May 27, 2012

Maine Voices: Let's prepare grads for the unexpected

Today's world demands nimble thinkers who can work across many disciplines and make innovative connections.


BAR HARBOR - Next month, high school commencement speakers across the country will do what's expected: They'll wax poetic about how graduates can meet any challenge or, worse, tell them that the secret to a happy life and success in any career (no matter how far-fetched or impractical) is to follow their "passion."

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What high school graduates need to hear is that the world has become a complicated place.

2011 File Photo/Shawn Patrick Ouellette

What graduates won't be told by well-meaning speakers is that the world is a mighty complicated place. Problems and solutions -- from the boardroom to the battlefield -- defy tidy categories.

Indeed, our new grads will soon pack up for college, where they'll pick a major, spend four years-plus engrossed in their "field," and think they know it all. Sadly, what they won't learn is that the most innovative solutions often come from unexpected places and require a mash-up of ideas that reach beyond the normal limits of a disciplinary expertise.

Despite the need for today's college graduates to intellectually multitask, most academic institutions cling to disciplinary rigor and as a result, cannot adequately train future leaders of a volatile, complex world. Academics need to look beyond a strict disciplinary approach so their graduates are able to reach across disciplines to find innovative solutions when tackling complicated problems.

What's needed are nimble, experimental players who embrace interdisciplinary thinking for inspiration. This "radical" approach is being adopted by innovators and leaders in a wide array of fields today, including (we admit some surprise here) the U.S. military.

With the threat posed by ongoing global conflicts, a burgeoning nuclear arms race, ecological refugees from climate change, and the shifting balance of power in hot spots such as the Middle East, the acronym VUCA -- or Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity -- is the military's apt description of today's fast-changing world, where financial meltdowns, nuclear crises and seismic shifts in the political landscape emerge overnight and seemingly without warning. (Major corporations, such as Fidelity, also have used the VUCA framework to train their leaders.)

Dealing with a VUCA world demands mental agility and the ability to shift between mindsets to understand the shifting sands.

Prior to the Arab Spring, who could have predicted that social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, used to communicate many banalities of daily life, would ignite a revolution? Then, as the security forces began monitoring these sites, who would expect protesters to migrate to dating sites as a revolutionary platform?

With the recent death of Steve Jobs, people worldwide have reflected on his skills as an exceptional innovator. Where did his inspiration come from?

His much-lauded commencement speech at Stanford University offers clues. "Much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on," he told graduates.

He went on to explain that his real education didn't begin until he dropped out of college and started "dropping in" on courses based on his interests instead of departmental fealty.

Our world demands thinkers who can build bridges -- re-create capitalism based on natural principles, create inspired technology from the arts and perform hybrid thinking. So why is academia so insistently stuck in a silo mentality? We should demand an approach that nurtures multiple sides of the brain and encourages students and faculty to create with people from other disciplines.

Students need to have an in-depth understanding of their main areas of study, yes, but also need the ability to reach beyond them. This includes going beyond the ivory tower to experience what they are studying and proposing in classwork.

Students at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor have been doing this for the past 40 years. This small, experimental college was founded in 1969 on the premise that education should go beyond understanding the world as it is, to enable students to actively shape its future.

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