A striking symmetry is emerging in debates about the future of higher education around the world. On the one hand, there is growing concern that the US and many European countries are failing to prepare enough university graduates in the fields driving the 21st century “knowledge economy,” such as engineering and information technology. This fear has led to the narrowing of the concept of education to mean the acquisition of practical skills.
On the other hand, the worry in some parts of Asia is that young people entering the workforce with strong technical training lack sufficient experience “thinking outside the box.” This fear is manifesting itself in an incipient effort to expand education to include the cultivation of feeling and imagination.
Both movements are rooted in economic concerns. In the US, where most undergraduates bear at least part of the cost of their university education, political pressure is mounting to provide incentives like tuition discounts or loan forgiveness to students of science, technology, engineering or mathematics (the so-called STEM fields). Cost-cutting measures, such as compressing traditional four-year degree programs into three years — thereby reducing or eliminating elective courses in “impractical” subjects like literature, philosophy and fine arts — are also being discussed.
Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, Singapore and China, there are calls for extending university programs so that students can obtain a broad, liberal education, in the hope that graduates will be more inclined to experiment and innovate. For example, Hong Kong University has extended its undergraduate programs from three years to four years.
However, such a narrow, economics-based view fails to account for the larger questions of value that societies worldwide are facing. To be sure, progress in any field, from commerce and communications to health and environmental science, will become increasingly dependent on technological innovation, and thus on the high-order skills — acquired through intensive technical training — that drive it.
However, it is also true that such training does not provide an adequate foundation for addressing the more abstract, but profoundly important, questions that ultimately must guide global policy and decisionmaking. For example:
‧ How can the imperative of economic development be reconciled with the need to limit climate change?
‧ What does national sovereignty mean in a world where diseases, pollutants and terrorists cross national borders at will?
‧ Are there universal human rights that transcend conflicting claims of particular cultural traditions?
‧ How should limited resources be distributed in order to provide opportunity and hope to young people, while treating the elderly with dignity and respect?
‧ What are a country’s obligations to refugees fleeing from persecution, poverty or strife elsewhere?
‧ How should we balance individual liberty and collective security?
In answering such questions, advances in science and technology (for example, new methods of energy production, surveillance or online learning) will have a key role to play. However, moral and ethical questions never yield fully to technical solutions; they also require an understanding of humanity’s social and cultural heritage. Science can help us to attain the life we want, but it cannot teach us what kind of life is worth wanting.