Futurelearning

The skills we need heading into uncertain times

Futurists and other experts consider the kind of thinking that will equip us best.

Dr Stephanie Pride studied for a Bachelor’s degree in English at the University of Oxford in the UK and then received a Commonwealth Scholarship to study in the English programme at Victoria University of Wellington, where she completed a PhD on Katherine Mansfield, Robin Hyde and Janet Frame.

“Both times people said to me, ‘Don’t do an English degree, you won’t be able to get a job.’ But 30 years on I have never been anything other than gainfully employed.”

Pride is currently gainfully employed as co-head of StratEDGY, a ‘strategic foresight’ company where she is Chief Futurist, and was speaking at ‘Will arts graduates control the future economy?’, a panel discussion organised by Victoria University of Wellington for its Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences (FHSS) alumni.

“What the humanities do for us is allow us to think at a different level about communities and about society as a whole,” said Pride.

“The humanities tell you we are as ambitious as the stories we tell ourselves and the humanities allow us to tell better stories about the era we are moving into. Our skills as people who understand all branches of the humanities are going to be needed to make the best future we can have within New Zealand and for the planet.”

The humanities, said Pride, “are really important in terms of giving us the language, the taxonomies, the constructs with which to challenge notions and to articulate new notions and articulate new stories of how we can be and how living and working and socialising can be combined in ways that are completely different from the combines we have now”.

Introducing the discussion, FHSS Pro Vice-Chancellor Professor Jennifer Windsor said the humanities are “becoming increasingly significant in light of the national and international discussions about the future of work and rapid increases in automation. Careers are much more fluid, and a humanities education fosters adaptability and transformational thinking”.

Panellist Dr Jeff Brandt studied religion and the Roman Empire and is now a director of technology consulting at Deloitte, as well as contributing to Victoria University of Wellington’s Future of Work course examining the changing nature of employment.

“The half-life of skills today is probably something like two-and-a-half, three years,” said Brandt. “We’re constantly changing, we’re constantly moving, as individuals, as companies and as an economy. I think that is one of the most exciting things about it.

“We have the opportunity to reinvent, to change, to learn, to grow, on an ongoing basis. And I think we in the humanities have a particular skill set. We have pursued the things we are doing and have done for interest. We have wanted to know and to understand. We have not gone particularly, necessarily, for a utilitarian purpose. And I think that part of creativity and the drive for learning is one of the things that is special about us in the humanities.”

Another thing, said Brandt, is “we understand what it means to be human in a different kind of way than any other domain”, something Victoria University of Wellington alumna Melissa Clark-Reynolds expanded upon.

Clark-Reynolds has a Bachelor of Arts in anthropology from the University and is now a futurist and entrepreneur, having founded several technology businesses over the past 20 years.

“We think about AI and artificial intelligence as artificial intelligencing us, but what is the artificial intelligence of a spider? What is the artificial intelligence of a dog? What is the artificial intelligence of something else we can apply those kinds of intelligences to in order to enhance our own intelligence? Those are the kinds of questions an arts graduate finds really obvious to ask but someone who has a degree in computer science isn’t going to ask that first up.

“So when I start to look at the future of work, for me the dreaming, the creativity, the deep curiosity and philosophy are the things I really [encourage]. My daughter is doing a mix of biology and creative writing and I think those abilities to make connections between disciplines are the things the future is calling for us to provide.

“It won’t be just arts, it won’t be just STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] – and I’ve really fought hard to get the ‘A’ [i.e. arts] put into STEAM everywhere I go. For me, it’s that ability to make connections, to have that emotional intelligence to look across and that deep-creative, curious thinking – that is what the world needs when we leap into these uncertain times.”

Victoria University of Wellington Professor of Philosophy Nicholas Agar said it is important to be prepared for whatever beckons.

“Let’s flash forward say 20 years in the future and everything has turned to custard. We’re 10 years into our own version of Donald Trump. A Kiwi Donald Trump, but worse. And the climate – that’s turned to custard too. Everything you’re beginning to see now is worse …

“The kind of thinking we will be missing and the kind of thinking we will have needed to confront those challenges is exactly the kind of thinking the humanities produce. So I think of it as like insurance … One of the things humanities graduates are good at is basically responding to uncertainty and thinking, ‘Wow, didn’t expect that, but I have the skills to respond to that.”

The discussion audience was invited to vote to decide questions to ask panellists, one of which was, ‘Which of the skills taught in an arts degree will be most useful in the future of work?’

“I do think there’s a big hint in the ‘human’ part of ‘humanities,’” said Agar.

The discussion was moderated by Victoria University of Wellington Associate Professor of Philosophy Stuart Brock.

View the full discussion here.

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