Learning to embrace the unknown
The neo-Shakespearean satire Charles III tells the story of a man who has spent his life preparing for a job. When it finally comes his way, he makes a complete mess of it and is forced to abdicate. All those years of preparation have been totally wasted. The play is a comedy but it could be an allegorical representation of much of our present education policy, whose attempts to align tertiary education with the job market have failed so many of our young people. Radical changes in how people think about employment and income, accompanied by a dramatic increase in the capabilities of learning machines, will make the task as presently conceived very much harder. If future generations of students are to succeed in the new economy, the nature of their education must be very different.
In a climate in which controlling public expenditure seems to be a prime goal of fiscal policy, it is to be expected that the value of government investment in education be assessed in terms of its contribution to the economy. The simplest argument to make is for courses that are directly related to specific jobs: voters are more likely to see a job outcome for someone with a degree in accounting than in, say, astronomy or medieval history.
As is the case for many simple arguments, outcomes from implementing this as policy have been, at best, disappointing. Today’s graduates are facing the worst job prospects in a quarter of a century. In 2014 only two-thirds of new bachelor degree graduates were working full-time four months after graduating, compared with 85 per cent six years earlier.1 Graduations and vacancies are misaligned: newspapers regularly comment on our shortage of IT and mathematics graduates and excess of accountants, lawyers and vets. Only 63 per cent of psychology graduates get jobs in psychology and their salaries are little better than the wages of factory workers.2 The skills our graduates are trained in tend not to be the ones the economy needs: over the past three years, employers have increasingly listed non-job-specific skills such as critical thinking and creativity in their job advertisements.3 The problem is not ours alone: in Europe, despite 25 per cent youth unemployment, well over half of employers are not confident they can find graduates with the right skills.4
Of course our students are unhappy about this state of affairs. Two in three are concerned about getting a career-related job and more than half feel job prospects in their field are not strong.5 One in every two tertiary students feels so pessimistic about their prospects that they are considering further study so as to avoid making career decisions.6 Responses to a 2012 survey show that only 37 per cent of students in later years believed their university experiences had contributed very much to developing their work-related knowledge and skills. Only 27 per cent felt strongly that their studies had prepared them to work effectively with others and even fewer thought their studies had contributed very much to their ability to solve complex, real-world problems.7 Again, this is not peculiar to Australia.
After two years at university in the United States, almost half of the students showed no significant improvement in their cognitive skills and in some courses, such as business administration, their cognitive abilities declined in the first few years.8 Now that Britain has introduced hefty fees for undergraduate degrees, students are becoming increasingly critical and the proportion feeling they receive good value for money is down by a third in the last three years.9 As the reporter commented, we are ‘educating more people who aren’t that interested, for jobs that don’t exist, in a way that has little impact on their intellectual ability’. Sixty years ago, Albert Einstein was equally concerned:
I want to oppose the idea that the school has to teach directly that special knowledge and those accomplishments which one has to use later directly in life. The demands of life are much too manifold to let such a specialized training in school appear possible. Apart from that, it seems to me, moreover, objectionable to treat the individual like a dead tool … This in my opinion is true in a certain sense even for technical schools whose students will devote themselves to a quite definite profession. The development of general ability for independent thinking and judgment should always be placed foremost, not the acquisition of special knowledge. If a person masters the fundamentals of his subject and has learned to think and work independently, he will surely find his way and besides be better able to adapt himself to progress and changes than the person whose training principally consists in the acquiring of detailed knowledge.10
There are many reasons for this failure, including the time lag between changes in job requirements and the ability of tertiary institutions to reconfigure their syllabi. With the rate of change in job content accelerating, that problem will not be easy to fix. Nor would fixing it necessarily address the challenge of ensuring graduates have the cognitive skills many now seem to lack. It is perhaps fortunate that the degree of change we will see in the job market and in the capabilities of machines over the next few years is such that we have no alternative but to rethink our whole approach.
