The Wealth of Education Systems

An Exploration of Education through Toffler and Toffler’s Wealth Systems


Education is best understood and then transformed for the future when viewed through the paradigm of wealth systems. When we speak of the purpose and structures of education without these paradigms, our conversations become confused. Identifying the agricultural education system, the industrial education system, and the emerging digital education system can facilitate more constructive work toward digital transformation and our need to hit refresh on education. This is important because the Digital Wealth System calls us to make education available to every person on the planet, so we can achieve more.

The Wealth Systems of Education

In 2006 Alvin and Heidi Toffler offered a work entitled Revolutionary Wealth. In this book they present a paradigm for understanding the change in our societies. In this essay I will explore their paradigm as a tool for understanding the fractures that can occur in our work to transform education to be ready for the future. In short, our conversations and our work is not about one education system but three. Understanding this will facilitate deeper understanding as we work to hit refresh and keep what is good.

In these pages, therefore, we will focus on the unexplored “deep fundamentals” on which the so-called fundamentals themselves depend. Once we do, things look different, less crazy, and previously unnoticed opportunities pop out of the shadows. Chaos, it turns out, is only part of the story. And chaos itself generates new ideas. (Toffler and Toffler, 2006.)

Toffler and Toffler present us with three wealth systems. These are much larger in scope than an economic system and encompass such objects as the definition of family, the structure of work, and the organisation of education and government. The wealth systems they describe are the Agricultural, the Industrial, and the Digital.

The Tofflers are clear that there is no binary switch as we move from one to the other. The development of the Industrial Wealth System did not result in agriculture becoming obsolete, but agriculture has, over time, become secondary to industry as a driver of wealth. The same is currently in motion as we transition from the dominance of industry to the rise of the Digital Wealth System.

Agricultural Wealth System

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Olive groves in Puglia were a source of immense wealth ini the Agricultural Wealth System. Photo by the author posted at Wright Gibson Memories.

The Agricultural Wealth System is characterised by agricultural surpluses to accumulate wealth. The agricultural system depended on farmers of various sorts to generate wealth. The most successful of these gradually developed into rulers of regions and established an elite governing class and a supporting mercantile class. This wealth system had a cooperative understanding of the family structure that depended on large family groups to both do the work and continue the accumulation of wealth. The society is strictly hierarchical and adheres to a regular rhythm of the seasons. Work is found where you live. Only in the wake of the Black Death of the 14th century do we see significant mobility of workers.

Industrial Wealth System

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Machines replaced mammalian muscle power in the first industrial revolution. Photo by švabo licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported at Wikimedia Commons.

As the Industrial Revolution developed we found a new way to generate wealth. We built machines and powered them to increase our ability to manufacture goods and create surpluses that built wealth. This system did not need large family structures. Rather it required a small family structure. Adults work in the factory (and perhaps older children), moving to an urban location to find work. The social structures take some strain as the rise of industrial leaders with their considerable wealth troubles the old hierarchies of the agricultural world.

Digital Wealth System

As we move into the Digital Wealth System, we see shifts in social structures to support a system that requires diversity and creativity of thought, the generation of ideas over the efficient production of goods, and a strong connection with science, technology, engineering, and math, also known as STEM. This is a system that, due to the creativity that blossoms in diversity and the value that attends on the individual, requires diversity in family structures, cultural background, and educational experiences. The family is no longer that of the compact and conforming industrial unit, nor the sprawling cousins of the agricultural community. Now, the family is whatever the family needs it to be. As we saw in the transition from agriculture to industry, there is considerable expression of pain, confusion, and fear at the changes taking place. The lack of conformity that fuels the digital world is anathema to the industrial and agricultural world. And yet the world moves apace.

Education for Wealth Systems

As we have seen in work, family, and social structure, the wealth systems drive the fabric of our society to take a shape that supports the creation of wealth. Education is no exception. The shape of our educational efforts conforms to the needs of the wealth system. As we move from agricultural to industrial and industrial to digital, we see the educational efforts change to support the creation of wealth. We also see the challenges in the change as we hit refresh.

…when you hit refresh on your browser, some of what’s on the page stays the same. (Bill Gates in Nadella, Shaw, and Nichols, 2017.)

