Education for an Unpredictable World


In a recent talk at University School, the Harvard psychologist Robert Evans shared an informing observation about parenting today. When the pace of change is slow, and the future is predictable, parents have confidence in their own parenting. What they had learned as children continues to be applicable to their own children’s future, and so they are at home guiding their sons and daughters along a path to a meaningful and prosperous adulthood. But when the pace of change is fast, and the future is unpredictable, parents have less confidence in their own experience as a guiding precedent for their children—and so they are more hesitant about directing them on their way.

Today we live in a world of rapid change, at times confusingly so. In the media we hear predictions that entire swaths of jobs will disappear to technology and that in our global, technological, entrepreneurial economy many of the jobs of the future do not even exist today. What kind of education should a young man pursue to prepare for an unpredictable future? And what advice should a parent give him to chart that course?

Eric “Astro” Teller, the CEO of Google’s X research and development labs, has explained that in our daily lives and in our economy we are experiencing shorter and shorter innovation cycles, so we find ourselves with less and less time to adapt to our current circumstances before those circumstances change again. For many of us, this urgency to adapt can feel uncomfortable or threatening, like a constant state of destabilization.

But Teller offers encouragement. He makes a distinction between the “static stability” of standing still in one’s career and the “dynamic stability” of being in continuous movement throughout it. In future economies young adults will not attend law school, say, and then leverage that specific legal expertise for the rest of their careers. Instead, they will apply their legal thinking and perspectives to problem solving in one innovation cycle followed by another. With ongoing education and re-education as each cycle requires, one will then feel the “dynamic stability” of moving with control and continuity in different directions—like the experience of confidently riding a bike.

For generations students have studied the liberal arts as a way to prepare for adult lives, and in our time of continual change the study of the liberal arts, complemented by hands-on experiences in problem solving from an interdisciplinary perspective, remains the sound foundation for a thriving adult life professionally—and personally. The journalist and political scientist Fareed Zakaria identifies profound benefits of a liberal education:

It teaches you how to write, and writing makes you think.

It teaches you how to speak . . . which means learning to understand your own mind, to filter your undeveloped ideas, and then to express to the outside world your thoughts, arranged in a logical order.

It teaches you to learn. I now realize that what I gained from college and graduate school, far more lasting than any specific set of facts or piece of knowledge, has been the understanding of how to acquire knowledge on my own.

Taken together, these are the skills that allow one to move readily, intelligently, imaginatively from on cycle of innovation to another. By studying a variety of disciplines, gaining a breadth of experience, students develop a broad perspective, a variety of critical approaches, and a nimbleness to apply them imaginatively. By developing a command of one discipline, students come to appreciate complexity and its meaning as they comprehend cause and effect, underlying principles, sound or unsound arguments, and the discernment that comes with a knowledgeable perspective.

So trained, individuals can direct their problem-solving skills outward to other topics and to pressing issues in the world, and as each cycle of innovation occurs, they continue to develop breadth and new specializations. And so more and more often today schools are intentional in providing concentrations—internships, lab experiences, entrepreneurship programs, robotics, and rocketry. They are imaginative in approaching the liberal arts so that in the course of that study, of that problem solving, students develop capacities in data analysis and in computational, analogical, and systems thinking.

liberal arts for boys

In the 8th Century BC, the Greeks coined the term "liberal arts" to define those subjects or skills that were considered essential for a free person to participate in civic life, including public debate, defending oneself in court, serving on juries and most importantly, military service. The "artes liberales" or "liberal arts" included a different type of skill set in contrast to the mechanical arts. Grammar, logic and rhetoric made up the core liberal arts (the trivium), while arithmetic, geometry, the theory of music and astronomy made up the quadrivium. Liberal arts skills (liberal coming from the word, "liberalis," or "free," and "arts" from the word "ars," or "principled practice ") instead enabled individuals to function successfully as free citizens in society, according to an article in the Washington Post.  -Krysten Godfrey Maddocks

Take for example Princeton University, whose commitment to the liberal arts includes 30+ concentrations and 50+ certificate programs—beside such traditional focuses as English are “Operations Research and Financial Engineering” and “Robotics and Intelligent Systems.” In the book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David Epstein observes, “The most successful experts . . . belong to the wider world.”

In the same way that a musician who plays a number of instruments and an athlete who plays a number of sports bring a range of experiences to their future performances, so a problem solver with a breadth of cognitive experiences brings a nimbleness of approach to future questions.

Jim Spohrer, the Director of IBM’s Cognitive OpenTech labs, explains the benefits in today’s world of being able to combine breadth with depth to think imaginatively in different contexts. “IBM is in all industries—we do nanotechnology, quantum computing, systems research, modeling of industries, modeling of cities.” What IBM is looking for in its employees is expertise in one area that is then applied across different domains, a person with a “deep understanding of one subject matter—history, for example—as well as one industry, perhaps energy or health care.” That person then has “the ability to work across a variety of complex subject areas with ease and confidence.” And so it comes as no surprise that for a recent article in Bloomberg Opinion, Andrea Gabor, the author of After the Education Wars, offered the assertive title, “How to Succeed in Business? Major in the Liberal Arts.”

In his book How to Raise a Boy, Michael Reichert emphasizes the importance of trusting relationships in a boy’s education. When he knows that his teachers value him as an individual, hold him to high standards, and want him to succeed, a boy reaches for his best self and his best efforts—and the context for this affirmation is the study of the liberal arts and the exploration of curiosities and questions. As a boy engages with ideas, with important questions, with others, he grows as a person. “When boys develop new abilities, their concept of self grows, and they become able to see new possibilities in their lives.

In a world of innovation cycles, parents can have confidence in an educational program founded on the liberal arts and informed by a variety of programs that encourage breadth, a range of problem solving techniques, and the near transfer or far transfer of knowledge across different domains—be it through projects in reading and writing, rocketry, entrepreneurship, research in a lab, the study of global citizenship, or the making of art. So equipped, young men will have confidence in their abilities to meet change with the dynamic stability of an accomplished cyclist. They can look forward to the road ahead.

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Dr. William O’Neil, Former Academic Dean Jr.K-12 at University School

Dr. William O’Neil’s career in education spans more than 30 years, the majority in administrative and curriculum leadership roles. Dr. O’Neil has a deep knowledge of school and curriculum and most recently served as Associate Headmaster leading the implementation of University School’s 2020 Curricular Initiatives. Prior to that, he was Director of the Upper School, English Department Chair, Upper School English teacher, and varsity golf coach.