Education for the second machine age

I’m rereading The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. As I discussed previously, if I only could read only one book on the future of work this would be the book. Its a thorough exploration of how smarter and smarter machines are going to constantly do more and more of the work that humans are doing.

In the chapter entitled Learning to race with machines: Recommendations for individuals Brynjolffson and McAfee write:

So ideation (coming up with new ideas or concepts), large frame pattern recognition, and the most complex forms of communication are cognitive areas where people still seem to have the advantage, and also seem likely to hold on to it for some time to come. Unfortunately, though, these skills are not emphasized in most education environments today. Instead, primary education often focuses on rote memorization of facts, and on the skills of reading, writing and arithmetic––the “three R;s”, as Tory MP Sir William Curtis named them around 1825.

They continue: … its becoming harder and harder to have confidence that any given task will be indefinitely resistant to automation. That means people will need to be more adaptable and flexible in their career aspirations, ready to move on from areas that become subject to automation, and seize opportunities where machines complement and augment human capabilities.

This is what we describe as careers looking more like rock climbing than ladder climbing, in an economy where moving up a predictable and linear career ladder is increasingly toast.

So if ideation, large frame pattern recognition, the most complex forms of communication, and rock climbing are the skills that will most enable us and our children to do well in a world of smarter and smarter machines, what kind of education do we need that builds those skills?

Seems to me one can make a very strong case that the kind of education all kids need is based on the now seemingly discredited liberal arts. Fareed Zakara makes this case well in his book In Defense of a Liberal Education. And, as we have explored previously, so does Cecilia Gaposchkin (associate professor of medieval history at Dartmouth College and assistant dean of faculty for pre-major advising) in a terrific Washington Post column: She writes:

Modern liberal education still trains the basic intellectual skills of query and discernment that Abelard aimed for, generally now through general education and major requirements. Once mastered – just as in the Middle Ages – these skills can be applied to specialized training – medical school, the public sphere, business, whatever – what the Middle Ages regarded as the practical arts.

But I think those of us who teach, advise, and administrate in these schools routinely fail in explaining to our students just what liberal arts are — and why they matter. I don’t mean the historical explanation based on Abelard. I mean an explanation that seeks to show how and why learning to think critically, to reason, to push the boundaries of received knowledge is the value that they should seek to gain from their college education. Economic value, career value, and social value. Great and successful careers rarely end up having much connection to majors. They do to intelligence, leadership, innovation, creativity, aptitude in assessing uncertainty, ability. Not surprisingly, the corporate representatives I have interviewed to gain insight about why they recruit from Dartmouth routinely echo Abelard in what they are looking for: critical thinking, an ability to deal with ambiguity, to reach conclusions based on considered mastery of research and context, and so forth.

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Lou Glazer

Lou Glazer is President and co-founder of Michigan Future, Inc., a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Michigan Future’s mission is to be a source of new ideas on how Michigan can succeed as a world class community in a knowledge-driven economy. Its work is funded by Michigan foundations.

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