From education to employment

#LifelongLearning in the Age of Specialisation

Waqās Ahmed, Founder of the DaVinci Network

Learning never exhausts the mind – Leonardo da Vinci

#Lifelonglearning has only recently become a fashionable trend, yet it derives from the most timeless of all human traits: curiosity.

There is an overwhelming consensus among sociologists and evolutionary biologists that lifelong curiosity is a natural disposition that exists in all humans regardless of class, race, gender or age.

So why is it that our education systems seem bent on thwarting this progressive tendency?

Why has it been discouraged in the workplace as a ‘distraction’?

And why isn’t it traditionally supported by governments, families and popular culture?

After all, it is what drives the production of knowledge in society.

Knowledge is power

Knowledge is power – for some, the power to subjugate; for others to liberate. This is why the pursuit of knowledge – otherwise known as ‘education’ – has been given such great importance in the history of societies.

Institutions have been purpose-build to serve this need.

Yet, how often today do we even ask ourselves:

  • Why are we seeking knowledge?
  • What purpose does it really serve for oneself and for society?
  • Who decides what we ought to learn?

To answer these, curiosity must go hand in hand with critical thinking.

Preparation for something called a ‘job’

As it stands, we have been told that education is designed to prepare for something called a ‘job’.

In the West at least, due to the development of the Protestant work ethic, the prevalence of social Darwinist attitudes and the predominance of the capitalist paradigm, education has come to be seen primarily (and sometimes exclusively) as a means to greater materialistic and social status.

Our current institutions and culture have forced us to rely on education as a value-adding process after which we sell ourselves to employers who can be reassured of our ability to contribute to their success.

That ‘value’ is often judged by how ‘specialised’ we are or can potentially be.

Intellectual and professional apartheid

This culture of specialisation (a modern term for what is essentially intellectual and professional apartheid) has its origins in the division of labour system, which was transposed from the post-industrial revolution factory setting to both knowledge and students in the education milieu.

As 19th century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead pointed out, this led to a culture of ‘inert ideas’ – compartmentalised, fragmented information thrown at students at school without any unifying framework.

As a result, students were not only less able to make sense of how pieces of knowledge (‘subjects’) transmitted to them in various classes are relevant to each other, but more importantly, how they are relevant to their lives specifically.

This hasn’t changed much.

The current education system is grossly outdated; it is still largely based on the same post-industrialisation model which continues to foster a culture of linearity, conformity and standardisation.

This is exacerbated by a system of pyramid specialisation, whereby students worldwide are being encouraged, often forced, to specialise too early.

As a result, multi-talented children are often being faced with what psychologists refer to as ‘multi-potentiality’ – a condition of frustration, confusion and anxiety suffered by multi-talented pupils as a result of the compulsion to specialize (that is, choose between multiple passions) too early.

Cognitive Flexibility Theory

Cognitive scientist, educationalist and developer of the Cognitive Flexibility Theory, Rand Spiro, confirms that schools are complicit in suppressing a child’s curious, multidimensional nature:

“Kids are very cognitively flexible; it is school with its multiple choice tasks, regimental learning, and compartmentalization of subjects that has scorched that flexibility, that creativity, that inherent ability to see the world outside of single disciplinary boundaries.”

It is no wonder that these children, ill-equipped to make vocational choices, get swept up by a system that treats humans as mere cogs in the corporate machine – even though treating children like robots doesn’t even suit the 21st century job market.

Anders Sandberg of Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute confirms this:

“Educational institutions don’t need to train people to be cogs in a machine like during the industrial age – machines will be much cheaper… they ought to train people to deal with more complex, ill-defined jobs.”

Dynamic automation in the job market

With the advent of dynamic automation in the job market, the purpose and direction of education will need to be re-evaluated.

Not only will jobs themselves by multidimensional and complex, people are likely to have multiple career changes. Indeed, according to Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens and Homo Deus, reinvention is perhaps the most important survival strategy for any 21st century career.

As stated in The Polymath, versatility will be the most prized competency.

An interdisciplinary, ‘systems approach’ to education

Presently, too many of us are on autopilot, relying on society to tell us what we ought to be learning and why. So, what is urgently needed is an interdisciplinary, ‘systems approach’ to education, with the ultimate objective being the achievement of perspective.

With greater perspective (about the complexities of oneself and the world), you would be in a better position to understand where to apply that knowledge and how best to synthesise and optimise it. If the conventional education system is not ultimately delivering perspective to its students, it is failing.

With such a polymathic approach to education, the student’s desire to develop – intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, physically and indeed financially – will be infinite. 

‘Lifelong learning’ will no longer be a mantra, a meme or a mere hashtag; it will become who you are.

Categories such as ‘primary education’, ‘higher education’ and ‘further education’ will fade away in the mind, as will artificially constructed ‘subjects’, ‘fields’ and ‘disciplines’.

All that will matter is learning. Always.

Waqās Ahmed, Founder of the DaVinci Network – the global movement committed to unlocking the many-sided potential of humans worldwide.

About Waqās Ahmed: In his internationally acclaimed book The Polymath (Wiley 2019), Waqās outlined the framework for a polymathic curriculum for high school students and autodidacts. He was appointed as Chair of the Commonwealth’s Global Citizenship Education panel, which developed a module that is being rolled out to tertiary education institutions across developing countries. Waqās also has a background in visual art, neuroscience and international affairs.

Waqās will be speaking at the RSA for a panel discussion in conjunction with the LIS about ‘A New Approach to a New World of Work’ on Thursday 18th July at 6pm. 

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