During this offseason I read Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. It is a fascinating book that explains how homo sapiens came to dominate the planet. It also paints a rather startling picture of a future that could see us toppled from our top spot by the decoupling of intelligence from consciousness. We are continuing to develop new types of non-conscious intelligence and algorithms that can perform many tasks that, until very recently, we assumed could only be done by our uniquely conscious selves.
Does that mean many of us will lose our economic value? Will many of us be out of a job soon? Probably, if we think of the jobs we have now.
Harari points out that new technologies have always made jobs redundant just as they have created new ones but now ‘the crucial problem isn’t creating new jobs. The crucial problem is creating new jobs that humans perform better than algorithms.’
Harari then makes a couple of statements that are of particular interest to an educator.
1. ‘Since we do not know how the job market would look in 2030 or 2040, already today we have no idea what to teach our kids. Most of what they currently learn at school will probably be irrelevant by the time they are forty.’
This is a valid albeit very laboured point that all educators worry about. But I think we should stop worrying about it so much and Harari himself might provide us with some peace of mind in this regard. Throughout this book and his other works, Harari draws upon his varied knowledge of the deeds of artists, scientists, mathematicians, politicians, philosophers, economists, explorers, and soldiers – many of whom died centuries ago and in some cases proven misguided or completely wrong.
The fact that Harari is able to weave together this knowledge into his carefully observed and imagined future of ours is a case for worrying less about what we learn and more about how we learn it. It is obvious that Harari’s knowledge of history goes well beyond facts and figures. His knowledge is a deeper conceptual understanding of why a phenomenon, an event, a discovery, a philosophy, a conflict, an alliance, an expedition, a pedagogy came to be and its enduring influence. It is this deeper conceptual understanding that allows him to make connections and conclusions that can be applied to contexts that are unfamiliar or completely unknown.
In facing an uncertain future, we should strive for a deep conceptual understanding of everything we learn. This idea of conceptual learning is certainly not new but can be daunting for teachers and students alike. But maybe the shift from facts and figures is not as daunting as it is made out to be. As a colleague of mine at ISY elegantly pointed out to me, it might just be a matter of asking different questions of ourselves and our students. Instead of ‘What can we learn about Ancient Egypt?’ we could ask ‘What can we learn from Ancient Egypt?’
Asking what we can learn from something forces us to make connections to what we already know, our current situation, and what we think might happen next. In making those connections we can apply our knowledge to different and even unfamiliar and unknown contexts (i.e. the future). I would argue that any knowledge that one could apply in the future is relevant.
One proviso that I would add would be that for knowledge to be relevant, we must be able to connect it to our own lives. This allows us to use our own cultural perspectives to make connections that will enable us to apply knowledge to our own context.
2. ‘Traditionally, life has been divided into two main parts; a period of learning followed by a period of working. Very soon this traditional model will become utterly obsolete, and the only way for humans to stay in the game will be to keep learning throughout their lives, and to reinvent themselves repeatedly. Many if not most humans may be unable to do so.’
To thrive in an uncertain future we need to be adaptable and I agree with Harari in that I believe for many of us that will require reinvention as opposed to mere upskilling.
My father is of the age that did not have artificial intelligence looking over their shoulders. But he did successfully reinvent himself on more than one occasion. His reinventions were not driven by necessity in so much as they were driven by purpose. But I would humbly put forward my father as an example to those of us who will need to reinvent themselves, whether we want to or not.
My father did not go to university. He trained and worked as a draughtsman for a short time before joining New Zealand’s Wildlife Service as a trainee. My father entered the Wildlife Service as a keen hunter and fisherman and was involved at all levels in efforts to save and revive the populations of many endangered species. He worked all over mainland New Zealand and its off-shore islands with a varied and eclectic collection of hunters, scientists, and conservationists to eradicate pests and to quite literally bring many of New Zealand’s birds back from the brink of extinction. Our family moved from the West Coast to Wanganui when the Wildlife Service was absorbed into the Department of Conversation in 1987 and for reasons touched on below, my father decided to reinvent himself. Firstly in sports administration with Sport Wanganui and then as Personnel and Service Manager at one of New Zealand’s first K-Mart stores. After a spell managing the Canterbury Volunteer Centre, a not for profit organisation recruiting and placing volunteers across many varied workplaces and organisations, my father’s next reinvention developed into a very senior role at Environment Canterbury working closely with politicians, bureaucrats, lawyers, conservationists, farmers, and scientists. He was instrumental in developing a 24 hour environmental incident response system and headed two internationally significant prosecutions involving the collapse of the Opuha Dam and the spilling of a truckload of rat poison into the sea off Kaikoura. My father has now semi-retired, offering occasional advice on environmental issues and procedure and driving part-time for tourism and rental car companies in Christchurch.
While my father’s professional roles were varied, they can all be described as making a difference to the communities in which he lived and, particularly with respect to his environmental roles, to New Zealand. His motivations to reinvent himself differed but these were all grounded in his keen sense of responsibility to do the right thing.
