The purpose of education | The Star

PRIOR to the Covid-19 movement control order, we used to have a part-time domestic helper who came to clean our house once a week.

Now the management committee of our condominium no longer allows visitors so cleaning of the house fell to me.

That was when I decided to buy a cleaning robot, resulting in another human job being lost to a machine.

Since the invention of the wheel around the year 3,500 BC, humans have been on a continuous journey to find alternative ways of doing their work, using technology or animal power.

When we work, we normally engage three types of labour – physical (our ability to move and manipulate objects); cognitive (engaging our mental capabilities as we memorise, optimise and select alternatives); and emotional (our ability to feel, be self-aware and empathise with others).

The First Industrial Revolution represented an explosion of technologies that far surpassed human capabilities in providing physical labour. With machines stronger, faster, cheaper and more precise than human workers, many people lost their manual jobs and had to be retrained to be able to do work that utilised their cognitive capabilities.

With our computers becoming increasingly faster, cheaper and more intelligent – and having the capability to clean homes – a new challenge to human jobs is upon us. We call this the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Technologies such as artificial intelligence are giving us the ability to change our environment, societies and the employability landscape at a dizzying pace.

As human brains are not equipped to deal with this pace of change, many side effects of the application of technologies are being discovered when it is almost too late.

In 1979, James Butkin and his collaborators in their book “No Limits to Learning: Bridging the Human Gap, ” wrote: “The human gap is the distance between growing complexity and our capacity to cope with it. Clearly, one eternal human endeavour has been to develop additions to knowledge and improvements in action to deal with a complexity which, for most of history, derived primarily from natural phenomena. An essential difference today is that contemporary complexity is caused predominantly by human activities. We call it a human gap, because it is a dichotomy between a growing complexity of our own making and a lagging development of our own capacities.”

This still rings true as we are now living through a unique moment in our history. The technological advancements that our civilisation has achieved are exposing and widening our human gap, and we need to reach out to humanity’s ultimate domain – our emotional labour – to save the day.

In order for us to bridge the gap, remain relevant and also build technology without the risk of damaging our environment and threatening our very existence, we need to refocus our priorities starting with our education system.

Our education system must focus not only on academic competencies but, simultaneously, prioritise the development of graduates with a strong sense of purpose, self-awareness, resilience and empathy.

In this “purpose-led education” model, new students starting their tertiary journey ought to first spend a considerable amount of time reflecting on how they want to make the world a better place through their work, talents and the programme of study that they choose.

They will then be able to develop an impact statement which allows them to articulate their purpose. This is not an easy task and will require much interaction with their educators.

However, the effort and time invested in writing an impact statement at the beginning of a student’s first semester pays multiple dividends. Students who are aware why they started studying are more likely to stay the course when the going gets tough.

When we ask students why they join our Actuarial Science programme, for example, they often say that they love mathematics, and having a degree in actuarial science will secure them a good job.

After completing the impact statement exercise, students are clearer about their true north. One of them wrote “I am a math lover. I will use my mastery of math to reduce complexity for others when they need that the most. I am an actuary.” Inspiring impact statement, isn’t it?

The Covid-19 crisis has stretched our systems, economies and even our belief in humanity. In order for us to lead the recovery, we need purpose-led societies, organisations and education systems.

There is a Chinese proverb that says: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

Instead of asking our students “what course do you want to join?”, let us start a purpose revolution now by asking them, “what impact do you want to have on the world?”

An engineer by training and educator at heart, Heriot-Watt University Malaysia Provost and chief executive officer Prof Mushtak Al-Atabi is a storyteller who uses education to inspire youths to tell empowering stories about themselves and the world. The views expressed here are the writer’s own.

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