Robot proof book…

I found this comment very insightful.

This book is excellent marketing material for Northeastern University, a Boston-area university of which the author (JA) is currently president. The idea of protecting graduates from obsolescence at the hands (effectors?) of robots and AI will be appealing to many students and their parents. The school’s co-op” program, which features something like internships integrated more directly than usual into the university’s curriculum, sounds very exciting; I wondered how a program like that might have shaped my career had it been available to me when I was in college (assuming I’d been wise enough at that age to take advantage of it).

But the book’s grander vision of what a university should be — a launching pad for inserting students into economic life, and a maintenance garage for keeping them competitive throughout their careers — is narrow and inadequate. While JAs pleading in defense of humanities and liberal arts is an important and welcome theme in the book, he grounds his argument on those subjects’ instrumental value in teaching economically useful skills that AI can’t (as yet) replicate. More generally, his view of the skills that should be imparted to college students is in some ways naive, some important aspects of implementation aren’t thought through, and his hype reaches occasionally absurd heights.

JA proposes to counterbalance the rise of robotics with humanics.” One aspect of this field is reflected in three new literacies”:

  1. Technological Literacy,” knowledge of mathematics, coding and basic engineering principles;
  2. Data Literacy,” meaning the ability to use data, and also to understand its limitations; and
  3. Human Literacy,” which equips us for the social milieu, giving us the power to communicate, engage with others, and tap into out human capacity for grace and beauty” (@59).

Of these, data literacy” might be the newest type — if one overlooks its roots in classical rhetoric and the analysis of arguments. (Unfortunately, the exposition of this literacy seems a little illiterate, as when it this overestimates the power of correlations: Based on the correlations we discover, we are able to understand the real meaning of the information and then extrapolate accurate predictions from it,”@57.) On the other hand, the clumsily-named human literacy” seems like something universities have been interested in for decades, if not centuries. Technological literacy” too is hardly new: at least regarding coding, it’s something many universities have latched on to in recent years. It’s puzzling, though, why engineering should be emphasized to the exclusion of natural science. Nor is JAs rationale entirely persuasive when it comes to why coding should be a required piece of the curriculum: Because coding is the lingua franca of the digital world, everyone should be conversant in it” (55). Was everyone conversant” in mechanics when machines were the dominant technology globally? Alternatively, since technologies like CRISPR will no doubt lead to a rise in bathtub biotech,” why shouldn’t everyone be conversant in genetic manipulation? (Maybe the way to beat down the threat of AI is to create some new real I.) This isn’t to say it would necessarily be a bad idea for more people to learn coding — but JAs argument is very superficial. It’s not the only place in the book where important issues are glossed over.

Complementing these in the humanics” toolbox are the four cognitive capacities”:

  1. Critical Thinking, which is about analyzing ideas skillfully and then applying them fruitfully” (@62);
  2. Systems Thinking, which sees the details and the entire tableau, exercising our mental strength to weigh complexity while also testing our grasp on multiple strands of thought” (@66);
  3. Entrepreneurship, which JA does not define, but which should be a baseline capacity for all college learners,” and which functions in two dimensions,” including the traditional start-up model,” and the context of established institutions and businesses” (@67); and
  4. Cultural Agility,” the mega-competency that enables professionals to perform successfully in cross-cultural situations” (quoting Paula Caligiuri), which requires a deep enough immersion in a culture [sic] so that we can fit seamlessly into multicultural teams or get results from people who have dramatically different lives from our own” (@71).

Each of these definitions seems to me problematic. Aside from the question of what fruitful” application means, surely critical thinking includes analyzing ideas and rejecting some of them. It also includes a wide range of activities that overlaps with data literacy,” such as evaluating both the premises and conclusions of arguments, as well as whether the latter are well-based on the former. In any case, this is one of the most traditional functions of a university, going back to the University of Bologna, founded over 900 years ago as a school of law. Systems thinking” is an ambiguous term: one of the characteristics of a system” is that it has a boundary, yet JA seems to think of it as a kind of holism. Often a good use of critical thinking is to question whether system boundaries are appropriate, but JA doesn’t connect these two faculties. The definition of cultural agility” is by turns unclear and troubling. How can immersion in a culture” enable us to fit seamlessly into multicultural teams? E.g., I was immersed in American culture growing up, and am now immersed in Japanese culture - would these immersions enable me to fit into a team of Iraqis, Russians and Nigerians? Or was it the alienation of my immersion in the WASP culture of my Ivy League college in the 1970s that made me agile”? Perhaps it’s immersion in a multicultural environment that enables students to become more multicultural? Clearly, this concept needs to be thought through some more. The troubling bit is the reference to get[ting] results from people who have dramatically different lives from our own” — as with much else in the book, this introduces an instrumental, even exploitative element that we probably do NOT want universities to be teaching.