The time when employment could be thought of in terms of a stable nine to five Monday to Friday job, or a career as involving only one or two major pivots and one in-depth skill set, has long since passed. Today it is rare for an employer to offer a long-term career, and part-time and contract jobs are on the rise. Since the 1990s, nearly 60 per cent of the growth in jobs across the OECD has been in jobs that are temporary, part-time or self-employed.11 Full-time employment rates for young people in Australia are at their lowest since 1986 and part-time rates at their highest.12 In the United States, 60 per cent of millennials stay fewer than three years in their first job13 and the average worker now holds 10 different jobs before age 40, a number that is projected to grow.14 Hence the introductory note to an Oxford University survey of how its humanities graduates had fared: ‘The extent to which higher education helps to make people responsive to change—its impact over their lives—lies not only in what they did at university, but on how well that education enables them to take on new and unexpected challenges and the further learning they entail. Do they have the mobile knowledge skills that they, their society and economy need?’15
These changes in employment norms are matched by an environment in which sources of income are changing and young people are increasingly seeking portfolio or freelance careers. In a recent survey, 87 per cent of British graduates with first- or second-class degrees saw freelancing as highly attractive and almost as many believed that freelancing would become the norm.16 Almost half of young people in the United States would prefer more flexibility to more pay,17 and more than half of young Australians are willing to earn income as a service provider on digital platforms.18 It is already possible that a resident of Darwin may be working as a copywriter for a Texan digital agency, holding a semi-regular casual position in a café down the road, maintaining a small income stream through performing odd jobs on AirTasker, being an Uber driver when in need of a cash boost, and saving money by using information and materials sourced from the internet to manufacture simple items more cheaply than they can be bought in shops.
It is not only the relation between the individual and work that is changing: still more dramatic will be the changes to come in the content of work. Technology continues to redefine the value of human labour—physical or mental. Carl Frey and Michael Osborne of the Oxford Martin School found that almost half the jobs in the United States would vanish by 2032, including some in highly specialised roles, such as auditor, insurance underwriter and credit analyst. Those least at risk of automation are hands-on jobs such as masseuse and fire fighter, which do not require a university degree.19 Financial advisers, paramedics and personal assistants are among the vulnerable: computer-driven investment advice is offered by services such as Betterment and by Macquarie Group’s Owners Advisory. Swiftkey software learns how Professor Stephen Hawking thinks so it can suggest what words he might want to use next. Personal assistants can be replaced by the mechanical Amy Ingram from x.ai, who learns your preferences and schedules your meetings if you just copy ‘her’ in on your emails.
Exactly what this means for employment may be debated: rather than the 47 per cent of Frey and Osborne, a more recent study suggested that most jobs contained elements that humans still performed better than computers, notably group work and face-to-face interactions, and recalculated the figure as 9 per cent—though this still meant massive disruption and the figure for the poorest quartile of workers would still be 26 per cent.20 The World Economic Forum, on the other hand, believes that five million jobs across 15 economies will be lost to computers by 2020 and that across the OECD as a whole, well over half of all jobs are at risk.21 In the medium term, one might wonder whether the lower estimate takes full account of the exponential rate at which learning machines are catching up with human beings, albeit from an apparently low base. On average, leading students of artificial intelligence expect machine intellect (defined in our own terms) to match ours by 2050, and to go on increasing at an ever faster rate.22
Already, Microsoft’s HoloLens allows people to interact with HD holograms, with implications for everything from education to medicine and art. IBM’s Watson allows you to build ‘cognitive computing features’, such as converting human speech to text and analysing its tone and emotional content. Even if the machines choose not to eliminate our species, as Stephen Hawking and others fear, we may well find the Swiss were typically prescient in holding a referendum in May 2016 on whether everyone should receive a basic income, irrespective of employment status. Although the proposal was soundly defeated this time, the matter is receiving serious attention in several other successful economies, including Ireland, Finland and the Netherlands.
We can be sure that the first tasks to go will be repetitive ones and sequences of them that can be readily defined and codified. Unfortunately rather a lot of our current tertiary offerings are of that nature. According to the Foundation for Young Australians, 60 per cent of Australian students are training for careers in which two-thirds of today’s tasks will be automated before they are mid-career.23
The harder task is to identify the skills that will be in demand. Learning machines will educate themselves; how should we educate humans?