I believe that the respect and success that my father enjoyed in all of his professional roles can be attributed to his ability to take the perspective of all of those he worked with, for, and even against. This ability to take the perspective of others is grounded in humility and his experiences working in small communities in which respect must be earned in every interaction through hard work and honesty.
While being able to take multiple perspectives allowed my father to work in a variety of roles with different people, his success in those roles can be further distilled down to five specific but interrelated attributes or skills: critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, compassion, and courage.
Critical Thinking. My father is objective in his analysis and evaluation of an issue. He does this through taking the perspectives of all involved. Often perspectives that are considered utterly incompatible are interconnected to the extent that they can and must co-exist when an issue is critically examined on objective facts. This is especially the case in the conservation of wildlife in New Zealand. You can obviously protect endangered wildlife by stopping people accessing their environment. But New Zealand is a very small country that depends heavily upon primary industries and hiking, hunting and fishing are popular pastimes. The nature of these industries and pastimes mean that, more often than not, the people involved in them have more practical experience and knowledge of the species being protected than those trying to protect them. My father knew this because he made a point of understanding the perspectives of those on both sides of an issue. This enabled my father to make use of the experience and expertise of all interested parties in addressing that issue. Sawmillers volunteering information about the past and present whereabouts of endangered kiwi in the forests in which they were working might sound contradictory to their work. However, they trusted my father and knew where the kiwi were. Their help in establishing territories played a very important part in growing the kiwi population in those forests.
Collaboration. My father is just as comfortable talking with a lawyer as he is with a farmer as he is with a scientist as he is with a sawmiller. Importantly, he listens and always starts with the assumption that they are positive in their intentions. He is humble enough to ask for advice and has the expertise and experience to offer it and lead when necessary. He has always earned the right to give people advice and to lead them by working hard alongside them.
Creativity. My father is creative in that he can connect the unconnected. Again, this comes from his ability and willingness to take the perspectives of others. Sawmillers providing information on kiwi was a creative solution to the problem of establishing the birds’ territories in largely inaccessible forest. This solution probably seemed to my father more logical than creative given that he knew that the sawmillers were in the forest and took a protective interest in kiwi. Connecting the unconnected might have also motivated him to take a very creative risk in deciding to invite sawmillers, miners, local body politicians, bureaucrats, agriculturalists, hunters, environmental lobbyists and key community members to a whole day ‘Wildlife Seminar’ to share in the uniqueness and importance of the West Coast’s flora and fauna. At that time on the Coast, there were very serious and ongoing threats to many ecologically and scientifically significant environments. These environments were being modified or lost, threatening many rare species. Proposals for protective measures were under fierce debate. Tensions were running high and these were exacerbated by emotional arguments based on inaccurate information and otherwise poor or non-existent communication. The seminar provided an opportunity for all parties to share information and educate each other as what the real threats to the environment were and how these could be mitigated using the varied experience and expertise of all those represented at the seminar. The varied perspectives and interests in the group that attended the seminar were, in many cases, polar opposite to one another. There was a real risk of further polarizing people and my father’s superiors were unsure as to whether the seminar would do more harm than good. After the seminar, in a letter to the Director of Wildlife, the then President of the West Coast Acclimatisation Society wrote, ‘It would be in our opinion, one of the most valuable exercises ever held by the Wildlife Service and nothing but good will come out of it.‘ Again, it was my father’s ability to understand and honour different perspectives that meant that the beer running out was the day’s only awkward moment. Fortunately, the group worked well together to source some more.
Communication. My father listens more than he speaks. He is honest and brave enough to tell people what they need to hear as opposed to simply what they want to hear. He knows what they need to hear because he takes the time to understand their perspective. Open communication is very important in close communities. The fact that he, as a wildlife officer, could still have a drink with sawmillers after their operation had essentially been shut down on environmental grounds speaks volumes for keeping people informed and being objective in times of stress.
Compassion. My father’s compassion is, again, grounded in his ability to take the perspective of others. He always seems to be able to understand why people think or act differently without judgment. People feel comfortable working with him knowing that he understands them. My father has had to make some very difficult decisions that have disappointed people but important relationships have remained intact because those people knew he understood and considered their perspective.
Courage. My father could not have reinvented himself without the courage of his convictions. His courage came from his values and wanting to do the right thing by his family. He left the Department of Conservation in part because he felt that the Department was at that time losing its objectivity and ability to consider the multiple perspectives of the people that it served. He moved to Christchurch without a job because he wanted my brother and I to have the opportunities that a bigger town could provide.
In many ways, my father chose to reinvent himself. In the future, we have been warned that circumstances may be such that reinvention could no longer be considered a choice.
If that is the case, and I believe that it is, critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, communication, compassion, and courage will determine all of our futures. The development of these six attributes or skills, and an underlying ability and willingness to take the perspective of others, is where our focus needs to be now.
Harari, Yuval N. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. Harper Perennial, 2018.