An Op-Ed piece by Michael Bucknor for Jamaica’s Gleaner. Our thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.
“No longer are we preparing graduates for a job in their lifetime, we are preparing them for a lifetime of jobs!”
This was the startling revelation from Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Education (FHE), Professor Waibinte Wariboko, at the orientation session for first-year students, a few years ago. If this claim is true, what are the competencies that are required to prepare our graduates for this rapidly changing, technology-driven and scientifically innovative 21st-century world and beyond? Also, what is the relevance of the humanities to that world?
I had the good fortune, as chair of the Association of Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (ACLALS), to attend the 18th Conference of Commonwealth Education Ministers (CCEM) in Mauritius 2012, where I had a eureka moment. One cluster of the stakeholder’s forum of which I was a part was focused on Skills for the Future, and one of its very enlightening sessions was titled, ‘Education for Tomorrow’s World: For What are We Preparing Young People?’ Before even attending the session, it struck me that much of our education is past-oriented, not future oriented. For the majority of educators, they pass on what they have learnt. And if such educators are not paying attention to new research, or new trends, or the new context in which they operate, they tend to remain stuck in the past of their previous preparation. Based on what we know now and what we see emerging on the hazy horizon, we need to begin to imagine what lies ahead.
One of the fascinating aspects of being a science student at Cornwall College and loving literature is that I enjoyed reading science fiction. Long before the film fascination of such movies as Black Panther, many of us attending high school in the 1980s (pre-cell phone, pre-calculator use in maths exams, pre-Internet) had a fiction fascination, in particular science fiction that created future worlds that many of us now inhabit in 2020. One branch of science fiction uses current scientific information and pushes those ideas to their logical conclusion in order to imagine the future.
That education cluster at the CCEM conference asked us participants to imagine the future, to take the information we now have to figure out what lies ahead. Based on the knowledge-driven economy of today and based on research, the presenters of that panel identified six competencies needed for the future: critical thinking skills, innovativeness (read creativity), good communication skills, problem-solving skills, cognitive flexibility (ability to mobilise knowledge) and emotional intelligence. All of these competencies are at the core of literary studies.
The Caribbean Examination Council understood this over 15 years ago as they designed the CAPE Literatures in English syllabus. The Ministry of Education seems to have heard the clarion call and is now championing these core competencies in PEP. Beyond STEM, we must, therefore, recognise that in English studies, literature is absolutely essential and we should make the subject compulsory for students up to fifth form.
When I was a first-year student at The University of the West Indies in 1986, many people were scandalised by my choice of literature as a field of study. They constantly asked, “What are you going to do with it? Here in 2020, we now know that the study of literature and the fostering of creative expression and communication excellence represent core competencies for the future. The Department of Literatures in English, in particular, and the Faculty of Humanities and Education, in general, have always been part of this future. The common-sense approach to choosing an area of study because it is aligned with a specific job is becoming a less attractive approach in this rapidly changing word, given that in a current student’s lifetime, there will be many jobs.
“No longer a job for a lifetime; instead, there will be “a lifetime of jobs”! We are actually told that in some current jobs, humans will be replaced by machines. Professor Hopeton Dunn, in FHE 2017 Distinguished Lecture, presented a startling video of Ford Motor Company, demonstrating how technology has invaded the work world. The clip revealed that some jobs in that company had already been taken over by machines that could also prepare a cup of coffee for the human worker and also give him/her a back rub!
What core competencies must we develop in our students so that they remain relevant to this brave new world of robotic invasion? From Derek Walcott, Nobel Prize winner, to Marlon James, Booker Prize winner, from Curdella Forbes to Tanya Shirley, The University of the West Indies has been unleashing the creative potential of our people and fostering critical thinking. The Department of Literatures in English, in particular, has always responded to the currencies of the day.
Shifting from the Department of English to the Department of Literatures in English, expanding the archive of literary study beyond Chaucer and the classics to Chronixx and popular genres (reggae songs, science fiction, romance, crime fiction), revamping our programme to include visual culture (film studies) and the digital humanities, the department has maintained relevance in a rapidly changing world. With the pioneering work of Professor Carolyn Cooper, the Institute of Caribbean Studies (ICS), now led by Dr Sonjah Niaah, has given validation to the creative industries as a serious area of study and a viable source of economic development for our people.
In recent years, the Faculty of Humanities and Education has been innovative in looking ahead and providing students with options in tertiary education to position them for the future. The Caribbean School of Media and Communication introduced Animation and Film Production programmes, the Institute of Caribbean Studies has introduced programmes in Cultural and Creative Industries and Music and Performance Studies, and the Department of Literatures in English has introduced the Film Studies programme, and more recently the Bachelor of Arts in Writing, Literature and Publishing.
The entire faculty is now building on its courses in the Digital Humanities to develop a full multidisciplinary programme. This thrust by Dean Wariboko on multidisciplinary programmes is not arbitrary; it provides the opportunity to help students develop that required cognitive flexibility – to manipulate knowledge, to engage core competencies, and to deploy multiple disciplinary tools to a variety of problem-solving scenarios.
The Faculty of Humanities and Education (UWI) continues to position our graduates for the future, building core competencies in critical thinking, creativity, and visual culture!
Michael Bucknor, PhD, is a senior lecturer and campus orator at The University of the West Indies, Mona. This article is one in a series that seeks to promote and highlight the impact of the arts and humanities on the individual’s personal development and career path. Please send feedback to email@example.com.