What will the universities of the 21st century be like? Two futurists look to the emergence of learning centres which will link people, places and planets.

by Paul Wildman and Jenny Gidley


The prophetic views of HG Wells' call in the 1930s for a world brain seem answered in part by the rapidly growing infrastructure of the World Wide Web. Yet, will this latest techno-fix of the post-modern human, restore our lost wisdom or provide meaning for our youth who seem to have lost their way? This article argues that we need to go towards a 'World Brain' and then beyond to 'World Mind' and even further out to 'World Soul' when we again arrive at 'World Brain'. This will mean going beyond current educational paradigms towards a holistic learning one. Here, learning will occur through relationship. It is to this end we devote considerable discussion of a vision for future 'centres of holistic learning and meaning'.

World Brain

HG Wells had the view that the apparatus of modern intellectual ability is not being put to good use. For him, collective views on how we should proceed are sadly lacking in modern humanity, even more so as time passes.

 He asks poignantly: Why are our universities floating above the general disorder of mankind like a beautiful sunset over a battlefield? Indeed, in our opinion that since the Second World War our education systems in general and Universities in particular, have done little more than credential the status quo by being little more than knowledge control vehicles for the dominant orthodoxy as it marches into the eco-battle fields of tomorrow. Struggles of its own making.

 Even worse, the world seems ever more chaotic and less and less organised. Even to the point of the great international hope, the UN, being reduced to a welfare apologist for the recent civil unrest in Eastern Europe. How are we going to deliver our world to our children's children's children? How can we co-ordinate our education systems when universities promise so much but seem to deliver little more than sanctifying the status quo?

 Wells' book (World Brain, Adamantine Press, 1995) is mainly a collection of radio talks given in the mid 1930s. These are contexted by an extensive 70 page critical introduction by Alan Mayne which seems to tease out further implications of 'World Brain' as he looks back from some 60 years on.

 The three principal aspects of Wells' thesis are:

This approach really does provide a firm case for future university as a distributed encyclopaedia that codifies the world's knowledges. This, for us, is indeed a worthy and urgent aim, respecting of course the diversity inherent in world cultures. We wonder how much the web can contribute to this and if not, how can this ever happen. It seems further and further removed from manifesting at present. As it was written in the mid-1930s the book has an 'empire' mentality. However, it does show a remarkable perspicacity and cultural eclecticism which proposes harmonising our cultural diversity rather than centralising it to Western conformity.

 With the metanarratives of empire now thoroughly occluded from our post modern world, the questions remain. How can we take Wells' challenge and carry it through into the design of holistic education systems for a post modern world? How can we help the multiplicity of ways of knowing in the world, survive and flourish? How can we do this with over 90% of the earth's cultures being oral, or will everything be drowned in masses of (hyper)text such as you are reading now?

 In this way, 'world brain' can be seen as generating a 'field of dreams of meaning'. Such a 'morphogenic field' is, in part, an expression of planetary consciousness or 'noosphere'. Learning processes create individual and organisational patterns, like song lines, in this organic global consciousness (Judge, 1996). In this sense World Brain becomes these 'songlines' compared to the materialistic, industrialised metaphor of 'information highway'.

 What can we draw from this challenge by relating to its immediacy and relevance in the era of the web? Some questions we need to ask in the 1990s are:

'World Brain' today as 'World Mind'

Today we also need to ask ourselves whether 'wor(l)d brain' is sufficient for the challenge of today. Towards the end of his life HG Wells used the term 'World Mind' to move beyond the purely organic nature of thinking and knowing. Certainly at this junction in Global Futures greater respect for, and awareness of world wisdoms and 'ways of knowing' are a necessity. Yet how do we move in this direction? How do we elucidate creative thought and incorporate it into education? In this article our explorations towards 'holistic education' investigate five 'ways of knowing' and the generations of the educational systems they produce.

 The first three generations of education are exoteric and may be considered as rational. The next two generations are esoteric/mystical. A most concerning aspect of investigating holistic education is just how strongly existing systems of education, knowledge and learning are embedded in the first three. As we move through these learning systems we move from World Brain, to World Mind. The following section details these five ways of knowing in terms of approaches to education.

Generations to Holistic Education

  1. first generation education

    The student, the text and the teacher as 'sage on stage' The teacher is a content expert who has minimal relationship to the student. The expert learning system of scientific/scientia education generates 'factual knowledge'. This is the realm of traditional pedagogical processes such as university and mainstream school education.


