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Skills for the 21st Century

I should like to start by thanking WISE for giving me the wonderful opportunity to talk about this crucially important subject to such a distinguished audience.

Since I will shortly be singing the praises of discipline, it is incumbent upon me to start by imposing on myself the discipline of defining my terms and perspective. By skills I mean habits of mind and modes of behaviour. Obviously, apart from the case of self learning, skills have to be imparted by a particular agency. As a university president, I am paid to think about higher education. Hence, I shall talk with reference to it.
I think we can all agree that the world has been getting, and will continue to get, more complex, perhaps at an exponential rate. Hence, acquiring analytical reasoning and problem solving skills has become essential for conducting everyday life, let alone for professional activity. And there is no better way, perhaps no other way, for acquiring such skills than being firmly grounded in disciplines, being familiar with their methods and habits of mind. For example, in science, these are the ability to create models of the world, develop theories or hypotheses, experiment or observe, and then revise the theories in light of the empirical evidence. But this is only an example. Other disciplines, I am sure though I am no expert, have their own equally powerful, non-intuitive or counter-intuitive, ways of thinking.

However, the skill of disciplinary thinking is also important in the other sense of the word 'discipline’; the sense of application and methodical endeavour. In fact, to analyse analytically and solve problems, whatever the methodology and methods, requires collecting facts, abstracting without losing sight of crucial detail, discerning intricacies, and teasing out links and linkages; and doing all these tasks doggedly and patiently (I will be coming back to patience). All of this, of course, requires practice. Indeed, the age-old dictum that practice makes perfect is still valid, which brings to mind what the famous pianist Arthur Rubinstein said: if I do not practice for a day, I know it; if I do not practice for a week, the orchestra knows it; and if I do not practice for a month, the audience knows it.

You will have noticed that I said grounded 'in disciplines’, rather than 'in a discipline’. The fact of the matter is that in the modern world, most work requires familiarity with more than one discipline, if only to facilitate team work, which is also a skill to be reckoned with. Moreover, most interesting work is by its very nature interdisciplinary or lies at the interface between disciplines.

Thinking in more than one discipline simultaneously or thinking in an interdisciplinary way requires yet another skill; that of synthesising: the ability to put things (ideas, information, systems) together such that they cohere, i.e., form a united, orderly, and functionally and aesthetically consistent whole.
The fruits of analytical reasoning, problem solving and synthesis would be laid to waste if their bearer failed to communicate them to fellow humans. More, it could be said that such fruits do not come into being until and unless they are communicated. Indeed, the ability to explain, explicate, adumbrate and bring closer to comprehension in speech, writing and other forms of presentation and representation, in short, having communication skills, is as important today as it has ever been.
You might say that all I have done so far is describe the classical, generic, transferrable skills that universities traditionally seek to impart, i.e., 20th century skills, and you would be right, for what I sought to do is to say that such skills will not only be still needed for the 21st century, but their importance will even be accentuated.
Now to 21st century skills proper. Globalization has engendered two seemingly contradictory trends: the world has shrunk to become a global village and supranational entities have become essential for the survival of states and nations, while at the same time sub-nations and subcultures have emerged and some are thriving. This antinomy should give rise to emphasis on the following sets of skills.

First, foreign language skills. It is, of course, essential and admirable to master one’s own national language. However, this is not enough. To survive and prosper in the world of today, one needs to master at least one foreign language; principally English, which, like it or not, has become the international lingua franca.

Second, cosmopolitanism: the ability not only to move with ease within cultures and between cultures, but also to appreciate and enjoy their beauty and splendour, particularly since temporary or permanent emigration has become a defining feature of modern times.

Third, reconciliation of multiple overlapping identities within oneself and respect for them in others. Each contemporary person is, dare I say, a jumble of identities (take me for instance: I am Palestinian, Arab, culturally Muslim, and, having lived most of my adult life in Britain, western and British. What a mess, you might say!). Much of the trouble in the world today stems from failure to reconcile such multiple identities. In many cases, this failure is in turn prompted by a misguided essentialism that requires each person to define herself or himself along one essential axis to the exclusion of, and in enmity with, all others.

Reconciliation within oneself would ease the process of having that other related skill, which is respect for the complex identities of others. Though united by our common humanity, or should be, we are different peoples that have different belief and value systems. Mutual respect is, therefore, necessary for civilised interaction. Note that I am talking about respect, not tolerance. The latter is, to my mind, odious, for it connotes considering the other as a nuisance that one holds one’s nose to, while respect involves celebrating diversity, and trying to understand other people better and making common cause with them.
There are yet other modern-day phenomena that should impact the skill-formation objectives of higher education; viz.,

• Information overload, which should lead to emphasis on efficient information processing, both mentally and technologically: sifting through to set aside information of dubious value, classifying and storing data and information, retrieving data and information from databases and information-bases; this in addition to the ability to synthesise information (synthesis again!).

• Progressive and speedy knowledge and technology change, which should lead to emphasis on self-motivated, life-long learning. In some disciplines and walks of life, perhaps even most, failing to keep up for even a short period of time may mean perpetual failure to catch up.
• Dominance of science-based technology, which should give rise to emphasis on technological literacy and awareness of implications of such dominance for privacy and freedom.

Finally, I wish to dwell upon two traits, talking of which may seem out of place in a discussion of skills.
The first trait is patience. It seems to me that a culture of impatience is spreading among and taking hold of youth. Could it be the fault of all those computer games that give the player an instant sense of conquering the world from the comfort of her home? In any case, one could imagine a modern day saint praying: Oh Lord, give me patience and I want it right now.
It was once said that all civilization is based on postponement of pleasure, obviously in the expectation of greater pleasure later. If that is true, then modern strife for instant gratification could be egging us towards barbarism. Whatever the truth of the matter, without patience, immense patience, no skill could be developed or nurtured.

The second trait is ethicality. It may be maintained that ethical sensibility is normally developed long before people come to university. However, the complexity of modern life is such that university would do well to attempt developing and honing the students’ skill of making ethical choices and resolving ethical dilemmas. And if we needed reminding of that, then the last international financial crisis should have done.
We do and should teach for success. However, seeking success can and does sometimes lead students to cut corners for fear of the consequences of other students cutting corners. And students do this while maintaining that later in life they will be more ethical, which reminds of the saint (this time a real one) who prayed: Oh Lord, make me chaste, but not quite yet!

In conclusion, lest we forget, let us remind ourselves of the purpose of all this developing of skills. It is to enable students to enjoy life. God knows that there is so much misery, poverty, disease, and in the case of my own people, the Palestinians, occupation and oppression, to break the heart. Yet, in the words of the great Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, there is on this earth much that is worth living for. The ultimate goal of education should be to enable people to appreciate the good things in life. For this we need to develop students’ artistic and aesthetic sensibilities, and these too are skills for the 21st century and beyond.


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