Adapting to challenges of a changing world

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 December, 2012, 3:53pm

In a rapidly changing world, we have to prepare ourselves for challenges that will confront us every day. This requires a liberally educated citizenry. To indicate the importance of liberal education to a democratic society, let me quote David Kearns, former CEO of Xerox Corporation.

"The only education that prepares us for change is a liberal education. In periods of change, narrow specialisation condemns us to inflexibility - precisely what we do not need. We need the flexible intellectual tools to be problem solvers, to be able to continue learning over time."

The need for a liberal education has never been more acute than now. A consensus among educators worldwide is emerging that to be successful in this knowledge-intensive century, we need to prepare graduates at all levels of academic achievement to confront challenges that we, as humanity, face with intellectual curiosity and rigour.

Liberal education provides this type of discourse. The field, which includes general education, gives broad exposure to multiple disciplines and ways of knowing at both introductory and more advanced levels. Hong Kong institutions have wisely included general education as part of the undergraduate curriculum. This choice will have an enduring effect on the lives of students who will graduate from these institutions.

It is not a mystery that a nation's economic competitiveness depends on the capabilities of its college graduates. Specialised skills that were an essential part of the 20th century have to be complemented with a wide range of transferable skills that allow for the realities of the 21st century.

Investing in liberal education will pay off, not only for students, but also for the community. For students, focusing on long-term professional goals rather than the salary they might receive in their first job is essential to their own success. For the community, or the nation as a whole, having a workforce that is able to respond to changing economic demands is also essential.

Liberal education prepares students to understand the implications of our global interdependence, and to grasp complex problems and find innovative solutions. At a time of increasing competition between nations, these skills can give a country an economic edge.

Additionally, surveys have shown that employers prefer to hire individuals with broad general skills developed through a liberal education as well as some experience in applying those skills in real-world settings.

Hong Kong employers have expressed concern about the lack of problem-solving skills and effective verbal and written communication skills among their new hires. They want all employees to have these skills, whether or not they are working in highly technical fields. They are also particularly concerned about the ability of their employees to work effectively in teams and with clients and customers from a variety of backgrounds. A liberal education is the best way to develop these capacities.

Lastly, a liberal education introduces students to multiple perspectives and develops their independent critical judgment. It exposes them to a wide array of ideas and teaches how to evaluate them.

This is precisely why education must prepare students to function in the diverse and rapidly changing work environment in Asia.

As has been stated by the Association of American Universities and Colleges, liberal education produces 360-degree thinkers. With its emphasis on a breadth of knowledge and sophisticated habits of mind, it is the most powerful way to build students' capacities to form reasoned judgments about complex issues.

Recent events in Hong Kong, once again, remind us of the need for this type of education. We recognise that whatever field we prepare ourselves for will be going through continuous changes. Technological advances that we see today will be shortly forgotten, as new ways of solving problems and dealing with world issues will come to the fore. This requires an ability to be flexible.

Liberal education develops habits where the necessary adaptability and flexibility are the norm.

Reza Hoshmand is director of general education at Hong Kong Baptist University