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Turning University Education Outside-In

TIanjin Eco-City. Source:
Tianjin Eco-City. Source:

In 2050 the world’s population will reach 9-10 billion, and much of its economy will be driven by hyper-dense, increasingly multi-ethnic, environmentally challenged megacities of up to 100 million people. No current economic system, scientific thought, cultural value system or political philosophy on its own has relevance for this new world. My aim is to transform higher education so as to equip future leaders with the skills and experiences to solve the key cultural, economic and scientific problems that they will face in their lifetimes. This means turning university education outside-in. What do I mean by this?

1. Outside-in learning means first and foremost that university education should critically respond to the reality of the world. This means that students’ learning will be oriented towards the problems of the real world, not the problems as conceived and articulated within the historic university disciplines. We can already see the beginnings of this in interdisciplinary programs such as gender studies or environmental humanities where multiple disciplinary strategies are used to get at complex real-world problems. The big problem that universities have continually failed to overcome is how to synthesize thinking from multiple disciplines, and especially the humanities and the sciences. The failure of the environmental movement for instance is essentially a failure to bridge the gap between scientific knowledge and human/social knowledge. This is a complex problem in the cultural construction of knowledge that likely can only be solved within universities.

2. Outside-in learning means increasing breadth not specialization. The present university system was developed in the 19th century when the current disciplines and majors were established. The goal then was to advance scientific knowledge through specialized research. This meant breaking down problems into smaller parts (analysis) and thinking in ever deeper ways about those small problems. As students progressed from Bachelor’s to Master’s to Doctoral degrees they increasingly specialized in a particular period or field, narrowing their gaze into an ever tinier area. Outside-in learning reverses this process. As students progress through the education system they increasingly learn to synthesize knowledge from multiple disciplines and accurately conceptualize increasingly large problems. The goal then is not so much to think narrowly about an isolated event or problem but to think deeply and broadly about increasingly complex problems that have multiple factors and causes.

3. Outside-in learning means starting from the future and working backwards. This means helping students to survive and adapt in the future, not in the nineteenth century. The key problems of the 21st century include:

  • How do we develop the economy for a world of 9-10 billion people in 2050 without destroying the ecosystems and environments that make life possible?
  • How do we discover the appropriate place for cultural differences in a multipolar, hypermodern world without resorting to fundamentalism, separatism, and ethnic violence?
  • How do we foster meaningful human relations and quality of life in a world transformed by science and technology?

No discipline on its own has answers to these questions, and if universities continue with traditional disciplinary education, then students will not learn how to solve these problems. The solutions lies in holistic thinking, multidisciplinary education and cross-cultural communications.

4. Outside-in learning means putting values, skills and wisdom first; facts, data and knowledge come second. The difference between professionals and laity in the past used to be measured primarily in terms of information. Professionals had access to specialized information that ordinary people did not, and they knew how to make a career out of that specialized knowledge. But today almost all knowledge is freely accessible everywhere. In short supply today, however, are values, skills and wisdom. Outside-in education means learning how to know what facts are important in which contexts (valuing), how to deploy knowledge to achieve practical results (skills), and how to decide what goals are truly worthwhile (wisdom).

So how can this be implemented? I believe that the goal of turning university education outside-in will occur in an downside-up way, starting at the grass roots and radiating upwards across the university administration. Already outside-in education is being undertaken by professors across the world in their own classes. But the professors are themselves constrained by the disciplinary frameworks of their (relatively conservative) university structures and administrations. My own university has seen strong growth in its interdisciplinary graduate program in cultural studies. In this program students work with faculty from several disciplines and with community or artistic organizations beyond the university on topics of relevance to contemporary culture. This structure frees students from traditional disciplinary constraints and allows them to achieve results that no one discipline could help them achieve on their own.

This is one small step of what I hope is becoming a widespread global movement. Whatever form it takes, something like this is necessary to rescue education from itself, and to help the human species adapt to a rapidly transforming world over the next generation.