There are several ways of getting an informed view of the capabilities that will be of most value in an increasingly machine-dominated world. It is obvious that an ability to work with the machines (basic IT skills) will be as important tomorrow as the times tables were yesterday; the trades and professions that will need to be comfortable working with the latest technology are certain to include doctors, plumbers, decorators, dentists, auditors and lawyers. (Any other list would probably do just as well.)
Beyond this, one promising approach is to try to identify working practices that might be harder for computers to match soon. Companies are increasingly investing in Design Thinking—a process that taps into deeply human abilities that are overlooked by more conventional problem-solving practices. It relies on our ability to be intuitive, to recognise patterns, to construct ideas that are emotionally meaningful as well as functional, and to express ourselves through means beyond words or symbols.24 The case is often made that Emotional Intelligence (EQ) has become more important than IQ. Deutschendorf identifies seven relevant qualities of desirable employees in a modern workplace: they can handle pressure healthily, they understand and cooperate with others, they are good listeners, they are more open to feedback, they are empathetic, they set an example for others to follow and they make more thoughtful and thorough decisions.25 Developers point to the value of empathic accuracy or ‘the ability to infer the specific content of another person’s thoughts and feelings’,26 although some scientists think this will only make the problem worse:
It is not that this would somehow enable us to ‘keep up with the machines’—the ultimate limits of information processing in machine substrate far exceed those of a biological cortex however far enhanced. The contrary is instead the case: human cognitive enhancement would hasten the day when machines overtake us, since smarter humans would make more rapid progress in computer science.27
The World Economic Forum thinks the most important capability in 2020 will be complex problem solving (also number one in 2015), followed by critical thinking (fourth in 2015) and creativity (tenth).28 The Foundation for Young Australians identifies a set of ‘Enterprising Skills’ that are transferable across different jobs and are a more powerful predictor of long-term job success and performance than technical knowledge.29 As well as financial and digital literacy, they include communication, project management and the ability critically to assess and analyse information and to be creative and innovative. Employers are looking for people who are not just able to draw on established practice that delivers proven solutions, but who know how to deal with ambiguity, work with inexact or incomplete information, explore different possibilities and judge how to advance a conclusion or course of action where there is no proven approach or answer. This is reflected in job advertisements: company recruiters are now more likely to specify enterprise skills than technical skills, and over the last three years the proportion that demand critical thinking has increased by 158 per cent, creativity by 65 per cent, presentation skills by 25 per cent and teamwork by 19 per cent. Jobs specifying these skill requirements also paid better than those that did not.30 These capabilities are ‘not about learning the prescription to achieve a textbook result … [but] … about having the intellectual capacity to attack those issues for which there is as yet no metaphorical text or answer’.31 As a KnowInnovation post puts it:
It means staying in uncertainty, or staying with the question, despite the discomfort of not knowing the answer, or not knowing where we’re headed. It requires relinquishing control—even though a solution isn’t always guaranteed—to make room for new and emerging connections to crystallise into a clear direction.
It also means accepting the fact that there might be numerous ways of answering the same question, each with different but potentially positive results.32
This tolerance of ambiguity is seldom provided by a course with a job title. A Harvard Business Review article expresses concern about what this means for commercial enterprises:
What can’t be replaced in any organisation imaginable in the future is precisely what seems overlooked today: liberal arts skills, such as creativity, empathy, listening, and vision. These skills, not digital or technological ones, will hold the keys to a company’s future success. And yet companies aren’t hiring for them. This is a problem for today’s digital companies, and it’s only going to get worse.33
It is perhaps unsurprising that futurists keep mentioning the liberal arts, as the thinking skills required are very like those claimed for the humanities and natural sciences.34 Perhaps we had the answer all along, and, like many other truths in our world, it has been temporarily obscured by a populist and trivialising political dialogue, egged on by a media more concerned with the politics of the debate than the substance of it. Properly taught, the humanities and natural sciences are not about rote learning or replication of similar solutions; they are about problem solving and critical thinking. Students are repeatedly asked to rearticulate and analyse a question they have never thought about before, envisage what form an answer might take, generate one or more hypotheses, decide what data are needed for an informed decision, find ways to gather and interpret the data, test their hypotheses critically, generate new ones if the original ones fail, and finally select the most promising answer and support it with rigorous evidence and logic. Students of history, literature and philosophy do this all the time; so do molecular biologists, experimental chemists and engineers.
