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Interdisciplinarity, future work and the learning of ‘languages’

August 28, 2011

Currently my work has me thinking about future employment, the world of work and the role of universities in preparing students for this aspect of their lives.

For the point of this blog entry, I want to put aside the issue of whether there is a conflict within universities between scholarship and preparing people for the world of work. There are other articles on things like this in this blog. Let’s assume here that the proportion of the population going to university will remain high and that, therefore, a high proportion of graduates will be seeking work outside universities and the wider reaches of academia.

There is a growing body of evidence that seems to show the rate of creation of jobs – I mean new sorts  of jobs, not just more jobs of the same type – is increasing.

There’s this piece in the Times Higher here (see paragraph 11) and there’s the work of Shift Happens; they are educators from the States who have worked with The Economist magazine on their material. I have also heard from a reliable source that a household name in UK engineering are retraining 30% of their workforce to meet the changing needs of the company. The stat that people are settling on is a turnover of something like 50% in types of job every five years – and this figure seems to be rising.

I have also recently been impressed by this presentation at TED. What Geoffrey West says is that cities – on all the best estimates – seem to be set to rise at a rate of 15% per year for the forseeable future. And the only way anything can survive at this rate of expansion is by innovating constantly. I suggest – and this corroborates the work in the links above – that constant innovation implies constantly changing jobs and careers.

So how can what we do at universities attempt to address this? How can what we do even hope to keep up with this sort of rate of change?

Well, to start with the conservative end of the spectrum, if you will, we must not give up our academic rigour and we must not give up our intellectual roots, the way we are grounded in scholarship, critical thought, learning and research. We start from there.

But what we do well at universities is theorise, abstract out, take the big view so that we can see what needs to be done in the long-term and not go down blind alleys.

In this spirit, I would say that what we are looking at here is teaching new literacies, we might even call then new languages, that will be adaptable and available to be developed even if – as we see above – the detail of the jobs people are looking at changes at a bewildering pace.

What sort of languages/literacies should these be? I’ll try to outline five here – and I will sometimes use languages/literacies interchangeably.

1. Perhaps the obvious ones are the spoken languages. Despite the dominance of English, all educated people will be well served by being able to speak other languages, allowing them to negotiate work in different cultural settings and across the globe. Learning to read and write in these real world languages is, of course, good too!

2. The next most obvious language is an ability to understand and communicate some kind of quantitative thinking: the way stats are used to shape health policy, business and economic policy; the way maths is used in engineering or physics; and, indeed, the encroachment of maths in such areas usually thought of as qualitative: e.g. legal decisions and connoisseurship. Some people (particularly some in the West who have gotten soft on maths and think that it is not fair that all people should have to learn it) will baulk at this. But without the language of quantitative thinking, you will miss out on the debates of the future.

3. The next language, I would say, is digital – though perhaps this should go right at the top in terms of importance. We are still working out what ‘knowing a digital language’ means. Does it mean some understanding of programs, the algorithms behind the ways we increasingly interact with the world? Or does it mean an ability to search and scrutinise the net, to get what you want quickly and to have the tools to ensure that the information is trustworthy? The new digital literacy probably means both these things, and more (the ability to create and distribute multi-media, the ability to craft your thoughts for the appropriate electronic medium etc), but whatever it is, we need to address it and teach it in the most complete and creative way possible. I don’t hold that ‘the kids are way ahead of us here’ and so we should just leave it with them. There are still really smart people in universities (!), well on top of and leading this stuff – and we should be showing our students how universities can lead on this.

A note on digital literacy: there are many who fear that by teaching fewer facts and concentrating on a kind of literacy which teaches where to access the facts, we are risking cognitive decline; the argument says you cannot use the internet properly without knowledge in your brain. I accept some of this. This again is something we need to look at in universities. People need cognitive pegs to hang their learning on; they are then better orientated to set out to find other things that they like or need. But the level of detail is what is critical here. How many historical dates does one need as ‘pegs’ before one can fill in the gaps successfully? How much mathematical knowledge and technique does one need before one can learn to use the software one needs to solve the problem, create the design solution one is looking for? These are live questions.

I’m thinking that the shift to a kind of literacy from books to computers is analogous to the move that occurred from oral history to a more written form of culture. There the concern would be that the cognitive skills of memorising and reciting would be lost in favour of the ‘download of culture’ to books. There must have been fears that entire traditions and ways of being would be lost by this move. Now we have a similar situation. Learning and knowledge do not need to be in the heads of so many individuals: all that is required is that a few people who really know about things put their knowledge on the web. What the rest of us need is to understand where to find it and how to use it. As far as we can tell, the shift from oral to written knowledge was no catastrophe – far from it – so why should the shift to digitally stored knowledge be bad?

4. Economic literacy. Perhaps this reflects merely a growing personal interest – I used to avoid any thought on economics when I was young: it just seemed so messy and the theory was, frankly, silly. But I now think an increased individual involvement in economics is a function of increasing democracy, and so must be embraced, whatever we think of some of the theory. We all need to be economically literate now if we want to be successful. Those in charge of their own destinies (the educated, white-collar workers and professionals, the people who come out of universities) are pretty much completely networked into the macroeconomic structures. They have shares and pensions; the companies and institutions they work for are directly affected by the macroeconomics of the time; they need to keep an eye on global economic affairs, both for personal and professional reasons. And so an understanding of economic language is important in shaping your career, joining the business or political world.

5. Soft skills. This is the hardest one for universities traditionally to address. Things like team-working and emotional intelligence seem to have nothing to do with academic work. (However, as a colleague said to me recently, ‘Why do we call these “soft skills”? Reading The Critique of Pure Reason is a lot easier than getting a team of people to pull in the same direction’!) Although it is problematic to address any such learning in academia, we know how important these skills are in modern employment: charm, honesty, reliability, sensitivity with robustness, work ethic – all sorts of character attributes are as valuable to employment as any technical skill. I think, however, there is a way we can look at these issues in an interesting and academic manner. And that is through addressing qualitative thinking. Here one can look at the philosophically subjective, notions of aesthetics, values, emotions etc. There are historic and fascinating discussions on these issues to be had in great intellectual work. But I am straying directly into my work area here! The year 2 module on Arts and Sciences BASc does these issues in a fresh and interesting way, whilst being academically exciting.

OK – nuff said on this for now. Universities have to look to teach the most general languages of the future. They need to do this alongside the traditions of scholarship and research that they have built up. This way, graduates will have the right sort of background and techniques to adapt to a lifetime of changing careers while having the cognitive pegs to hang their learning on, and sufficient depth of knowledge to give them perspective and a sense of direction in what they are doing.

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2 Comments
  1. We definitely agree with learning a foreign language – we work with businesses on a daily basis who increasingly need multilingual individuals within their global companies.

    • Thanks for your comment, Steve. It is good to have this point of view from business and the recruitment sector. Please check back in as I develop content on the site and links to other relevant content.

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