Randall Bedwell on Alvin Toffler and New Perspectives

Noodle Expert Randall Bedwell discusses what he learned (and still hopes to learn) from futurist Alvin Toffler, how you can get a global education at a farmers market, and why he cut short an MBA program.

Who would you pick, alive or dead, to be your teacher for a year? What would you want to learn?

In the summer before my senior year of high school, I was among a small group of students who attended a Futurist Conference at Vanderbilt University. Alvin Toffler was the keynote speaker. He not only signed my prized first-edition copy of “Future Shock,” but he also changed the way I look at the world. Oh, the things we discussed during that conference. An “electronic frontier” where people communicate through computers? Anti-anxiety and anti-depression drugs? Cloning? Gender-neutral marriage? Certainly not in my lifetime, I thought.

As Toffler walked toward the podium, his iconic quotation appeared on the screen: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” Toffler warned us that learning must adapt in new and different ways. His mantra? “Drinking information from a fire hose without choking.”

Study with Toffler for a year? Don’t think I haven’t tried. To no avail thus far. If I could study with him for a year, I would want to study the ways in which colleges can engage students in this new vision of literacy and avoid the “catastrophe phase” he references, which I have seen in the personal lives of many students. Is the “electronic cottage” that he envisioned isolating us or actually connecting us in new and different ways? How do we apply the lessons of the past to the future and become leaders in the “Third Wave”? The future is coming toward us at a faster pace every day. How do we not just survive, but prosper? How can I use his mentoring to take my college consulting to a new and higher level?

Mr. Toffler, if you are reading this, I still want to learn — and relearn — from you.

What is one small piece of advice that has had a big impact on your life?

Always ask yourself: “What are you pretending not to know?”

My grandmother asked me this when I was a child, and I still ponder the question every day. Inconvenient truths and self-deception block our ability to be honest with ourselves and prevent us from moving forward toward our best possible selves.

Where would you send a student who hasn't traveled before?

I am fond of this Anaïs Nin quotation: “We don’t see the world as it is, we see the world as we are.” Sometimes, a new perspective on the world can be found just around the corner.

A few years ago, I coached an intelligent young high school junior from an underperforming high school in Atlanta who had been referred to me by the school’s principal. When I asked him which foreign countries he had visited, he responded, “Never left Atlanta.”

He was brilliant, but struggling to overcome the trap his lack of life experience had become. After a few meetings, I came up with a plan. He applied for and landed a job at Your Dekalb Farmers Market. This market — one of the largest indoor food markets in the country — is practically a small city unto itself, populated by the immigrant population that has defined not just Atlanta, but the entire New South.

I asked him to chronicle his journey, and he wrote about meeting dozens of new people speaking unique languages. He wrote about the nearly two hundred flags hanging from the rafters, reflecting the rich diversity of both the market’s clientele and his fellow employees. He wrote about how he was only one of a handful of native Southerners, black or white, to work there. He quickly learned to bridge cultural divides and prejudices about those whose skin color was different or whose language and customs were foreign to him. He tried new, exotic foods, making friends while he also learned to broaden his palate. His journal entries recorded the global culinary diversity that he was experiencing. He collected both recipes and new words from those he befriended. New friends invited him into their homes, fed him at their dinner tables, and allowed him to share in customs and traditions with their families.

He graduated last year from Morehouse, a historically black college in Atlanta, and spent six months travelling across Europe before accepting a job in Boston. And I was there for his graduation. I could not have been more proud of anyone.

While travel and education are not mutually-exclusive terms, catch-phrases like “global citizen” and “cross-cultural learning” are generally reserved for those who travel the world. In his case, though, he only had to ride his bicycle a few miles down the road to truly embrace these values.

When was a time that you failed academically, and what did you learn from the experience?

I failed an entire semester once. I was recently divorced, and broke. Graduate school seemed like a good place to get the fresh start I needed. There were three prerequisite courses for the MBA program, so I registered for them. About a month in, I stopped going to class. The coursework was overwhelming for me, though it probably wouldn’t have seemed challenging at any other point in my life.

During the rest of the semester, I figured out who I was and who I wanted to become in life. The process was painful, but at the same time cathartic and exhilarating. I learned a lot about life and about myself. I also realized the MBA program was a great way to waste good money trying to become someone I wasn’t.

I did return to graduate school, but I earned a master's degree in the field that represents my first love: history. Thanks to the things I learned that semester, I have taught history and written books for the last 25 years.

Even the things I share with students I coach are inspired by what I learned that semester. Go to college for the right reasons. Study what you love. Enjoy the valleys as well as the peaks, because your life is going to unfold in wonderful and mysterious ways.

Why did you go into your field, and how is it different from what you expected?

I went into college planning full time a few years ago after dabbling in it for years. I enjoy helping families navigate the confusing and stressful college planning process and helping students find their sparks and become successful not just in college, but in life. My students are on the verge of adulthood, and I am blessed with the skills and experience to help them transition.

I view the journey a little like a doorway. These students are about to pass through this door, and they have parents, teachers, and guidance counselors all pushing them toward it. Sometimes, though, they aren’t quite sure the best way to guide them as they actually step through. I’m on the other side of that door. I can talk them through the process, leading and coaching students through their transformations. I get to empower students to be their own advocates and to take control of their own college planning. And I often help them learn to write a damn good admissions essay, too.

The college admissions process is expensive and stressful, and many of the things students believe about their path to college are based on false assumptions. Fueled by the hype of U.S. News and World Report rankings and reinforced by slick marketing campaigns run by many colleges, some students feel like they must go to the biggest and the best when that doesn’t fit within their personal needs.

I get to empower these students to make the right decisions about college and their lives. I don’t get them into their dream schools — they do that themselves — I just provide the leadership and tools to make it happen. I turn a competitive admissions process into a transformative experience, one that shapes their lives forever.

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