Other parts of this series:
Learning for economic benefit (getting a job) is perhaps the major focus of students, but ironically educational institutes are more motivated by learning for humanity. While we need a balance, we must start to value learning for the sake of our humanity.
It’s our human nature to learn, create and explore – and we must nurture and value this aspect of our humanity through the educational system. We must encourage children and adults alike to develop and follow passions – to learn for the sake of learning, to create for the sake of creating, to explore for the sake of exploring.
Having a passion makes us more human – it gives us purpose in life, it makes us happier, and ultimately it can contribute to the intellectual advancement of our species. We need to encourage people to have a passion – to explore areas of interest and join groups of like-minded individuals. This is justifiable in its own right, but employers and society can benefit too: happier people are healthier, more productive, and less likely to become radicalised.
Our future challenge will be combining education for economic benefit with education for passion. For the lucky few these are the same thing; but in general, this will be a delicate balancing act.
Should we perhaps separate these two dimensions of learning? This feels arbitrary and could lead to labelling learning for humanity as somehow less valuable and worthwhile than learning for work. For example, we need medical students to learn the technical skills of surgery – but we must also instill in them the passion and creativity to explore new techniques to save and lengthen lives.
Employers already look for demonstrable human skills in candidates – for example, people who show initiative, leadership and collaboration in their extracurricular activities. Employers recognize that people with passion (whether in or outside work) are happier – and happier workers are more productive. Recent experiments with people moving to a four-day working week demonstrated that giving people more time to pursue their passions led to an increase in productivity. In short, we can work less and still deliver the same economic benefit while developing our own personal humanity.
Recently employers have started to devalue tertiary education – instead taking students straight from school and training them in the workforce. I am personally in two minds about this trend. The opportunity to take three years to develop skills in an area of passion can rarely be repeated in life, due to future commitments such as kids and a mortgage. If we develop a generation of people with a sole focus on learning for economic benefit, we surely devalue humanity. Yet too often our focus in tertiary education is on learning a specific skill for a future job. In addition, high tuition fees encourage students to choose degrees based on predicted future salaries, rather than areas of interest.
Technology allows us to address some of these challenges, but we need greater flexibility in the structure of tertiary education. For example, universities could incorporate virtual learning courses from other institutes into their standard courses, allowing students to delve into areas of passion while retaining a focus on learning skills for their working lives. Some universities are already doing this, and the democratisation of educational certificates could make this opportunity more valuable to students.
Virtual learning may offer other benefits, too. As high tuition fees prompt students to select qualifications based on likely future returns, fewer people are signing up for arts degrees, making it harder for universities to cover their costs. Virtual learning could help universities to reduce the cost of running these courses, making them more financially viable.
As society evolves, we have a golden opportunity to rethink how we value our interests. It’s vital that we encourage children and students to explore their passions and avoid the pressure of learning purely for economic value.
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