Holistic education wins over technical skills after university, says US academic

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 July, 2013, 9:39am

In a fast-changing world, should higher education institutions focus on teaching technical skills? The answer from one of America's top liberal arts colleges is a resounding "no".

"We are preparing students for their careers, not for their first jobs," says Adam Falk, president of Williams College in the US state of Massachusetts.

People ... call these 'soft skills', but I think they are the hardest skills that are out there
Adam Falk, president of Williams College

His reasoning is that within six months of graduating, the cutting edge of technology will have shifted and students will have lost their advantage. Far more effective in setting graduates up for long-standing careers is a broad education.

The head of the 200-year-old college, Falk uses the class of 1963 as an example. In the early '60s, no one could have foreseen the hi-tech world of 2013 so it would have been impossible for the college to prepare for it.

Yet this year a good number of that class returned to celebrate the 50th year since they graduated, and many have led successful careers. They have been successful not because of the specific technical tools or facts they learned at school, but because of the so-called soft skills they mastered, says Falk.

"They were successful because they had an intellectual adaptability; they were energetic; they do have an independence; they can express themselves in powerful ways, orally and in writing; they were strong critical thinkers; they were good collaborators; and they thought in interdisciplinary ways," he says.

In Hong Kong last month, as part of an Asian tour to meet alumni, Falk addressed a gathering at the Asia Society in Admiralty on a topic that has been cause for much debate in the United States: what is the purpose of a university education? Are we, as a society, making the right investment in higher education?

The perception that the world is changing fast and it's critical to keep up has led many to emphasise technical skills. But Falk says it's the ability to communicate, think critically and collaborate with others - all the signifiers of a good leader - that will give graduates the edge in the long run.

"People sometimes call these 'soft skills', but I think they are the hardest skills that are out there," says Falk. "Training minds is not done by getting the facts out of books and regurgitating them on a test - that's just the starting point. It's done by people and there's no shortcut."

With 2,200 undergraduates and 300 faculty members, Williams College has a high student-teacher ratio. This means that students have easy access to faculty members, and plenty of opportunities for quality interaction and learning. But none of this is cheap. "It's a huge investment we make, and it's hard to do it to scale," Falk says.

He has been approached by mainland universities that see the benefits of a liberal arts college and are keen to establish a similar system, he says, but the big drawback is always the cost.

"They see the value, and the hard question they ask is, 'How can I do this 100,000 at a time?' They calculate the number of faculty and it's a lot of people. I don't have a good answer for that other than to say we have to invest in the teachers - there is no shortcut. And that's a societal choice."

Much has been made of massive online courses, but Falk says that can't replace human interaction. "The way we can use technology in the classroom is almost limitless, deeply exciting - but none of it replaces the human faculty," he says.