In his recent speech to the EUA, President Higgins said the following:
“The challenge we face is that we must confront an erroneous a prevalent perception that the necessary focus of higher education must be on that which is utilitarian and immediately applicable. Such a view sees the primary objective of the university, and those who study within it, as being in preparation for a specific role within the labour market, often at the cost of the development of life-enhancing skills such as creativity, analytical thinking, and clarity in written and spoken expression. These are the skills that will be essential to the citizens of the future to make informed choices about life/work balance, about what constitutes survival and consumption, and what is meant by human flourishing, solidarity or humanity itself.”
I agree that much of the language used around higher education these days is utilitarian and that is something that is worth arguing about – but not here.
No, I’m more interested in the next sentence in which the President claims that the modern university sees itself as preparing students for a “specific role within the market place” at the expense of the “development of life-enhancing skills such as creativity, analytical thinking and clarity in written and spoken expression”.
In fact, one of the key ideas abroad in higher education these days is that universities are not preparing students for specific roles but preparing students for “jobs that don’t exist”. Ideas like this are at the heart of the “21st century skills” movement, a movement in which the very idea of teaching knowledge is downplayed in favour of teaching nebulous and essentially unteachable (at least in a context-free way) ‘skills’ like problem solving and creativity. It is a movement where it is suggested that we should be ‘teaching’ attributes like adaptability, grit and emotional intelligence. This is the movement that thinks that Google has changed everything and rather than transmitting knowledge to our students, we should be teaching students how to “create their own knowledge”. It is a movement in which inquiry-led and collaborative approaches to learning are viewed as inherently good and where more traditional forms of learning (e.g. study and practice) are characterised as learning by rote. It is a movement in which engagement is equated with learning and it is a movement which risks educating students to the point where they are not even capable of filling specific roles never mind adapting to jobs that are not supposed to exist yet.
The problem with our education system is that students are not acquiring very basic skills and like the pilot who panics and pulls back on the stick in a futile attempt to prevent his plane from stalling, we are panicking and focusing on the nebulous when we should be focusing on the tangible.