Appiah: technical education ‘wasted’ without bigger picture

Universities should equip students to deal with changing nature of work through broad education, says National Humanities Medal recipient

October 11, 2022
Kwame Anthony Appiah speaks at the World Academic Summit
Source: Steve Myaskovsky

Education that focuses solely on preparing a graduate for a particular job is “wasted pretty soon” given the rapidly changing nature of work, and therefore universities should not move towards technical courses at the expense of a broader education, renowned philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah has argued.

The New York University professor – a recipient of the National Humanities Medal – mounted a defence of liberal arts at Times Higher Education’s World Academic Summit, arguing that higher education’s role was to prepare graduates not just for their first job, but for all the changes and challenges that might come after it.

“If you focus your education on a particular job, it will have been wasted pretty soon,” he said.

“The world is changing; your job is going to change. Unless you have a bigger framework of thinking about what to do when the new job comes along, or when new challenges occur – a framework of thinking about what it is to live a life as an autonomous person responsible for making your own choices – no amount of technical preparation is going to solve your problems.”

Professor Appiah said he had nothing against technical education – and he himself would like to learn to code – but institutions should not forget that “it is only one part of the picture”.

The cultural theorist – who was born in London and has taught in the UK, the US and Ghana, where his father was a politician – said the advances in modern life had made teaching the humanities more, not less, important.

“Without the full picture, we are stinting people. A modern life is incredibly difficult and complicated. It is not like the life in my mother’s village in England or my father’s village in Ghana. You meet new people every day, [and encounter] new challenges.

“You live in a world inevitably affected by millions of people, thousands of miles away. You need some understanding of that to be a citizen, to make your own choices in your own life and to feel comfortable in the world. Those are things that are not technical.”

Professor Appiah used his keynote speech on the first day of the summit, held at NYU, to address what he thinks makes a successful graduate.

He said “the university as it is clearly isn’t for everyone” and institutions would have to be very different in order to be “useful for everyone who completes a secondary education”.

“Universities are designed for people who have been reasonably successful in their earlier schooling. I am not just talking about elite places…it is true as well for entry-level higher education provided by the American community colleges or the polytechnics in Ghana.”

But, he said, “that doesn’t mean that the basic idea of a liberal education is outside the compass of almost everyone”.

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Reader's comments (1)

Almost... it doesn't matter what your degree subject is, as long as you learn how to think and how to learn whilst studying it. It doesn't have to be the humanities. Come out with an open and enquiring mind, and you can cope with whatever comes even if you never think about your degree subject again. I don't think about botany (my first degree subject) more than answering the odd "Mummy, what's that plant?" when out on a walk, but I use the ability to think and to learn every day in my current role as a Computer Science academic!


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