggested what "ought" to be done in various educational
settings. Strickland (1985) noted the relationship between
education and national security in the call for educational
reform. In reviewing four prominent reports on education
(A NATION AT RISK, EDUCATING AMERICANS FOR The TWENTY-FIRST
CENTURY, ACTIONS FOR EXCELLENCE, AND MAKING The GRADE)
Strickland drew the parallel between the post-Sputnik
reaction and the clamor for educational reform which
characterized the 1980s.
Industrial arts responded to the realities of the new
workforce expectations by pursuing a change to technology
education. While many varieties of technology education are
currently practiced and proposed, the common features of
most programs include: (a) an emphasis on problem-solving
capabilities; (b) an interdisciplinary approach that empha-
sizes alternatives and compromises, (c) the integration of
context in an approach to recognize systemic functions, and
(d) an assessment of the consequences of technological
SUMMARY OF THE IMPACT OF TECHNOLOGICAL TRANSFORMATIONS ON
A useful summary of the impact of technological
transformations on the workforce is provided by data on
labor force participation in the four sectors of the United
States economy. For the period between 1860-1995, Liedtke
(1990) reported that:
1. The agricultural workforce peaked in the late 1800s
and had declined to less than 3% by 1980.
2. Industrial workers had three employment peaks in
this period, around 1860, 1917, and the mid 1950s.
However, since the peak in the 1950s, industrial
sector employment has declined to less than 20%
of the labor force.
3. Service workers averaged about 20% of the work
force from 1860 through 1960. Since 1960,
however, the proportion of service workers has
4. Only the information sector of the work force has
demonstrated consistent growth over the period.
As of 1987, information workers held more than
50% of all jobs.
Combining the long cycle analysis by Ayers (1990a,
1990b), workforce demographics, and the history of
industrial education leads to the conclusion that major
philosophical and curricular stress points do indeed
coincide with the wave cycles of technological
transformation. As each wave of economic activity required
different skills of its workforce, societal and educational
forces attempted to reform to meet the perceived needs.
Efforts at educational reform prior to the societal needs
largely fell on deaf ears, regardless of the validity of
Further, as the occupational requirements became more
complex, the degree of educational ferment accompanying
each transition point appeared to have increased. During
the early waves of industrial enterprise, the educational
response was generally limited to isolated activities of
individual innovators. These resulted in such diverse
offerings as the SCHOOLS OF INDUSTRY and the Mechanics'
However, dealing with educational change in later
industrial waves became increasingly complex as diverse
interest groups championed their own interests. The
cauldron of educational controversy preceding the passing
of the Smith-Hughes Act was clearly without precedent in
the United States. Subsequent educational responses have
perhaps been as frenzied from the point of view of
curriculum development and legislation, but not as bitterly
contested. For example, the educational innovation which
followed Sputnik seemed to proceed from a collective
national purpose. Coping with the age of the information
worker has led to substantial reporting and substantial
displacement of workers. The corollary, a cohesive
reorganization of the whole educational focus, such as
occurred in 1917 and 1958, appears to be lacking.
The major controversy seems to focus on educational
retrenchment and the re-emphasis upon the traditional
academic subjects. Historically, this sort of modification
often follows a pattern in which retrenchment of one group
eventually leads to a new solution promulgated by another
group. For example, the content and emphasis of the
baccalaureate degree changed markedly as land grant
colleges provided new solutions to the need for
practically-oriented programs of higher education. The
answers to the problems which have precipitated the current
educational reforms are still evolving and are clearly not
LESSONS FROM THE PAST AND IMPLICATIONS FOR THE FUTURE
The analysis of historical cycles presents
opportunities for addressing present and future educational
needs. This analysis suggests a wide range of lessons from
the past and offers provocative implications for future
educational planning. These inferences and implications
include the following:
1. Change in the composition of the workforce is a
continual process driven largely by technological
2. The responses of education have generally been
reactive in response to the forces of change, rather
than proactive in anticipation of change.
3. The skills required of workers have consistently
become more complex. Literacy is no longer an
option. Increasing job complexity requires
high-order thinking skills and problem solving
capabilities in a world of local area networks
(LANs), fax, and e-mail.
