Leader: Wise up to the modern world

To succeed in the 21st century, graduates will need much more than a narrow range of skills offered by an outdated academy

April 28, 2011

A wise person, according to the psychologist Barry Schwartz, is like a jazz musician. Both refer to the notes on the page "but dance around them, inventing combinations that are appropriate to the situation and people at hand".

They know "when and how to make the exception to every rule" and "when and how to improvise", Schwartz explained in a 2009 talk for the ideas network, TED. The wise person can handle real-world problems - those complex, ill-defined challenges whose contexts and parameters shift constantly.

His riff was picked up by another Schwartz - Steven, the vice-chancellor of Macquarie University in Australia. In his 2010 vice-chancellor's lecture, he said the sector had to "wise up" and "restore wisdom to universities".

Professor Schwartz lamented that universities "were once about character building but now...are about money". In this "age of money", he continued, courses are increasingly vocational, designed to train graduates for their first job: in law, accounting and pharmacy, "but also golf-course management, contemporary circus performance, hairdressing salon management...

"Politicians and universities often refer to skills shortages. Apparently we need more circus performers and salon managers. But no one seems to worry about a shortage of philosophers, historians and ethicists."

The UK government's higher education reforms place English universities more squarely than ever in the "age of money", with a market and a bottom line to mind.

With evidence already emerging that a drive to introduce more vocationalism into the curriculum is pushing out arts, humanities and social science degrees ahead of the total removal of public funding from such courses, Schwartz's warnings have proved prescient.

It is more important than ever that institutions and academics understand the working environment that their graduates will enter so that they can prepare them properly. Today's graduate will change career - not job, note - four to six times in a lifetime, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. And that is not the only uncertainty they face: some predict that 65 per cent of the jobs that will be available eight years from now - when those currently entering secondary school look to start a career - do not even exist yet.

So how are universities rising to the challenge of preparing young people for this unpredictable future? Collectively, not very well. Most continue to do a "good job of training them for the 20th century", Duke University's Cathy Davidson claims in our cover feature. With their focus on specialisation, on individual achievement, on quantifying outcomes, universities are, she argues compellingly, making students "experts in obsolescence".

The "21st-century literacies" needed in today's workplace are very different: new interpersonal, synthesising, organising and communication skills.

Which sounds a lot like what a good jazzman needs. But inventiveness and adaptability in a musician has to be nurtured, and it is the same with wisdom.

Surely it is the most important role of universities to provide, promote and foster wisdom - in themselves and others. Barry Schwartz said in his TED Conference talk: "A wise person is made, not born...(they) need to be mentored by wise teachers."


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