The value of a liberal arts education is not in the content that is taught, but rather in the mode of teaching and in the intellectual skills that are gained by learning how to think systematically and rigorously. Thanks to the internet, more of the world can access more knowledge and more rubbish than ever before. Viewing it, collecting it, distributing it and ‘liking’ it are trivial tasks. Knowing what to do with it all and being able to exercise sound judgement—to have the conceptual frameworks to be able to appreciate it, to be discerning and know what is good, what is helpful, what is important, what is meaningful, what will solve and inspire—these are the imperatives for our future. A good liberal arts education teaches students how to think, not what to know.
Even in today’s educational policy settings, ‘our longitudinal studies show the graduates most likely to be in full-time work by the age of 27 are those who have done an arts degree’, probably because they have the skills to ‘think outside the box’, says Johanna Wyn, director of the University of Melbourne’s Youth Research Centre. Philosophy graduates are increasingly in demand. While the number of all graduates in full-time and part-time work six months after graduation in Britain had risen by 9 per cent between 2002–03 and 2005–06, employment of philosophy graduates rose by 13 per cent. It is in the fields of finance, property development and the nebulous category of ‘business’ that those versed in Plato and Kant are most sought after. In ‘business’, property development, renting and research, 76 per cent more philosophy graduates were employed in 2005–06 than in 2002–03; in the apparently more cognate applications of health and social work, just 9 per cent more.35
Even when their careers have no apparent connection with their first degree, liberal arts students tend to do better. Data from the delightfully named Arts Emergency UK show that humanities graduates tend to progress to more senior and responsible roles than people who have only a technical qualification.36 An Oxford University survey of humanities graduates from 1960 to 1989 found that a disproportionate number held senior positions in commerce and the law. The head of Humanities commented:
[It shows that] employers desperately want candidates with succinct and persuasive written and verbal communication skills and the capacity for critical analysis and synthesis. Anyone who has written a critical analysis of Plato’s Republic in less than 1,000 words, or defended their interpretation of the French revolution under questioning from a top historian … will know that studying the humanities gives you an excellent grounding in all of these skills.37
Beyond immediate economic implications, the world increasingly faces the global migration crisis and new, wicked problems that have no precedent, such as climate change and how to implement an ethical approach to managing artificial intelligence. These are ‘multifactorial problems that can’t be solved within a single domain but will need liberally-educated, expansive thinkers who are comfortable in many fields’.38 Stanford’s d.school (Institute of Design) is one of a number of institutions aiming to foster the innovation required to respond to these challenges by bringing together engineering, medicine, business, law, the humanities and sciences, to ‘take on the world’s messy problems.’39
We are increasingly called on to embrace these and other unknowns. We cannot apply past answers because the past gives no direct answers (though it may give plenty of clues). Our only option is to discover or invent the solution. We need to do more than just prepare young people to survive in the world of unknowns; we need to equip them to manage the unknowns and thrive. The mental disciplines provided by the humanities and natural sciences enable us to see beyond where we are, to find ourselves linked with others we have never directly known, and to understand that, in some abiding and urgent sense, we share a world. In an increasingly secular society, the liberal arts provide a critical set of disciplines that look both inwards and outwards, and draw on the special qualities of human experience and intellect to help us navigate it all.