4. One constant in the evolution of technology
education has been the need to demonstrate that
the discipline has made a contribution to the
economic well-being of the country. Times of
retrenchment by traditional educators, who vastly
outnumber technology educators, exacerbates
Educators in every era have been convinced that there
have never been times like these before. And while this is
always true to some extent, perhaps only now has the rate
of change reached the point where teaching only cognition
(the exchange of information) is in question. Toffler
(1990) observed that the information age does not need
workers who are essentially interchangeable workers as in
the industrial era, but rather individuals with diverse and
continually evolving skills. Wright (1990) pointed out more
specifically the need for developing students who are:
Flexible, adaptive, life-long learners who can
effectively work in groups. . . .that manual skill and
detailed technical knowledge had only marginal value
compared to problem solving and creative abilities; and
that a broad understanding about technology provides a
valuable base for consumer, citizenship and career
activities. (p. 3)
Many reports and studies have repeated this call. The
conceptual framework for technology education (Savage &
Sterry, 1990) placed problem solving at the center of the
curriculum development model. This is a significantly
different approach than the model of industrial technology
education (Hales and Snyder, 1980) which has guided the
field in recent years.
In a more specific context, Zirbel (1991), in a needs
assessment of the manufacturing engineering technologies,
found that only two of the top seven rated competencies
were directly related to engineering technologies -- and
those two dealt with analyzing processes. The other
competencies look familiar to those analyzing workplace
1. Understand the importance of quality.
2. Display motivation, responsibility, and natural
3. Communicate clearly and concisely.
4. Work effectively as part of a team.
5. Demonstrate a basic working knowledge of personal
Carnevale, Gainer and Meltzer (1990), in the report of
a major study which seems destined to become a classic,
proposed seven essential groups of workplace competencies:
1. Knowing how to learn.
2. Reading, writing, and computation.
3. Oral communication skills: listening and speaking.
4. Creative thinking and problem solving.
5. Self-esteem, goal setting, motivation and decision
6. Interpersonal skills, negotiation, and team work.
7. Organizational effectiveness and leadership.
What is interesting about the new list of "oughts" is
the convergence of various occupational needs with current
educational priorities. The common focus is on problem
solving, communicating and team work, all in more
technological and complex settings.
Finding educational direction at the crossroads of
technological eras is clearly no easy task. Scores of
educational reports of the 1980s attest to this difficulty.
However, each of the cycles which have been examined in
this essay eventually evolved its own unique solution.
Based on historic precedent, the following conclusions
1. Education reform may be two cycles behind changing
social and economic circumstances.
2. Education should be less concerned with courses and
subjects as static elements and more concerned with the
identification of the components of "basic education."
3. Change will occur more rapidly. Change may now be
occurring at a pace that makes it difficult to even
observe the transition points. Ayers (1990b) pointed
out the difficulty in precisely defining the transition
points in the last two waves in a way which highlights
4. The new "basic" should not be based on a static
curriculum. Rather, it should have a proactive ability
to anticipate. The new "basic" must diminish barriers
between subjects of study (knowledge) and seek to
integrate knowledges and experiences to make them more
meaningful. While technology education is not
construed to be "vocational," it must relate to a
competent workforce as a part of basic education
required by all prior to the acquisition of job skills.
5. The nation, to remain competitive in a global society
and economy, cannot depend on government bureaucracy to
lead the change. Historically, all major reformations
were preceded by periods of diversity and
experimentation. If we face a future of continued
rapid change, school quality could become more
dependent upon new ideas and experimentation.
Conformity and stability of context are not conducive
to coping with rapid change. The future will depend
upon individual schools and educators who are empowered
to innovate rather than conform.
6. Accreditation guidelines and procedures must also
change from an emphasis upon meeting standards to an
emphasis upon successful motivation and learning.
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Glenn E. Baker and Daniel L. Householder are Professors in
the Department of Industrial, Vocational and Technical
Education, Texas A & M University, College Station, TX.
Richard A. Boser is Assistant Professor in the Department
of Industrial Technology, Illinois State University,
Permission is given to copy any
article or graphic provided credit is given and
the copies are not intended for sale.
Journal of Technology Education Volume 4, Number 1 Fall 1992