So, what’s next? That is the question that all college students and educators should be asking. The workplace of tomorrow that graduates will enter will require constant disruption, innovation and adaptation. We need to focus more on providing students with a broad education beyond their majors so they will be able to adapt and thrive.
When I graduated from college in the 1980s, I would never have believed that one day Kodak, a global household brand name, would declare bankruptcy because everyone would be taking great pictures with their phones. Ironically, it was a Kodak engineer who created the first digital camera in 1975.
The answer to “what’s next” is changing at an accelerating pace as entire sectors of the economy work to stay profitable and attract the innovative people who will drive future success. The result is a workplace dominated by change. According government statistics, today’s 48-year-olds have changed jobs an average of almost 12 times already. In fact, it’s safe to predict that future college graduates will retire from careers that will not yet exist as they finish school and head into their first jobs.
Some argue that we must reimagine completely higher education to prepare for what’s next. I don’t agree. Future graduates will still need cutting-edge knowledge in their chosen fields, provided by advanced work in a college major. No big change there. The real issue boils down to how students are prepared for an unpredictable and dynamic future over the longer term.
It might seem counterintuitive, but in order to thrive over the course of a career, today’s students will also need a very broad educational foundation in the social sciences, arts and humanities. They’ll benefit from a familiarity with the principles of science and technology, a mastery of quantitative reasoning, and a strong dose of advanced critical thinking, data, and computer skills.
Add to this the power to work in teams, address problems in an interdisciplinary way, and the ability to communicate effectively when speaking and writing. As a professor and dean, I see too many students who treat their core curriculum classes that cover these areas as less important than their major coursework. They look for core courses that are the least challenging, and therefore the least beneficial.
Like me, an increasing number of people think that a broad education will form the foundation that successful graduates will rely upon to be agile, and thus able to anticipate, adapt and thrive. Not coincidentally, any list of the essential components of a broad education aligns perfectly with recent surveys asking what qualities employers seek most in college graduates.
This concept of so-called generalists emerging as leaders is the crux of David Epstein’s best-selling book “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World.” Epstein argues that the widely accepted idea that a narrow specialization at an early age is beneficial is flawed. In essence, specialists will only stay relevant as long as their specialization does.
Education does not need to be reimagined, just strengthened and refocused. To prepare for what’s next, students and educators need to put greater effort and energy into their general education courses.
Does this argument suggest that universities spend any less time or resources innovating and leading the conversation about what’s next? No. The universities of today are the most potent catalysts for creating “what’s next” ever invented, and they must remain that way. In fact, perhaps the best preview of “what’s next” is happening this weekend. On Saturday, March 7, Texans can visit the biggest open house in the state, Explore UT, on the UT Austin campus. Students, researchers, faculty, and staff will demonstrate what’s next in every field you have ever heard of, and even more that you have not. Visitors will enjoy interacting with an incredible breadth of fields, providing exactly the kind of general and foundational education experience we need.
We do not need to fundamentally rethink what we are doing at universities like UT, but we do need to focus more attention and energy on preparing every graduate with a broad educational foundation for the incredibly exciting world of what’s next.
Brent Iverson is the dean of the School of Undergraduate Studies and the Warren J. and Viola Mae Raymer Professor of Chemistry at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Austin American Statesman.