An Education for Dynamic Change by David J. Staley

I was recently invited to formally state my teaching philosophy, a useful exercise for any educator to practice every so often.  I wrote that “I am committed to ensuring that undergraduate students are prepared to enter into a world of dynamic change, and to lead and thrive in such a complex world.”  Rather than training students for one job—having them master a single discipline–the approach to education I imagine aims to educate the whole person, to use an old but still very relevant expression.  This curriculum gives students the cognitive tools to navigate a complex world.  Over the last two decades, futurists have described ours as a VUCA world, one that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.  The polymath John Seely Brown describes ours as the “Age of Entanglement.”  It is well time for higher education to explicitly prepare students to enter, succeed and thrive in such an entangled world. 

Gary A. Bolles observes in his book The Next Rules of Work that “Our educational institutions don’t explicitly teach us strategies for living in a constantly changing world.” Specializing in a single discipline—even if augmented by a robust general education curriculum—oftentimes prepares students for a static present, not a dynamic future.  Imagine if there were a degree in “dynamic change,” or a bachelor’s degree in “resilience,” a degree that would signal that a student is successfully able to respond to change.  This curriculum might offer a degree in “antifragility,” Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s neologism describing systems—or in this case, individuals—that “thrive as a result of stressors, shocks, volatility, noise, mistakes, faults, attacks, or failures.”  Specialized majors do not effectively educate “antifragile” students. 

The epistemological orientation of this “dynamic change” curriculum would be toward systems thinking, with the goal of having students develop an understanding of how a wide variety of systems behave.  It is also to be expected that students learn to anticipate how these systems might behave in the future.  Students would study social, economic, political, cultural, technological, architectural, engineering, environmental, aesthetic, financial, epistemological, and legal systems.  Each of these are complex systems, meaning that they all display unpredictable “emergent” behaviors.  Thriving in dynamic change requires a futures orientation, and so students would also take courses in speculative design and design fiction, as well as “visionary literature.”  Students would also demonstrate competency in communication and composition in a variety of media, engaging in the representation of knowledge through spoken and written language, visual images and kinetic performance.  Concentrating on a single discipline is insufficient for understanding dynamic global systems. 

What I am imagining is much more than an updated general education curriculum (such a curriculum still supposes that students will settle into specialized silos for their majors). I am proposing a new kind of liberal arts education. Richard A. Detweiler has usefully defined the liberal arts as a curriculum that:

  • is nonvocational, meaning “not designed for a specific job or profession.”
  • “involves the full span of knowledge.”  Even at some so-called liberal arts colleges, students continue to major in specialized disciplines, as siloed as any pre-professional or technical program. 
  • “develops intellectual skills,” meaning “analytic and reasoning ability, (as well as) creativity.”

A dynamic change degree is flexible and forward-looking. 

I understand that what I am envisioning looks very much like a nineteenth-century, pre-elective curriculum.  Before the development of majors, students at American colleges typically moved through a pre-established curriculum: first semester freshmen take these courses, this set of courses in the second semester, this set the first semester of their sophomore year, and so on.  This dynamic change curriculum  mirrors that nineteenth century pattern: students would take a common set of courses in a prescribed order, all toward the final goal of developing resilience and antifragility. 

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