August 1, 2019
The Future of Higher Education ~ To What End and In What Direction?
Herbert J. Paine (July 2019)
Herb Paine is President of Paine Consulting Services, now in its thirtieth year of operation, specializing in organizational development, strategic planning, turnaround management, mergers, and governance.
The works of two eminent thought leaders ~ Steven Pinker, a cognitive psychologist and linguist, and Yuval Noah Harari, a historian ~ present profound and quite different implications for the future utility and direction of higher education.
Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progressis an optimistic overview of human progress. Observing that the centuries-old phenomena of war, plague, and famine have abated and been replaced by significant upturns in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, he posits the importance of a convergence between the best elements of reason and science, which historically have been at odds. It is in this context that his prescription for the goals of a university education, enumerated in a September 2014 New Republic essay are relevant. To wit, he stresses the value of knowledge about theprehistory of our species; the basic laws governing the physical and living world, including our bodies and brains; the diversity of human cultures and their corresponding systems of belief and values; the principles behind democratic governance and the rule of law; and the worth of fiction and art as sources of aesthetic pleasure and reflection.
In Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Harari takes a cue from Pinker’s prescription to fathom the arc of human progress but with radically different conclusions and implications for education. In a future world where the religion of “dataism” (the proposition “that the universe consists of data flows and the value of any phenomenon or entity is determined by its contribution to data processing”) may influence, if not control, occupation and a decision-making, what shall we teach? What is the role of the professor or the need of the student if “interactive algorithms” and “digital teachers” have preempted them with tailored lesson plans and analysis of student performance? What is the value of all that knowledge anyway if humanism becomes subservient to the “all-knowing and all-powerful” global data processing system to which we have entrusted all bits of our personal information and preferences? Will the educational institutions and processes to which we have been inured become irrelevant if not extinct?
It is not too soon to have a serious encounter with these questions and challenges that, in the long run, will define society, politics, and daily life.