  2. second generation education

    The student and the text, and the teacher. Here the teacher relates to the text as the student relates to it. The consultant learning system of technical/techne education produces 'practical knowledge'. This is the realm of TAFE, i.e. technical and further education aimed at the skill level directly vocationally relevant. This also reflects the old craft guilds that led to the apprenticeship systems.


  3. third generation education

    The student and the text and the teacher as co-learner. Here the teacher becomes co-researcher with the student in exploring the text. The action learning system of practice/praxis education produces 'professional knowledge'. This is the realm of ongoing professional learning, for instance on the job learning that impacts learning/theory and practice.


  4. fourth generation education

    The student and the text and the teacher as co-learner and their world views. Here the teacher's and the student's world views are identified and transformed by the learning experience. The open systems learning system of insight/gnosis education produces a creative knowledge that leads to 'insight wisdom' through symbolic logic - symbologic. This is the realm of poetry, artistic expression and life long learning. The web may become amenable to this type of learning, as is self-directed 'street learning' or learning from life. Furthermore, generations four and five admit to esoteric dimensions of learning.


  5. fifth generation education

    Holistic education. The student and the text and the student's fellow students, i.e. collegiate learners.

The co-generative emancipatory learning system of holistic/relational education produces knowledge of and for 'community or communitas'. In this model, the teacher is no longer identifiable as a discrete entity/purpose and students or 'associates' are involved in peer-assisted, relational co-learning. Here, androgogy through the Adult and Community Study Circle, library, or electronic bulletin board come into their own. And more so, in educational generations four and five, we start to identify another player in the learning equation - that of Gaia herself in relation with us.

 Now at last we can see ourselves at one with the plants and animals that co-inhabit our world. That is, education to be part of "World Soul'. We and Gaia become part of the noosphere created in our time, largely through computer mediated communication and the World Wide Web. In ancient times, still with us in some indigenous cultures, this came through dreamings and telepathy. In this sense we can use HG Wells' concept of World Brain as a concrete expression of noosphere.

 Generally, traditional education systems locate in the first three generations and alternative education systems locate in fourth and fifth generations. HG Wells' world mind ideally suits these latter two generations. Indeed, world mind could well provide the learning backdrop for fifth generation education processes.

Holistic as Relational Education

For us, the concept of holistic is implicitly relational and suggests a category of relational knowledge which is 'credualised'. We maintain such a knowledge system is largely lacking in the West. Reiterating the generational styles of education described above, in Western terms we speak of knowledge for:

Yet we seldom speak of a knowledge for:

What is even more intriguing is that 'legitimised' systems of knowledge we have that make links, do so between thinking and things not people. That is between thought and action with things, not between people as part of manifest Dreamtime or Gaia. This article argues for holistic education is necessarily relational.

 Isn't this yet another scene in the great Western tragedy? Possibly this is a function of the maleness and patriarchy of our educational systems. Men generally tend to be separate creatures who construct knowledge in order to act on things, not to relate to one another. Gaia is suffering because of this. In the next section we use the Futures Studies strategies of visioning and scenario-building, in an attempt to imagine how holistic interrelational future learning centres might look.

World Brain Nodes - Centres of Holistic Learning and Meaning

The relational space we envision for holistic education will be called something like a 'Centre of Holistic Learning and Meaning'. A generation on, by the year 2015, we will have realised just how important it is for World Brain to become 'World Mind' and move towards becoming 'World Soul'. This will require the ability for the generation of localised expression and meaning. We will realise its urgency by recognising how much we do not have it at present. These Centres of Meaning, as World Brain nodes, will act as focal points in each corporation or community organisation. Such an organisation* will not be limited to the geographic sense we have now and will be inclusive of the global links that form electronically, i.e. cyber organisations. The Centres will have the individualised flavour of their organisation and will be freely linked, through individuals and networks, to other 'like-minded' or complementary Centres. It is our hope that such Centres replace the past-oriented, tradition-bound schools and universities of today. In this section we will attempt to describe one such Centre.

The venue

There will be a location, a focal place/plane where people may congregate, while not necessarily being 'required' to spend 40 hours a week. It would house a combination of studios, theatres, workspaces for indoor and outdoor activities. The emphasis would depend on the needs of the community being serviced. The venue is a place for dialogue, planning, thinking-intuiting, creative, artistic, expression as well as a model of sustainable living with gardens, etc. (an eco-feast). Styles of architecture would reflect the cultures and imaginations of the organisation involved. The focal areas would move concentrically out into the organisation, so that while there is an inner and an outer part of the organisation no one is quite sure where it begins and ends.

