Robots are moving once again to the center of our cultural consciousness. A new wave of artificial intelligence devices — Siri, Alexa, Google Home — have us talking to machines like never before. Meanwhile, economic anxiety over the loss of manufacturing jobs has focused increasingly on the automation of labor.
In the age of AI, leading political and educational voices tout the importance of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). If we’re going to live with robots, the thinking goes, we ought to learn their language. But what if the future is somewhat the opposite? What if robots bring about a revival of the arts and humanities, exactly the fields where human intelligence is most irreplaceable?
“In the future, if you want a job,” writes George Monbiot, “you must be as unlike a machine as possible: creative, critical and socially skilled.” Yet Monbiot finds that schools try to make children into little machines.
Children learn best when teaching aligns with their natural exuberance, energy and curiosity. So why are they dragooned into rows and made to sit still while they are stuffed with facts?
We succeed in adulthood through collaboration. So why is collaboration in tests and exams called cheating?
Governments claim to want to reduce the number of children being excluded from school. So why are their curriculums and tests so narrow that they alienate any child whose mind does not work in a particular way?
The best teachers use their character, creativity and inspiration to trigger children’s instinct to learn. So why are character, creativity and inspiration suppressed by a stifling regime of micromanagement?
The answer to all of these questions, Monbiot thinks, is that educational institutions “were designed to produce the workforce required by 19th-century factories” (and, I would add, the white-collar factories known as offices). He gives examples from around the world of experimental schools that have adopted more open-ended, collaborative systems, from the outdoor Forest School movement in England to a democratic South African school “whose rules and discipline were overseen by a student council.” Though these alternatives undoubtedly have their own problems, they offer some worthwhile ideas for reimagining learning in the light of 21st-century technologies.
Eboo Patel suggests in The Chronicle of Higher Education that the liberal arts are the fields best equipped to withstand the rise of the robots. He discusses a McKinsey report about the growing reach of automation, now encroaching on the domains of doctors, lawyers, and other professionals.
So which skills cannot be replaced by technology? According to the McKinsey report, two types in particular stand out — work that involves managing and developing people, and work that emphasizes applying expertise to decision making. In other words, jobs that rely on human interaction, creativity, and judgment will continue to be done by actual human beings.
Where are these skills to be found? In the beleaguered liberal arts, currently under threat by universities and politicians alike.
The hallmarks of a liberal education — building an ethical foundation that values the well-being of others, strengthening the mental muscles that allow you to acquire new knowledge quickly, and developing the skills to apply it effectively in rapidly shifting contexts — are not luxuries but necessities for preparing professionals for the coming transformation of knowledge work to relationship work.
We can hardly predict the future course of AI. For now, though, it looks as though philosophy, ethics, religion, literature — the humanities — are some of the things that make us most distinctly human. They are our competitive edge against the robots and we might do well to press that advantage.