Project initiation: Vital Syllabus

In our age of multiple pressures, dizzying opportunities, daunting risks, and accelerating disruption, what are the most important skills and principles to cherish and uphold?

The Vital Syllabus project aims to answer these questions. The project aims, moreover, to draw attention to resources that can best assist students of all ages:

  • To acquire and deepen these skills
  • And to understand and embody the associated principles.

Building momentum

The concept of the Vital Syllabus was introduced in the book Vital Foresight, published in June 2021. One of the key themes in that book was the urgent need to radically transform education. Improving the practice of education is an essential prerequisite to improving the future of humanity.

To be clear, this is not just a matter of “education for people aged 5-18” (or similar). It’s a matter of people of all ages and in all walks of life, all around the world, being able to educate and re-educate themselves.

This project is the next step toward that goal. It’s a project that is expected to take around eighteen months to reach an initial baseline. That baseline will feature excellent resources that have been identified or, when necessary, created from scratch, to support all twenty-four top-level areas of study envisioned in the Vital Syllabus. These will be resources that are accessible, clear, engaging, precise, and authoritative.

The uniqueness of the project

The call to transform education is hardly novel. Indeed, in almost every discussion about the threats and opportunities faced by humanity at the present time, the topic tends to revolve to the need to improve education.

What’s different about the Vital Syllabus project, compared to other aspirations to improve education, are the special insights of the course designers about:

  1. The unprecedented transformational potential of emerging technologies
  2. The particular complications of the interaction of changes in technology with changes in human expectations, human culture, human social structures, and human narratives
  3. The threats and opportunities faced by humanity that deserve the most attention
  4. The profound relevance of the worldview known as transhumanism.

Call for collaboration and partnerships

The speed of progress of this project, and the quality of the material it assembles, will depend critically on successful collaborations and creative partnerships. Accordingly, at the same time as this message describes the framework for the content of the Vital Syllabus, it also issues an invitation: please consider becoming part of this project. Input is welcomed on:

  1. The resources that should receive priority recommendations in the Vital Syllabus
  2. Resources that should be created, to address gaps in the recommendations
  3. Processes to review and validate resources that have been suggested
  4. The overall structure of the content
  5. The appropriate mix of definition and diversity
  6. Ways in which the project can acquire greater impact – the sooner, the better.

Requirements for an upgraded education system

The book Vital Foresight reviewed six requirements for education in the 2020s that are, alas, not being met by mainstream educational systems.

  • First, whereas mainstream education tends to assume that most change is linear, or incremental, the Vital Syllabus raises awareness of exponential change and accelerating feedback cycles. It focuses attention on the potential for emerging disruptive technology to transform human experience in multiple ways that are hard to predict. In particular, it covers skills of anticipatory foresight and scenario design and evaluation, including the identification and management of both disruption and contingency.
  • Second, whereas mainstream education assumes a broadly static cultural background, the Vital Syllabus prepares students for ultra-diversity. People’s interactions with each other nowadays aren’t just more numerous than in the past, but are much more varied – because of greater global travel, and because groups of people are increasingly adopting new lifestyles, new bodily modifications, new social structures, and new philosophies, including several varieties of transhumanism. Moreover, the vital syllabus prepares us to coexist, not just with diverse other people, but also with advanced AIs and robots.
  • Third, whereas mainstream education tends to prioritise the memorisation of facts, the Vital Syllabus highlights critical thinking and collaborative intelligence. The goal, in effect, is to inoculate all of us, in advance, against the damaging mental pathogens that are increasingly bombarding us. Indeed, we all are coming into contact with ever-greater amounts of information, in rapidly evolving formats – with much of that information being designed to mislead or confuse, and lots more being unintentionally misleading or confusing. We need to learn to handle all that better.
  • Fourth, many of the assumptions behind traditional frameworks for ethics and morality are being challenged by new ideas that are circulating, and by unprecedented new possibilities that technology puts in our hands. It remains important for people to be able to listen to their intuitions, but these intuitions are proving misguided more frequently than before. That’s a reason for improved fluidity and clarity of thinking. It’s also a reason for the Vital Syllabus to elevate not only IQ (measures of raw intellectual power) but also EQ, including emotional resilience and mental agility.
  • Fifth, whereas most of history has witnessed a competitive struggle for scarce resources, emerging technologies will increasingly enable a post-scarcity society, in which the majority of the products and services needed for a good standard of living will be available in abundance. Accordingly, the Vital Syllabus highlights the management of abundance alongside the management of scarcity – noting that both skills are needed in parallel.
  • Sixth, as a special case of transitioning from scarcity to abundance, society needs to be ready for a transition in what it is assumed most people will be doing with their time – a transition from the assumption that most people should seek and gain paid employment, to the assumption that most people will be “post-employment”.

To recap: the overall requirement for the Vital Syllabus is to prepare people of all ages to handle the risks and take advantage of the opportunities of a society that:

  1. Is changing rapidly, with the changes being challenging to anticipate
  2. Is ultra-diverse – with a growing variety of transhumans and AIs
  3. Is awash with irrationality and destructive tendencies
  4. Has lost its confidence in traditional moral principles
  5. Is approaching a state of “post-scarcity”, characterised by abundance
  6. Is approaching a state of “post-work” and self-determination.

A vital syllabus for everyone

One more requirement for the Vital Syllabus should be stated upfront. The material which the Vital Syllabus recommends should be available, throughout the world, at zero access cost beyond that of basic online connectivity. No firewalls or other restrictions should be involved.

The Vital Syllabus is for everyone, not just for the few.

Of course, education is more than a set of raw input materials. It also includes communities of students and teachers, assessments by which people can check their understanding, opportunities to exercise new skills, systems to personalise the learning experience to individual needs and circumstances, and positive feedback mechanisms. All of these, likewise, should be available at prices that quickly reduce toward zero – taking advantage of the technologies of abundance.

Therefore, the Vital Syllabus anticipates:

  • An expansion of online materials and online courses
  • Tech-supported collaborative learning – so that communities of students can support and assist each other
  • AI systems, including automated essay marking, which can improve the evaluation of the areas in which each student would benefit from further study or alternative approaches
  • “Precision personalised education” – akin to “precision personalised medicine”
  • Use of biofeedback to monitor and manage mental states while learning
  • Opportunities with gamification and “serious games”
  • Immersive virtual reality learning environments
  • Empirical measurements of the effectiveness of different approaches to education.

The structure of the project

The project is open to feedback via any channel that readers of this call-to-action might like to use. This can include discussions on a Slack application, social media, email exchanges, wiki pages, or anything else that can help to organize thoughts.

The output of the project, in its first phase, will be a growing tree of recommendations about resources. The starting point of that tree is the top-level listing of the twenty-four areas envisioned in the Vital Syllabus.

The tree is expected to be dynamic – with regular additions, deletions, and modifications, in the light of new material becoming available, and in the light of community feedback.

To explore that tree, click here.

Frequently Asked Questions

This page contains answers to “frequently asked questions” about the Vital Syllabus project