Disclaimer: The education system is plagued by many issues. The point of this essay is not to discuss nor address those issues. It is instead to discuss one idea which may help develop thinkers capable of building a better tomorrow.
THERE'S NO SHORTAGE OF CHAOS
The world is becoming more complex, global and interlinked. It's changing quickly and showing no signs of slowing down. The faster we hurl towards the future, the more important it is that we become quick learners and adaptive thinkers.
This requires fundamental changes in the way that we approach problems. It's easy to turn to buzzwords such as disruption and innovation when talking about problem-solving, it's another to use them to change mindsets and behaviour.
Education is a tool capable of causing such a change in mindset and behaviour. It serves as a tool to develop thinkers who are critical, dynamic and creative. These are the types of thinkers able to solve problems by leveraging technology as a tool for liberation and progress.
THE NEED FOR GREAT THINKERS
The future lies in scientific and technological education. Regardless of where you look, technology and science are advancing extremely quickly, and they're dragging the world, and us, with them. Everything we do is becoming more scientific and more data-driven.
This holds true whether you consider retail or healthcare, manufacturing or agriculture, finance or logistics. The list goes on and is continuing to grow. As a result, the world is increasingly incomprehensible without basic scientific knowledge. This knowledge gap will continue to widen as science and technology advance, and as they infiltrate each and every industry.
We're living in a data-driven world, and it's only getting bigger. Artificial intelligence and big data are at the heart of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. There's something a little bit different about this revolution though, something which sets it apart from the previous three.
In the previous three, namely water and steam, electric power, and computing and automation, technology was created which subsequently transformed the way the world did things. Improved technology transformed the way that factories operated and office workers went about their jobs. The biggest changes took place in the work we did, and at the places where we did that work.
In this one, the technologies that mark this revolution — artificial intelligence and the collection and analysis of big data – are directly available to, and used by, individuals around the world. We have it in our pockets, in our homes and, quite literally, in our hands. Humans and their data are intertwined. You can't simply leave the Fourth Industrial Revolution at work like you could with the previous three.
This can result in humans being pushed and pulled into compromising positions. It's vital that we learn how to use, think about, and approach the technology which is not only changing industries but changing our everyday lives. How do we do this?
By developing thinkers who are critical, dynamic and creative. Thinkers who are able to leverage this technology as a tool for liberation and advancement. Thinkers who are going to use the increasing accessibility and ability of technology to build a future worth living in.
Technology presents an enormous opportunity for growth, and it brings with it unbreakable momentum. Momentum is dangerous if it's headed in the wrong direction. Humans, and particularly the thinkers described above, are responsible for providing direction. These kinds of thinkers are found at the intersection of humanities and technology.
HELLO, ADA LOVELACE
“I love science, and it pains me to think that so many are terrified of the subject or feel that choosing science means you cannot also choose compassion, or the arts, or be awed by nature. Science is not meant to cure us of mystery, but to reinvent and reinvigorate it.” - Robert Sapolsky
The best creators and thinkers of centuries past have been lovers of humanities and technology. Leonardo Da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Ben Franklin, Steve Jobs and Ada Lovelace all stood at the intersection of humanities and science.
Ada Lovelace was brought up by a father who was a famous poet, Lord Byron (mad, bad and dangerous to know, so I've read), and a mother who was a passionate mathematician and scientist.
The result was Ada Lovelace, the worlds first programmer. The woman who wrote programs for a designed, but yet to be built, computer, called the Analytical Engine. She was something much more important than a programmer, though. She was the first truly visionary person to see the real potential of computers. She saw that they would one day be creative. Her visionary work continues to shape the world that we live in today, almost 200 years later.
Leonardo Da Vinci was a master of the arts - painting, drawing, sculpting -, science, engineering, architecture and anatomy. He wrote literature and drew designs for the helicopter at the same desk. Allegedly, he was able to draw with one hand and write with the other, at the same time. He was the kind of genius that gets spoken about centuries after his death. If the intersection of humanities and technology were a real place, a statue of Da Vinci would stand at the centre.
What should we take out of these stories?
