Photo by Jason Jones

The Next 125 Years

An interview with Rollins’ 14th President, Lewis Duncan

At the conclusion of the celebration of Rollins’ 125th Anniversary, looking toward the College’s next 125 years, Rollins Magazine asked Rollins’ president, Lewis Duncan (also a card-carrying space physicist), to share his vision of the future and Rollins’ place in the ever-evolving landscape of higher education and the world.

RM: You’ve given a lot of thought to the future and what the world will look like in 125 years. Could you share some of your thoughts about that?

LD: One hundred and twenty-five years from now is easier to envision than 25. We can extrapolate from the known, though we can’t anticipate all the unknown breakthroughs. There will be more change than we can imagine. Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The technology of the future will occur beyond normal senses; it would seem magical to us today.

Global warming will be resolved, but as a result of technology, not treaties (which fail because they are compromises). The population will be far greater than we ever dreamed the world could support. Diseases will have been mostly cured; in genetics, life’s complex code will have been debugged. (Then we can consider what were flaws and what intentionally produces our differences.) The mystery of cellular aging, and death, will have been fully mastered. Biological life will have achieved near immortality.

RM: That gives an entirely new meaning to “lifelong learning.”

LD: The need for lifelong learning will become even greater. In a world of extended lifetimes, we’ll never get to retire. We may have sabbaticals, like faculty today. We will be able to pursue a far greater range of interests, but we will also always be able to rationalize that we can do it later, to procrastinate. We can always wait to learn to play the piano.

The world will change so quickly, with knowledge constantly accelerating, that we will need to continuously reinvent ourselves. Education will be essential. One can imagine that some might find their minds fatigued by the process, unable to keep up, leading to seeking sanctuary in virtual worlds with a like-minded group. If biological death is eliminated, then ceasing to learn might be the new definition of death.

RM: Do you foresee the rise of intelligent machines?

LD: Machine thinking will become part of us—even better than our biological brains. Machines will learn from us, then learn without us. Boundaries between humans and machines will disappear. Some refer to it as “transhuman” or “robosapien.” There will be a different definition of “sentience.” (Even now the boundaries between biological humans and “machine” are blurring—we wear glasses, use calculators, insert pacemakers, replace joints with mechanical substitutes.)

But there will still be a need for an understanding of what it means to be human: consciousness, sense of self, history, accumulated knowledge and wisdom. We will merge into a true global society—citizens of Earth, and perhaps beyond. Preservation of cultural identities will be challenged. History will become a quaint remembrance in the face of dynamic living cultures. It is, in some ways, sad, but inevitable.

RM: What does that mean for higher education?

LD: Actually, liberal arts colleges will be the most-favored models of higher education in the future. Understanding knowledge (“wisdom studies”—the ability to be a critical thinker, to apply logic, to grasp various perspectives) will be more important than acquiring knowledge. The world will become more complex, and reasoning through complexity will become more valuable. The curriculum will have to be redesigned, with less focus on disciplines and majors, and more on cultivation of broad thinking and reasoning skills.

There will be an inevitable consolidation in higher education, enhancing the educational experience for everyone, taking advantage of the benefits of economy of scale without sacrificing the individual student-teacher relationship. The larger public warehouses of higher education will be displaced by opportunities for on-demand education from both for-profit and not-for-profit providers.

In advanced societies, the reproductive rate is reduced, and I’m hopeful that the entire world will be advanced in 125 years. If the birth rate is lower, there will be less need for traditional education for 18- to 22-year-olds and increased need for lifelong learning. That doesn’t mean there won’t still be a need for education for the young, who are not yet mature thinkers. There will be a need for a holistic environment for formative young adults to develop their social and intellectual skills.

RM: In 125 years, who will be the best teachers?

LD: The most senior scholars may not best understand the great questions challenging a 22nd-century world (it’s technology and magic—the most revered 19th-century elder wouldn’t have understood nuclear energy). The best teachers will be those who can translate the lessons of history into relevant wisdom for the future.

RM: Is it too soon to start thinking about how to position Rollins for that future?

LD: Actually, it’s a good time to remind ourselves that what worked for the last 125 years won’t necessarily work for the next 125. Technology will assure that knowledge is no longer the private intellectual property of a highly educated few. The pace of the generation of new knowledge will create challenges since students will enter college with the capacity to know more. The way we teach and what we teach will change since the development of critical reasoning skills and comfort with complexity will be more valuable than basic information, which will be ubiquitous, unfiltered, and overwhelming.

An international focus is a certainty—no school can think otherwise. In fact, “international” will probably be considered unnecessary, redundant, like “interstate” education today. Although our identities will still be grounded nationally, a shift away from that won’t be far ahead; partly as a result of mobility, we will be less rooted in our birthplaces.

RM: There’s a clear role for the sciences in your visualization of the future. What about the humanities and the arts?

LD: There will be interesting debates on deep philosophical issues, opportunities for “applied” philosophy: individual rights and expectations as opposed to those of groups and aggregations. For example, having resolved the human “engineering” problem, will we stop aggregating in groups by age?

New vistas will be opened in the arts—imagine the visual arts with human perception extended across the full electro­­magnetic spectrum, music with expanded audio ranges, dance in zero gravity. Removing constraints will produce more opportunities for imaginative expression.

The homogenizing effect of global community will lead to a single language, which is not necessarily a good thing. But, language itself might become obsolete. If thought and understanding can be transmitted directly, then the process of converting thoughts, emotions, senses, feelings into language would become less necessary. Rather than bits and bytes, wisdom could be downloaded, uploaded, digested, metamorphosed.

RM: The College’s 125th anniversary gave us opportunities to revisit Rollins’ past. If you could have been present (or president) at any other time in Rollins’ history, when would that have been?

LD: The first few years of Hamilton Holt’s presidency, although I wouldn’t like to have been at Rollins during the Depression. Holt was a true global citizen with a powerful vision for world peace, a pacifist and globalist in the truest sense. I admire his experiments in education leading up to the 1931 curriculum colloquy, and would have enjoyed his conversations with John Dewey—though if Holt were alive today, he probably would be advocating world democracy, not Dewey’s vision for American democracy, and probably not even a democracy, but a strong representative-republic form of shared governance.

Holt wanted students to be not spectators but engaged participants in life, without defining those forms of engagement. The value of a liberal education is in its application: the ability to embrace latitudes of opinion, to balance points of view. Dwight Eisenhower said, “May we know unity—without conformity.” Find the areas of your own personal passion and pursue them. The apathy of youth is one of the greatest risks to the future.

RM: And if you could return 125 years from now?

LD: One hundred and twenty-five years from now, I would like to be looking back on the trajectory from today. I wouldn’t understand much of it, but it would be enjoyable to look through that window for a brief time, to explore the wonderment of those many surprises and discoveries that await us.