The learning

Holistic education will mean peer assisted, relational, co-learning and a recognition of various types of work as equally valuable. These types of vocation being:

Such transdisciplinary breadth of experience maximises synthesis capability which is a major underpinning paradigm of the Centres of Holistic Learning and Meaning. It will also lead to humility and a management style which overcomes the disadvantages of the old narrow academic disciplines of the 20th century. Breadth of experience and synthesis capability are recognised as carriers of meaning. Openness to learning is also prized and the learning coaches are always students as well. 

The students

Students are of all ages and cultures. When jobs finally disappear, schools as job factories will become redundant and many youth will deeply question the 'raison d etre' of society. It may take until 2010 for the Government to acknowledge the 'death of jobs'. By 2015 many of these youth may begin to find meaning by becoming involved in the Centres of Holistic Learning and Meaning as students and workers (gardeners, builders, artisans) as they learn from the adults around them and vice versa.


These will be jointly constructed by the learners themselves in consultation with organisational learning coaches and other students, according to their needs and interests of the broader society. There will be a balance of units from the major meta-meaning areas. Basic courses could be taken at a range of Centres, either by travel, exchange or electronically through the successor of internet. These would be complete when the students believe they have enough general understanding of themselves and 'the meaning of life' to undertake a special interest or professional course (Redshaw, 1995). Assessment of level of meaning comprehension would be arranged in consultation with their coaches and peers and involve a combination of thesis, artistic production, action project and meta-analysis in terms of both ecological and esoteric impact. Evaluation would be based on the 'contribution to meaning', and the life-evolving (esoteric) and life-enhancing (ecstatic) properties of the project would be included.

Costs 'n credits

These would be shared between the student, the host organisation, and the State. In this scenario, the Centres will have significant latitude for cost recovery through consultancy and up front fees, and individuals and organisations will have significant tax advantage from assisting themselves and their members' respective involvement in these learning processes.

 Possibly local currency could be accepted in part for fees. In terms of accreditation and quality assurance, these Centres of Meaning will act as self referencing, jointly moderating learning networks that include formal and informal learning. This is in line with present developments in the more innovative end of today's universities and private learning centres, e.g. semi-autonomous commercial faculties, independent (business) schools and private universities. There will be no need for a 'big daddy' learning accreditor to determine what is and isn't learning.

Learning as meaning

We are moving into what may be called the Dream Society. Jensen (1996) traces five techno-economic societies - hunter gatherer, agricultural, industrial, information and now the 'dream society'. In this society, he argues, the production and distribution of information will have been routinised. The cutting edge in learning systems will go to those individuals, organisations (and Centres for Holistic Learning and Meaning) that can use this information to tell stories, make myths and thereby develop meaning and understanding. In today's Information Society we prize those individuals and corporations who can skilfully manipulate data. However, in tomorrow's Dream Society, we will most generously reward those who can use holistic education to make this meaning.

'World Brain' Tomorrow as 'World Soul'

As we extend the concept of 'World Brain' to 'holistic education' and include the fourth and fifth generations of education we move towards the idea of 'World Mind' and beyond to what Sardello (1995) calls engagement with 'Word Soul' or Gaia where 'nature' is ever present and we locate our humanity within this enveloping notion. Now we need to touch on its future implementation. This article calls for a form of 'head, hands, heart and help' (4H) approach to the implementation of holistic education. This implies the inclusion of scientia, techne (praxis), gnosis and relatio systems respectively.

 Clearly in largely academic, vocational and other educational areas one of these aspects will predominate. What we do maintain is that even in those circumstances doorways and links to these other ways of learning need to be established so the student may open them at a later stage. We believe this 4H approach to the implementation of holistic education renders HG Wells' concept of 'World Brain' relevant to our and our children's generations.

 As we have workshopped this and related ideas over the past five years it is increasingly obvious that (postgraduate) students are increasingly interested in Education Generations 4 & 5. Often the best that can happen is that the student finds a supervisor with sympatico. This article calls for education systems to go much further than this to transcend education generations 1 to 3 and actively develop learning processes for generations 4 and 5. In this way they will transform themselves and us who work in them.


This article has sought to examine the emerging possibilities for 'World Brain', to interpret its meaning into 'holistic education' and thence to 'World Soul'. Finally, the article proposes implementation through 'Centres of Holistic Learning and Meaning'. It is in such centres that relational learning can emerge, generating meaning through linking people, places and the planet. In this way, it may be possible for the broad educational sector to contribute to the modern day emergence of HG Wells' 'World Brain' and thereby engage the potentials of our future Dream Society.

 * in this article organisation is used in the generic sense of corporation or community

 Acknowledgments: Jo Savins for editorial review and critique. 


This article was published in New Renaissance magazine Vol.6 No.3