At the intersection of humanities and technology, we find people who are unbelievably creative. People capable of incredible feats of invention and innovation (apologies for the buzzword). We find people who are designing, creating and improving the world around them.
These are the people who single-handedly drive progress in society. These are the people we need to act as the navigators of the battering ram that is technology. These are the people at the intersection of humanities and technology, and there is something magical about that intersection.
BRING IN OUR BEST THINKERS
Solving problems requires more than just developing tools to address a need. Thinking is crucial to problem-solving because it provides direction to developing the tools used to solve the problem. Science and technology are effective tools because they're analytical and precise. Complications arise when they're used without doing prior thinking to frame the problem.
Arts and the humanities strengthen the analytical thinking of science and technology. They provide direction. In arts and humanities, students learn to contemplate and frame questions differently; creative thinking is encouraged. Not all thinking is problem-driven.
Julio M. Ottino, the dean of the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Northwestern University, articulated the power of art perfectly:
"At its best, art does not solve problems; it creates questions. It brings the ability to think with a clean slate, to begin with broad, unstructured initial thinking, followed by painstaking attention to detail. It shows us the world under new, sometimes unrecognisable, light. Seeing things in a completely new fashion is ultimately what innovation is about.
As we apply this kind of thinking to problems which were previously approached from a strictly analytical viewpoint, we begin to notice things that weren't previously there. We notice the opportunities which we previously missed.
OVER TO YOU, UNIVERSITIES
Imagine a child placed in a playpen. In the playpen, the child is given toys. These toys are interesting and enjoyable, but the child loves to learn and explore and is fascinated by other toys too. Those toys are very different and would teach the child different skills. The problem is that the other toys are on the outside of the playpen. No matter what the child tries, they're unable to play with the other toys. As this goes on, the child begins to forget about the other toys. The result is a child who only knows how to play with one set of toys and has far less desire to learn and explore than when they entered the playpen.
Students at university are like children in a playpen. They arrive, eager to learn, only to be told that they're limited to certain modules. These modules are interesting, but what happens if you're an engineer that wants to learn about psychology? Psychology modules fall outside of your playpen, sorry. A law student that wants to learn about computers? Computer Science modules fall outside of your playpen, sorry. A visual arts student that wants to learn about anatomy? Outside of your playpen, sorry. The result is students leaving university with a narrow knowledge base and far less desire to learn about anything outside of their field.
University is meant to be a time of intellectual exploration and discovery. Exploration becomes limited when you're told that you're only allowed to learn, explore or discover certain things. This rigidity of universities expels the possibility of interdisciplinary study. It confines you to one playpen, with limited toys to stimulate your intellectual curiosity.
Of course, this does not apply to everybody and every institution, but there are too many students who find themselves in this position. Plenty of students wish to broaden their field of knowledge, yet find themselves unable to do so.
Diverse knowledge is important because it changes your perspective. It provides you with a unique viewpoint and allows you to form unique and creative ideas. When students are afforded the opportunity to learn about history, art, science, literature, and whatever else they desire, they develop this diverse body of knowledge.
Denying students the opportunity to explore creates problems. Firstly, talented and intelligent students are forced into becoming one-dimensional. Their intellectual curiosity gets pushed aside, and often never returns. For students unable to ignore this curiosity, they seek other means to explore it, often outside of the tertiary education system. The result of this is an educational pipeline that is full of leaks.
Imagine trying to tell Da Vinci to choose between painting the Mona Lisa and designing the parachute, it just seems absurd.
The second problem is that instead of using our education system to develop the kind of thinkers and creators we find at the intersection of humanities and technology, universities act as traffic officers directing people away from this intersection. If students are not allowed, let alone encouraged, to explore diverse and creative topics, we cannot expect to produce diverse and creative thinkers.
By encouraging students to think and learn in an explorative manner, a set of thinkers who are capable of extraordinary feats is developed. It's a set of thinkers who understand social dynamics, social problems, and how to use technology as a tool to fix these problems. An educational system based in humanities, science, and arts will produce students who excel at creative thinking, innovation and invention. These students become thinkers that can direct you to wherever you want to go.