Education for the future
BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz (The Philippine Star) - May 5, 2019 - 12:00am

When I recently wrote a column titled “ History of China’s Invasions,” I was pleasantly surprised at the number of reactions I received from readers. I did not think that a column on history was going to elicit much response considering that the average readers do not seem interested in fields like history and geography. But my column tracing 2,000 years of Chinese history and the many countries – Korea, Vietnam, Burma, Tibet, Japan – that it invaded and occupied apparently sparked a lot of interest.

This led me to ponder on the reasons why the field of humanities, especially history, seemed to have lost ground in recent decades. There was a time when a university education meant studies in the humanities and the classics. But that has now changed. 

There is the drumbeat of STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The biggest culprit is the widespread belief that “soft skills” such as philosophy and history – do not lead to well paid jobs. Many schools and companies emphasize tests in mathematics and English only.  Many students who take humanities see it as a stepping stone to taking other courses like law or business; and, not choose a lifetime career in the humanities.

 In an even more algorithmic world, people believe that humanities are irrelevant. Actually, the spread of automation puts a greater premium on qualities that computers lack such as intuitive intelligence, management skills and critical reasoning. Properly taught, that is what a humanities education should provide.  

Almost no one can fix their own computers. Hence this field is too specialized. 

Few economists and businessmen expected the 2008 financial crisis. Historians were unsurprised. The world, including the Philippines has lost its curiousity about its past. This is one of the greatest risks to democracy. The spread of fake news is often blamed solely on social media. But the ultimate driver is the fact that citizens believe a lot of fake news. History is revised without the average citizen contesting the false revisions because of ignorance about its country’s past.

Among the many topics that futurologist Yuval Noah Harari has tackled is the future of education. He wrote:

“ How can we prepare ourselves and our children for a world of such unprecedented transformations and radical uncertainties? A baby born today will be thirtysomething in 2050. If all goes well, the baby will still be around in 2100 and might even be an active citizen of the 22nd century. What do we teach that baby that will help him or her survive and flourish in a world of 2050 or the 22nd century? What kind of skills will he or she need in order to get a job, understand what is happening around him or her, and navigate the maze of life.”

I believe that nobody, not even Harari knows what the world would look like in 2050 or 2100. It is true that humans have never been able to predict the future. But today it is more difficult than ever before. Science and technology are going to enable us to reengineer  bodies, brains and minds.

Even in the last century, it seemed certain what skills would be needed for a person’s lifetime. Today, we do not know what the world will look like in 2050. Harari says: “We don’t know what people will do for a living, we don’t know how armies or bureaucracies will function, and we don’t know what gender relations will be like. Some people will probably live much longer than today, and the human body itself might undergo an unprecedented revolution, thanks to bioengineering and direct brain-to-computer interfaces. Much of what kids learn today will likely be irrelevant by 2050.” 

Today, schools have become focused on cramming information into the brains and minds of their students. This is still the centerpiece on all these regulatory and board exams like the ones for the bar and medicine. But in this 21st century, we are flooded with information; and, all sorts of data are just a click away. Even in law firms, legal research is now frequently outsourced and researchers will some day be replaced by artificial intelligence and algorithms.

In this world, the last thing a teacher needs to give his or her students is more information. They already have too much of it. Besides what they do not have is easily sourced using modern technology. 

What do students need? They need the ability to make sense of information, to tell the difference between what is important and what is unimportant, what is truth and what is fake news. Most important, they need to know how to combine all these bits and pieces of data and transform them into a broad picture of the world and the environment they live in.

Schools should also deemphasize focusing on providing students with specific skills such as solving differential equations, writing computer code, identifying chemicals in a test tube or learning Mandarin. By 2050, AI might be able to code software better than humans and a new Google Translate app might enable you to converse in flawless Mandarin and a dozen other languages without knowing a single word of any of these foreign languages. 

I want to repeat what I wrote in a previous column.  Schools should focus on teaching the “four Cs” as stated by Harari – critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity. Aside from technical skills, students should be taught general purpose life skills. Students must learn to deal with change, learn new things throughout their entire life and be able to reinvent themselves again and again. 

All these suggestions are actually based on a foundation that has been called “liberal education.” One clear evidence is that the most highly recommended business books by top CEOs are not business textbooks. 

As we get more and more deluged by data – real and fake – we can only survive and flourish in the future world if we have a clear world view partly derived from an education that has taught us the critical need to learn history, philosophy, and the humanities.

Creative writing classes for kids and teens

Young Writers’ Hangout on May 11, 18, 25 (1:30 pm-3pm; stand-alone sessions) at Fully Booked BGC. For details and registration, email

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