Robots and Liberal Education

It’s clear that robotic technology has eliminated the need for many manufacturing jobs. A couple of generations ago, a kid who didn’t want to (or couldn’t) go to college might earn a decent living hammering hub caps on Buicks. That was then, and this is now.

Many commentators argue that robotic technology creates jobs, too, if nothing else for computer programmers. That’s true up to a point. But the sum of digital code warriors is far below the quantity of those employed hammering on hub caps in the old days. And, with increasing sophistication, code warriors should watch out. Robots write code, too. And think about the potential impact of delivery drones and self-driving cars and trucks. That’s a lot of jobs to be affected.

In these uncertain times, we have a tendency to double-down on science and math, thinking students are best prepared for their futures by majoring in STEM fields, whether they want to or not. For an antidote to this point of view, please have a look at this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, by Eboo Patel. The writer comes from Indian immigrant parents who were shocked when he wanted to major in sociology instead of something “practical.” He now works happily for an interfaith organization.

It turns out that jobs of the future may involve primarily collaborating with others who see things differently. It’s great if a nurse can stick an IV successfully into a screaming toddler on the first try (true genius worthy of da Vinci), but just as important to be able to discuss ambivalent situations with patients, doctors, and colleagues. And let’s not forget how democracy necessitates constructive dialogue and compromise. Thoughtfully engaging and discussing The Republic, by Plato, or Machiavelli’s The Prince can make you a better citizen. (Think Mr. Trump is new? No.) A theater company or symphony orchestra offers daily lessons on how a community operates without becoming dysfunctional. At least that’s the idea. If it doesn’t work, we discuss and improve together.

We need to keep such social traits in mind when we trim the curriculum to serve an indifferent market that will dump us in a heartbeat to serve the gods of efficiency. This means you, Robots!

Hmmm … education for human interaction. Who knew?