The 21st century is radically different. We now live in a globalised world. Everything and everybody is connected. We are part of a vast global network. There are six billion mobile phones in the world! The workplace of this century is highly complex and competitive. The boundaries between disciplines have become blurred and the future will require a multidisciplinary approach. To survive, we need radically new and innovative ways of working. The engine of economic growth will no longer be the production of goods, but knowledge. But as knowledge becomes ever easier to access, this century will be dominated by those can think creatively and critically. Our education system must do much more that transfer knowledge; it must leverage the digital revolution to foster the creative and critical thinking skills required to harness that knowledge.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? I think I got most of the right buzzwords in. But is it true? To be honest, I think this stuff is a bit like the way people say The Premiership is the best league in the world. If you say it often enough, you start to believe it. The Irish economy has lost hundreds of thousands of jobs in construction, manufacturing and the service industries. Are we seriously saying that in the new ‘knowledge-based’ economy, this type of work is no longer needed? Apparently, once we get to grips with the new digital world and start to develop ‘thinking skills’, things will be grand. It seems to me that people who talk like this are in some sort of bubble and are really very detached from the realities of most people’s working lives.
But one thing that puzzles me most of all with this kind of ‘speak’ is why it is continually implied that the massive growth in technology that we have seen in the last 30 years is actually making the world of work more complex? Obviously the world of finance is one area where the workplace has indeed become a lot more complex, so much so that nobody really understood what the hell was going on – hence the financial meltdown. But are we saying that in general we are developing newer and better technologies just to make life harder for ourselves? Personally, my job has never been easier. I can prepare a presentation or lecture in about one tenth of the time it took me in the 1990s. No more scissors, photocopiers and Pritt Stick. I can access all the information I want for teaching and research, almost instantly, without having to get off my backside. I can communicate with students and colleagues by whatever medium suits me, and them, on any given day. I can follow research trends without having to travel all over the world. I can co-write a paper with collaborators who are thousands of miles away and we can submit the final manuscript electronically.
Maybe there is something unique about the academic job, but I genuinely do not understand why people constantly seem to say that the work place of today is a more complex place that requires some radically new way of thinking. People adapt very quickly and the graduates of today have grown up in a technological society. That technology should be (and is) liberating and our role in education should be to ensure that students have a strong grasp of the basics of their discipline to complement the technology that is all around them. If you are a young graduate in chemical engineering, for example, you still must have a solid foundation in chemical engineering principles. No matter how ‘connected’ or how ‘globalised’ the industry that you work in is, or no matter how easy it is to access information, you’re still an engineer who needs to know his or her engineering basics. Indeed, one could argue that in the world of Google, having a thorough knowledge of your disciple is more important than ever. You will not be able to critically assess information with some ill-defined ‘thinking skill’. You’ll need to know your ‘stuff’. This applies to any discipline whether it is accounting or law or computing or anything you can think of. They each require core knowledge and skills that provide the foundation for everything else – especially the ability to think critically.
So, when I hear people talking in the language of the first paragraph of this post, I genuinely have no idea what they are talking about.