Agricultural Education

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The elite needed access to expensive resources such as books. Photo by David Iliff. License: CC BY-SA 3.0 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Education in the Agricultural Wealth System developed to shape the ruling elite. It was concerned with shaping thinking of the young that they would succeed at managing society. In these hierarchical societies, the elite would be the landed aristocracy, both secular and clerical. Curriculum tended to focus on philosophy and language, or the Liberal Arts. The agricultural sector and its supporting groups in mercantile and crafts depended more on an apprenticeship of some form for the transfer of practical knowledge. Furthermore, the mission of this educational effort means that the numbers educated are small. There is little need to be concerned about the ratio of instructors to students.

Industrial Education

Duke University Students in Class, 1940s
Industrial tertiary education. From Duke University Archives. Durham, North Carolina, USA. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

With the rise of industrial wealth, education changed. Industrial functions grew to require literacy and numeracy in the function of the factories. If messages are sent to the factory floor, or instructions conveyed to the workers, this increasingly required literacy. Those instructions might require at least fundamental numeracy as well. With this we see the call for “Reading, Riting and ‘Rithmatic,” the so-called three Rs.

The workers also expanded, however. As commercial endeavours expanded, the business increasingly needed more qualified leaders to manage the increasingly complex affairs. This new management class needed schooling in the disciplines that arose to manage complex organisations. Accounting, finance, marketing, organisational psychology all developed sophisticated understanding of their respective areas of the organisation. It became increasingly the case that for many of these, learning on the job was insufficient to the need. Industry required higher education in particular to develop practical programs in business disciplines. It is in the Industrial Revolution where we see the higher education begin to take on a utilitarian character. We continue to struggle with this in the Academy.

Digital Education

As we move forward into the Digital Wealth System, we see how the needs of the new wealth generation engine are pushing for new educational forms and an innovative approach to education. There are many components of this such as the emphasis on STEM or STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math), but perhaps the most striking is related to the shift in the relationship between the business and the worker. In the agricultural system we saw workers typically staying in the area where they were born. In the industrial system we see workers moving to the location of the factories or businesses. In the digital system we see businesses establish themselves wherever they can find a concentration of talent.

This idea that the businesses would move to find talent is a remarkable change and it sheds light on a major shift in education. In the prior systems, education was used to identify talent. The clerical education of the Middle Ages would identify talented people such as Thomas Beckett or Thomas Wolsey. In the late industrial period, higher education was tasked with identifying and educating the best engineers that ultimately put a man in space and then a man on the moon. This is a filtering system. Identify the best and weed out those that do not qualify. We want a refinement. Those that do not make the cut can work at lower levels of the system, perhaps as far down as the factory floor. For the digital wealth system, we need every person to reach their full potential. Every person who could have contributed and was lost is a loss of potential wealth. This changes how we approach education. It is only possible with digital tools. Only with tools that allow us to manage large populations of learners and magnify the efforts of experts to guide learners toward their full potential can we address the huge populations needed to fuel the wealth system.

Digital Transformation

To meet this need, we need to understand that there will continue to be value and place for our agricultural liberal arts education. There will continue to be need for the utilitarian disciplines of the industrial education system. These are not, however, sufficient to the need as we move forward.

To work with enormous populations, we need the power of AI, Artificial or Augmented Intelligence. We need machine learning to parse learning data and provide remediation and intervention suggestions and actions. We need a teacher or instructor to work with a large group of students and leave none of them behind when it is possible for them to learn.

One of the challenges in this space has been the need to structure and tag learning material so that a computer could customise the path of a learner. With the growth of augmented intelligence and machine learning, we can build algorithmic structures in the learning materials that, together with the data from the learner’s activities, we can offer up in a coherent way that moves the learner toward their full potential.

That full potential needs to be understood as having a diversity of learning. The exclusivity with which we typically discuss the disciplines must fall away in the Digital Wealth System. A student might have an aptitude for biological science and find fun in the logical flow of algorithmic design. That same student may also benefit from digging into the structure of human organisations or human psychology. That diversity of experience and learning should continue throughout life and will fuel the person’s contribution to our world.

All this leads to an education system that will work to educate every person to their full potential. Not because of the transcendent value of each person, but because of the value each person can bring to the wealth system. Driving our digital system forward is the work of every person, whether their work is agricultural, industrial or digital. As we hit refresh to move into the digital age, we do not leave behind these other wealth systems. Rather, we acknowledge that the driver for future surplus accumulation will be the digital system. Only this new system of digital tools will have the capacity that industry and agriculture do not. Capacity to move humanity toward a prosperous and bright future where we can provide for more of our children.

Originally published at on 2018–05–11.


Toffler, A. and Toffler, H. (2006). Revolutionary wealth. 1st ed. New York: Knopf.

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