This New Age

By George McCully

Every reader of this journal is being affected by the highly exceptional historical phenomenon we are all experiencing: an age of total transformation, of paradigm-shifts in virtually every field of human endeavor. Our own field—postsecondary education and training—is just one among all the others. Younger colleagues, though they may not like it, are experiencing this as a given and generally constructive condition, building their future theaters of operations. Senior colleagues raised and entering the profession in the 20th century paradigm of “higher education,” experience current transformations as disruptive—disintegrative and destructive of their originally sought-for and later accustomed professional world. Students seeking credentials for future jobs are confused and problematically challenged.

It helps to understand all this turmoil as an inexorable historical process. This article will describe that process, and then address how we individually, and organizations like NEBHE, might best deal with it.

We happen to be living in a very rare kind of period in Western history, in which everything is being radically transformed at once. Paradigm-shifts in particular fields happen frequently, but when all fields are in paradigm-shifts simultaneously, it is an Age of Paradigm Shifts. This has happened only three times in Western history, about a thousand years apart—first with the rise of Classical Civilization in ancient Greece; second with the fall of Rome and the rise of medieval Christianity; and third in the “early modern” period—when the Renaissance of Classicism, the Reformation of Christianity, the Scientific Revolution, the Age of Discovery, the rise of nation states, secularization and the Enlightenment, cumulatively replaced medieval civilization and gave birth to “modern” history in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Modernity, however, is now unraveling, in a transformation with significant unique features.

First and most noticeable is its speed, occurring in a matter of decades (since circa 1990) rather than centuries. The acceleration of change in history, driven by technology’s increasing pace and power, has been going on for centuries—perhaps first noticed by Machiavelli in the Renaissance. Today, the driving transformational force is the rapidly accelerating innovations in digital and internet technology, in particular, increasingly autonomous Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Second, for the first time our technology is increasingly acknowledged to be running ahead of human control; it is becoming autonomous and self-propelled, and we are already struggling to catch up with it.

Third, whereas the first three transformations were intended by human agents, for the first time now, driven by technological advances, we have no clue as to where the technology is headed—what will be the dénouement or if that is even possible.

And fourth, under these conditions of constant change both internally and all around us, strategic planning in any traditional sense is impossible because there are no solid handles we can grasp and hold onto as collaborators or guides into the future. We are adrift in an unprecedently tumultuous sea of change.

For people in postsecondary education and training, this critical situation is especially agonizing because we are located in society at various thresholds of adulthood, where personal and professional futures are crucially chosen and determined. We have extraordinarily heavy responsibility for the futures of individuals, of society, of humanity and of our planet—precisely when we have inadequate competence, coordination and self-confidence. We are where humans will address the innovations and disruptions critical to the future, where strategic knowledge and intelligence will be most needed, and where historical understanding will therefore be crucial.

Let us first acknowledge that each, and all, of our jobs sooner or later, can and probably will be robotized by AI. Its technical capacity already exists, noted by many journalists and scholars, for thinking and writing (publicly available GPT-3, and next year GPT-4), visual and musical arts, interactive conversations, cerebral games (chess, Go, et al.) and other problem-solving activities, at quality levels equal to and frequently excelling human-generated work. Significant technological advances are happening almost weekly, and AI nowadays develops these autonomously, written in code it developed for its own machine-learning use. Its aims are not excellence, truth or other value-intensive products, but common-denominator performances adequate to compete commercially with works created by humans and indistinguishable (by humans—though software is being developed intended do this) from them, produced at blinding speed. Suddenly there could appear countless new “Bach” fugues, novels in Hemingway’s style, etchings by Rembrandt, news articles and editorials or academic work—all mass-produced by machines.

Administrative functions—numerary, literary, interactive, decision-making, etc.—will be widely available to ordinary individuals and institutions. What will remain for which humans are needed to do, at prices that yield living wages, is a real question already being considered hypothetically.

