NOVEMBER 11, 2018

Designing Education for the 21st Century

Ross Mitchell, Greg VanderPol


The Atlantic recently wrote about the crisis that seems to have befallen the humanities. As the author Benjamin Schmitdt notes: “Almost every humanities field has seen a rapid drop in majors: History is down about 45 percent from its 2007 peak, while the number of English majors has fallen by nearly half since the late 1990s. Student majors have dropped, rapidly, at a variety of types of institutions. Declines have hit almost every field in the humanities (with one interesting exception) and related social sciences, they have not stabilized with the economic recovery, and they appear to reflect a new set of student priorities, which are being formed even before they see the inside of a college classroom.”

With student debt continuing to rise to crisis levels, it is little surprise that students feel compelled to select a major with a more immediate payoff, such as engineering or computer science. And while the employment prospects for such majors are better initially, the ceiling for humanities majors are often just as high.  One unfortunate aspect of this shift is a reduction in the type of critical thinking and creative skills taught in humanities programs; precisely the type of thinking that helps drive human centered design in products, services, and society generally.  In other words, we need the humanities in design.

As automation and robotics make inroads into more and more jobs, it is the “soft” skills taught in the humanities that allow people to differentiate themselves from the more efficient robots. Jack Ma, the founder of Ali Baba, argued at the World Economic Forum in January 2018, that we must shift our education priorities; deemphasizing what machines do well and instead focusing on the things that make humans unique, such as teamwork. In other words, humans should prioritize the type of thinking that machines are uniquely unable to do.  Indeed, one could argue that the importance of many STEM skills may actually wane as the power and capability of AI improves.

The way in which the humanities are taught and the value that society places on such an education also present an opportunity for innovation.  Indeed, while business and society benefit from the skills taught in the humanities, programs mostly remain structured in such a way that makes transitioning to the workforce a challenge for students, particularly those burdened with debt.  One example of fresh thinking in this area is the creation of design-anthropology programs.  These programs combine the discipline of anthropology with practical design and discovery skills.  One could imagine a number of other such opportunities for novel mashups.

It is established that design and innovation are most successful in environments where a diversity of opinions thrive.  Novel ideas often arise when disparate ideas are blended into a unique form; our education system should be no different. As we look towards a future with increasing impact from AI to automation, the need for interdisciplinarity will continue to grow.   How we prepare for such a need will depend on not only how the humanities are taught, but on the value that society places on such an education.