We have observed how political necessity has oversimplified the discussion about what skills should be developed to help future generations thrive. An inevitable concomitant of a short-term (quick payback) investment approach is a desire to measure outcomes. Outcomes from a liberal arts degree, even those as widely recognised as those touched on above, are not easy to measure and first attempts often appear ignorant and crass to the academics being measured. Rather than fight this, many humanities academics claim that they should be exempt from measurement and prefer to make a more metaphysical appeal. It is not clear why these advocates feel obliged to deny or downplay utilitarian benefits in making the case for non-utilitarian ones, and, for entirely predictable reasons, this approach has not found favour with public or private funders—and is unlikely to under current policy settings—but the arguments can be powerfully and convincingly expressed, as here by Leon Wieseltier in the New York Times:
The strongest defense of the humanities lies not in the appeal to their utility—that literature majors may find good jobs, that theatres may economically revitalize neighbourhoods—but rather in the appeal to their defiantly non-utilitarian character, so that individuals can know more than how things work, and develop their powers of discernment and judgment, their competence in matters of truth and goodness and beauty, to equip themselves adequately for the choices and the crucibles of private and public life.40
It is tempting to point out that these ‘nonutilitarian’ benefits sound quite similar to the EQ that is said to be becoming more useful. In any event it is certainly true that their non-economic value may be greater still in a world where routine tasks are not available to many. They allow us to learn to read carefully, with appreciation and a critical eye; to find ourselves unexpectedly in the middle of the historical or literary texts we are reading, to ask the questions people have always asked without finding an answer, and to consider ways of living, thinking, acting and reflecting that belong to times and places we have never known. They give us a chance to read across languages and cultural differences in order to understand the vast range of perspectives possible in our world. The philosopher Judith Butler even describes the humanities as a means to a more peaceful existence: ‘The first step towards nonviolence, which is surely an absolute obligation we all bear, is to begin to think critically, and to ask others to do the same.’41
Equally important claims can be made for the natural sciences, although education policy too often considers them only in relation to their potential for technical achievements rather than for the insights they provide into every aspect of our world. They too investigate our place in the universe and what it is to be human. Above all they teach us humility in the face of the unknown. They fill us with wonder at the behaviour of the very large and the very small, neither compatible with the Newtonian physics that we use to navigate our daily lives nor very easy to grasp without a great deal of mental effort. Our view of a well-educated person should demand that she have as good a grasp of the essence of relativity and quantum theory as of great works of literature. C.P. Snow made the point compellingly:
A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?42
And it works both ways: Einstein again, addressing scientists, ‘It is essential that the student acquire an understanding of and a lively feeling for values. He must acquire a vivid sense of the beautiful and the morally good. Otherwise he—with his specialised knowledge—more closely resembles a well-trained dog than a harmoniously developed person.’43
Over and above the imperative of preparing future generations to excel at the tasks that computers might not, there are wicked problems and a lot of nonsense out there. We need to educate our young people in how to manage these daunting challenges. How can we turn our policy frameworks away from the short-term focus that has failed in recent years and make it politically feasible to support programs that develop the capabilities a very different future demands? How can we stop our education system promoting disciplines that are best left to machines and convince it to focus on areas in which human beings can truly excel? How are our uniquely human capabilities best developed and the outcomes of the relevant teaching best measured? This is the discussion we must have, and the sooner we start the better.
- Graduate Careers Australia, Australian Graduate Survey 2014, <http://www.graduadecareers.com.au/>.
- McCrindle Research, Gen Z Commence University: Choosing the Right Course, McCrindle Research, 2014.
- Foundation for Young Australians, New Basics, 2016, <http://www.fya.org.au>.
- McKinsey Institute, The World at Work: Jobs, Pay and Skills for 3.5 Billion People, McKinsey Institute, 2012.
- Foundation for Young Australians, New Work Order, 2015, <http://www.fya.org.au>.
- BDO Australia, Future Leaders Index: Careers and Employment, 2015, <http://www.bdo.com>.
- ACER Research, Australasian Survey of Student Engagement, 2012, <http://www.acer.edu.au/ausse>.
- R. Arum and J. Roksa, Academically Adrift, Limited Learning on College Campuses, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2011.
- Andre Spicer, ‘The knowledge economy is a myth’, UK Guardian, 19 May 2016.
- Albert Einstein, ‘Education for independent thought’, New York Times, 5 October 1952.
