10 June 2021
Are They Recyclable?
Preparing for change.
By John Watson
Are they recyclable? That is what one has to ask. Can they be repurposed in a way which will benefit the country in the future? Or do they have to be thrown upon some sort of scrap heap and buried out of sight and out of mind? That is the great question of the 21st-century, now asked about all forms of packaging and machinery. It also has to be asked about human beings.
It is not so long ago that most of us, men or women, followed a relatively simple career pattern. Many years would be spent in a single industry but, more to the point, changes in the way in which work was done were relatively slow so that training at the start of a career remained relevant as it developed. That is not to say that we could all stand still. Luddism and a reluctance to face change have always been the hallmark of failure at both an individual and an organisational level; but for all that the speed of progress had been relatively slow, so that a combination of learning on the job and attending a few development courses was often sufficient to refresh the expertise of a worker progressing through the ranks.
That is now breaking down and indeed it has been for some time. If you look at the disaster which overtook Barings bank in 1995, one of the striking features was the failure by the board to supervise Nick Leeson, the rogue trader who did the deal which broke them. Why did that happen? Of course they trusted the wrong person but the lack of supervision must also have reflected a reluctance to get to grips with detail in the complex area of derivative trading, a reluctance perhaps driven by a lack of expertise or a tacit assumption that it was a young man’s business.
But now it is all happening much faster. The growth of digitalisation may or may not be exponential, a word used increasingly loosely in the Covid era, but it is certainly very rapid and the replacement of old technology by new is at a pace not seen since the Industrial Revolution. In this context a worker can expect to see his or her job revolutionised several times in the span of a career and that means that very substantial retraining is needed as that career progresses.
How is this to be achieved? Far more adult education will be needed and, although some of that may be provided by employers, that source will meet only part of the need because, in an era of change, many traditional jobs will disappear and then the retraining required is for a new discipline so it can hardly be provided by the ex-employer. No, the nature of academia will have to change as it moves its focus in the provision of career-oriented courses from those who are just setting out on their working life to those moving from one industry to another.
So far so obvious, but this idea that retraining becomes a regular feature of working life raises immediate issues as to how those who attend university as an extension of the education they have received at school, should be trained. It is all very well to train them for a specific occupation or profession but if work is going to change radically or they move jobs, the training will have been a short-term benefit rather than equipping them for life. What they really need is to be taught basic skills like reasoning, absorbing information and communicating, and most important of all, how to study, so that as they progress through their careers there are equipped to deal with change both in what they do in their particular line and in the jobs market.
To achieve this it is necessary to prevent excessive early specialisation. In the old days a mathematician or scientist seeking a place at a top university had to pass an exam in English designed to check that they could communicate properly as well as solve equations. Perhaps they still do. It wasn’t a particularly difficult exam but at least lip service was being paid to the idea that technical expertise was useless unless ideas could be clearly expressed. I do not know whether there was a similar check that applicants for arts courses were numerate but clearly there should have been. A modern education system needs to go further than that with a substantial part of the curriculum being devoted to ensuring that those being taught are left recyclable in the sense that they are equipped to embrace new disciplines, and leaving specialisation until later in the process would clearly help with that.
The Times has recently announced that it will be running a project on the development of education and it is to be hoped that the conclusion will be that the focus should move from early specialisation to a more general intellectual development. That, of course, has a cost in that further training may be needed subsequently but to an extent that is already built into the existing system. Many people who read traditional academic subjects, whether in the arts or the sciences, go on to do something completely different and there the greater breadth of their education is paid for by a requirement for further training. It doesn’t seem to hold them back. A second conclusion might be that such early specialisation as there is should be on difficult academic subjects. Nobody trained a mind by making it solve easy problems. And the training of the mind is the name of the game.