How the humanities can deliver for the fourth industrial revolution

Problem-solvers who’ve studied a variety of subjects and tried different ways of thinking are in demand. VLADGRIN/Shutterstock

What do you teach university students in a post-Google world? In a few minutes, anyone with a smartphone can get basic knowledge about the side-effects of pseudoephedrine, the history of the Eiffel Tower, or the workings of a jet engine. The information they get may not be correct or complete, but they won’t know that. They will think they’re suitably informed.

Isn’t that enough to put universities – along with doctors, engineers, lawyers, and everyone else whose trade is based on knowledge – out of business?

Obviously not. This is because the humanities and social science disciplines, in particular, deal with big, abstract ideas – not just facts. This makes them more relevant than ever in what’s being called the fourth industrial revolution: that is, the supposed fourth technology-driven upheaval in the nature of economic activity since the 18th century.

Humanities and social science disciplines are needed to steer this epoch away from the pitfall of widening social inequality by informing policies on gender, race and other social issues. They also play a central role in critical thinking and creativity.

Part of the problem is that the way humanities disciplines are taught at many universities does not lend itself to ready engagement with a changed and changing world.

Part of the solution, then, is to overhaul what is taught, and how. That is why Universitas 21, a network of major research-intensive universities, is holding a summit on curriculum innovation in November this year, and why pedagogical innovations such as Massive Open Online Courses and blended learning have received so much attention in the world of higher education.

A shifting job market

In South Africa, where I conduct my research and teaching, students pick their vocation in their teens by choosing which broad area to take a degree in: Humanities, or Science, or Commerce, for instance. Then they specialise even further, picking a degree programme that has the name of a job on it.

This process sometimes involves some extremely fine-grained choices - for instance, between a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in “Strategic Communication in Corporate Communication” and “Strategic Communication in Marketing Communication”. It’s a common approach to carving up the Humanities offering among South African universities.

Three years later these students emerge into a job market that’s quite different from what they expected. A lot happens in three years: the job may no longer exist in the same form, or the skills required may have changed.

But by far the most important difference between student expectation and job market reality concerns employers’ needs. Employers don’t primarily want to hire university graduates for specific skills. They want to hire university graduates to solve problems. Even software design is primarily about problem-solving and creative thinking, the product of which is subsequently implemented in code.

But how can problem-solvers be created through a monolithic degree programme, on a single disciplinary track, picked at the onset of adulthood? Quite simply, they can’t.

Towards “combinatorial” degrees

At the University of Johannesburg we’ve responded to the shifting landscape by reconfiguring undergraduate degrees in the humanities and social science disciplines. The 14 available degree programmes, which specialise in various vocationally oriented areas, will mostly be replaced by a single BA. Students will major in two subjects, and only one need be from the Humanities Faculty. Likewise, the remaining 10 “elective” modules may be from any discipline at all.

Our only constraint is that two thirds of all modules (whether part of a major or not) be from the Faculty of Humanities. Others - including a major, if desired - may be in anything that timetable and the entrance requirements for that programme permit - from artificial intelligence to zoology, or from investment management to fine art.

The two-major structure for the BA is not necessarily new. But this combinatorial approach to the degree is part of a significant international move towards increasing the range and combinations of subjects that can be taken, permitting and even encouraging students to take subjects that are outside the “Arts”.

Innovations like blended learning are integral to combinatorial approaches such as ours. As large-group teaching gives way to small-group contact supported by online dissemination of information, the demand for large rooms falls.

In university teaching, the most immediate impact of the fourth industrial revolution is the shattering of traditional timetable constraints.

Beyond specialists

So how does all this help prepare students for the fourth industrial revolution? Let me answer that with a different question. Suppose you’re designing the app that will make you billions. What use is a philosopher on your team? None at all – but not because they’re a philosopher: because they’re a specialist.

You don’t want a specialist coder either, nor a specialist graphic designer. Imagine how many people you will need if you hire one person per skill – and how many you will be sharing your billions with.

More importantly, with a team of specialists, you’re less likely to make billions, because none of them will be able to help you with problems that don’t yet fall into one of their domains. Is the design of iOS a graphic designer’s job or a coder’s? Neither: it’s both.

Of course, you do need people with skills. But skills can always be bought in, or trained. What you really want are people who are conversant in multiple cognitive and knowledge attitudes. A graphic designer who has studied some psychology will be more likely to get an interface right than one who hasn’t.

In the world that is becoming, there are no trades. There are just problems to be solved, opportunities to be taken advantage of and to disrupt: to be critically evaluated, and then to be ignited by an idea that strikes the status quo like a bolt from the blue. A university education that equips graduates for this reality is crucial.