But it’s JAs emphasis on entrepreneurship that I felt most missed the mark. (Is this a cognitive capacity, BTW, or is it instead a behavior?) First, it’s naïve for JA to believe that universities are terrific repositories of entrepreneurial experience, who can incubate and advise people in the business world (“Universities, with their critical masses of active minds, are ideal entrepreneurial ecosystems,” @69). In my previous experience as a Silicon Valley lawyer and as a corporate VC, university personnel are generally among the most arrogant and least realistic people to deal with. They have very little comprehension of the difficulties of manufacturing at scale, of retaining technical staff, and of selling. Significantly, they also tend to have very little experience at failure, which is why they were able to get hired by and advance in their university positions. At least 9 out of 10 entrepreneurial ventures fail. What does the typical tenured professor, or university president, know about being out of a job and perhaps losing their home?

It’s also naïve to believe that anyone can be, or would enjoy being, an entrepreneur, just as not everyone is cut out to be a salesperson. To make this be a baseline capacity” for all who attend college would terribly restrict the number of people admitted to university. Perhaps some would offer the counterargument that entrepreneurism is a capacity” that can be taught, like coding. So let me ask: how many university graduates had to learn calculus? In US 4-year universities, almost everyone. And yet how many people remember it? How many use it in their daily lives? (This same argument applies to coding, BTW.) The fact that a subject is taught as a required subject isn’t sufficient to turn it into a baseline capacity” that people will use in their lives. Anyway, do we really want a society full of hustling entrepreneurs, like the Ferengi in the Star Trek mythoverse? And why would a society full of selfish optimizers be particularly robot-proof? Wouldn’t humanity’s best resistance to robots be a society that departed from the Homo economicus sort of rationality,” instead of predictably embodying it?

This last question opens out on several other aspects of the book that troubled me. JA puts great store by the views of the C-suite,” i.e., the topmost levels of corporate management. Why are they particularly endowed with vision about what the job market will be in the future, rather than in the next few years only? Capitalism has created many of the problems we now face — rising inequality, environmental degradation, new technological forms of invasion of privacy and government repression; why should we look to its captains for a vision of what universities should be? Shouldn’t universities also be able to contemplate alternatives to capitalism? What about other functions of a university — to allow students to deepen their understanding of political participation and citizenship, and to research, preserve and transmit culture and humanistic values not related to earning a living? And what about the role of a university in developing and encouraging students’ curiosity? Like politics and inequality, which are mentioned only in passing, this isn’t a topic that receives any attention in this book.

At times JAs pitch goes to absurd lengths. Take his exhortation that every course syllabus ought to describe the four cognitive capacities developed through each step of study and discussion” (@74). This made me wonder how entrepreneurship should have been stressed in one of my favorite college courses, where we read most of James Joyce’s works. Should we have spent less time discussing Joyce’s style, humor and philosophical erudition, and concentrated more on the career of Leopold Bloom, the main character of Ulysses,” who spent the daytime hours of the novel roaming Dublin trying to sell ads in the newspaper that employed him? Should the prof in the Italian Renaissance paintings course I audited have spent less time showing us old paintings, and more on talking about how he got a gig advising the Italian government on restoring paintings after a flood in Florence? Should my undergrad seminar in astrophysics have been cancelled because, as my mother used to tease me with a smile, You’re studying astronomy? Very nice. So, what kind of money can you make as an astronomer”?

My credulity was stretched beyond breaking point near the end of the book, in a passage outlining the lifetime experience of a young learner” with a multi-university network” in Boston, Charlotte, Seattle and Silicon Valley. She starts by taking computer science and business in Boston, then gets co-ops” at Amazon and a top Seattle law firm, launches a social media venture, later takes some modules (along with members of her team) at a Silicon Valley-based institution to learn about VR, then goes to Charlotte a few years later to brush up on M&A before selling her company (@136-137). Come on, what percentage of the college-going population is going to have such an experience? Even at an Ivy League school only a small fraction of graduates will follow such a path.

One might attribute this absurd exaltation of entrepreneurship to a failure of critical thinking, but I think something else is at work. This vision that turns every student into a Zuckerberg — who BTW attended a college no more expensive than Northeastern, and without a humanics” curriculum — illustrates the divergence between the marketing document that the book is meant to be, and the serious consideration of future education that the unsuspecting reader might be expecting. Every parent wants to believe their son or daughter will turn into a star. And every university wants those parents to believe that their institution is the key to that dream.

JA deserves a lot of credit for raising the national ranking of Northeastern from below #100 to around #40 in the years he has been in charge. And I can’t grudge him publishing a book like this to try to do the best for his school — it’s very well done. But if you’re looking for a more realistic appraisal of the future of education — and especially one that resists drinking the Silicon Valley Kool-Aid — you won’t find it here.

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