- OECD, OECD Labour Statistics statistics, 2015, <http://www.oecd.org/std/labour-stats/>.
- Foundation for Young Australians, How Young People Are Faring, 2015, <http://www.fya.org.au>.
- Millennial Branding, The Cost of Millennial Retention, August 2013, <http://millenialbranding.com/2013/cost-millenial-retention-study/>.
- US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Number of Jobs Held, Labor Market Activity, and Earnings Growth among the Youngest Baby Boomers: Results from a Longitudinal Survey, 2015, <www.bls.gov>.
- Oxford University, Humanities Graduates and the British Economy, the Hidden Impact (survey), 2013, <http://www.torch.ox.ac.uk/graduateimpact>.
- Elance survey, see <http,//www.ibtimes.co.uk/top-performing-british-graduates-turned-off-by-traditional-jobs-1435195?>.
- Millennial Branding, The Cost of Millennial Retention.
- Foundation for Young Australians, New Work Order.
- C.B. Frey and M.A. Osborne, The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation?, 2013, <www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/publications/view/1314>.
- M. Arntz, T. Gregory and U. Ziehran, The Risk of Automation for Jobs in OECD Countries 2019, <http://ideas.repec.org/p/oec/elsaab/189-en.html>.
- World Economic Forum, The Future of Jobs, 2016, <http://reports.woforum.org/future-of-jobs-2016/>.
- V.C. Müller and N. Bostrom, ‘Future progress in artificial intelligence, a survey of expert opinion’, in Vincent C. Müller (ed.), Fundamental issues of Artificial Intelligence, Springer, Synthese Library, Berlin, 2014.
- Foundation for Young Australians, New Work Order.
- See, for instance, the US company IDEO, <https//www.ideo.com>.
- H. Deutschendorf, ‘7 reasons why emotional intelligence is one of the fastest-growing job skills’, in Fast Company, 2016, <https//www.fastcompany.com/3059481/7-reasons-why-emotional-intelligence-is-one-of-the-fastest-growing-job-skills>.
- Ernie Miller, ‘Humane Development: Empathy Unpacked’, Technology magazine, 12 February 2016, <https//speakerdeck.com/erniemiller-humane-development-empathy-unpacked>.
- N. Bostrom, ‘Five ways the superintelligence revolution might happen’, the Conversation, 25 September 2014, <http//theconversation.com/five-ways-the-superintelligence-revolution-might-happen-32124>.
- World Economic Forum, Future of Jobs, 2016.
- Foundation for Young Australians, New Work Order.
- Foundation for Young Australians, New Basics.
- C. Gaposchkin, ‘Here are some more reasons why liberal arts matter’, the Conversation, 5 November 2015, <http//theconversation.com/hre-are-some-more-reasons-why-the-liberal-arts-matter>.
- M. Dugan, Tolerating Ambiguity, April 2013, <http//knowinnovation.com/2013/04/tolerating-ambiguity/>.
- T. Perrault, ‘Digital companies need more liberal arts majors’, Harvard Business Review, January 2016.
- In the ancient and medieval world, when the liberal arts as we know them began to take shape, they comprised grammar, logic, rhetoric, music, arithmetic, geometry and astronomy. The last three we would count as STEM disciplines today; music, dealing mostly with numerical relationships through sound, was really more akin to what we would call physics.
- UK Higher Education Statistics Agency, Graduate Employment and Salaries Data, 2005, <https://www.hesa.ac.uk/data-and-analysis/students>.
- See <http//www.arts-emergency.org/about-us/arts-humanities-matter/>.
- Oxford University, Humanities Graduates and the British Economy.
- P. Robbie, quoted in Gaposchkin, ‘Here are some more reasons’.
- See <http//dschool.stanford.edu/our-point-of-view/#innovators>.
- Leon Wieseltier, ‘Among the disrupted’, New York Times, 7 January 2015.
- Judith Butler, Commencement address at McGill University, 11 June 2013.
- C.P. Snow, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1959.
- Einstein, ‘Education for independent thought’.