Speed bumps helping to shield us from faster robotization are (temporarily at least) the availability of sufficient capitalization, and the time required for dissemination. Here, the fact that we work much more slowly than AI is a temporary but ultimately self-defeating blessing. The driving incentive for takeover is the robots’ greater cost-effectiveness. In the long run, robots work more cheaply and much faster than humans, outweighing losses of quality in performance.

For individuals, our best defense against robotic takeover is for each of us to identify and enhance whatever aspects of our jobs that humans can still do best, which means that we should all start redefining our work in humanistic and value-intensive directions, so that when robotization comes knocking, decision-makers will go for the low-hanging fruit, allowing the easiest transitions first, leaving some margins of continued freedom for humans to continue doing their jobs.

A clear possibility, and I believe necessity, for postsecondary education and training lies in that distinction, extending from individuals’ lives and work to institutions and organizations like NEBHE and their instruments such as NEJHE. The rise of machine learning (AI) is a wedge, compelling us to cease referring to all postsecondary teaching and learning as “higher education.” There is nothing “higher” about robotic training and commercial credentialing for short-term “gig economy” job markets. Let us therefore first define our terms more carefully and precisely.

“Education,” as in “liberal education,” traditionally means “self-development”; “training” customarily means “knowledge and skills development.” The two are clearly distinct, but not separate except in extreme cases; when mixed, the covering designation depends on which is primary and intentional in each particular case.

In other words, our education helps define who we are; our training helps define what we are—doctor, lawyer, software engineer, farmer, truckdriver, manufacturer, etc. Who we are is an essential and inescapable part of all of our lives that’s always with us; what we are is optional—what we chose to do and be at given times of our lives.

Education is intrinsically humanistic and value-intensive, therefore most appropriately (but not necessarily) taught and learned between humans; training can be well-taught by AI, imparting knowledge and skills from robots to humans. Ideally, to repeat for emphasis, both education and training usually involve each other in varying proportions—when education includes knowledge and skills development, and training is accompanied by values. But these days especially, we should be careful not to confuse them.

For individuals, certainly education and possibly training are continuing lifelong pursuits. AI will take over training most easily and first, especially as rapid changes and transformations overtake every field, already producing a so-called “gig” economy in which work in any given capacity increasingly becomes temporary, more specialized and variegated, affecting the lives and plans of young employees today. Rapid turnover requires rapid increases in training, certifying, credentialing programs and institutions. Increasing demand for it has evoked many new forms of institutionalization—e.g., online and for-profit in addition to traditional postsecondary colleges and universities—as well as an online smorgasbord of credentials for personal subscriptions. For all of these, AI offers optimal procedures and curricula, increasingly the only way to keep up with exploding demand; thus, the proliferation of kinds of institutions, programs, curricula, courses and credentials is sure to continue.

The need for education will also increase, so the means of delivery and content in such a disturbed environment will require extraordinarily innovative creativity, resilience and agile adaptability among educators. The highest priority will have to be keeping up with the transformations—figuring out how best to insert the cultivation of humane values, best accomplished between human teachers (scholars, professors, practitioners) and learners, and provided by educational institutions and individuals, into the many new forms of training. Ensuring that this happens will be a major responsibility of today’s educational infrastructure and personnel, because AI does not, and does not have to, care about values. Will individual learners care? Not necessarily—for consumers of credentials, personal and even professional values apart from their commercial value are not a top priority. Whether employers will care about them is a major issue for concern by educators.

Here, the paradigm-shift in postsecondary education and training arises for attention by umbrella organizations like, for example, NEBHE and NEJHE. When NEBHE was founded in 1955, the dominant paradigm in postsecondary education was referred to simply as “higher” education” (the “HE” in those acronyms)—residing in liberal arts colleges (including community colleges) and universities. The New England governors, realizing that the future prosperity of our region would be heavily dependent on “higher” education, committed their states to the shared pursuit of academic excellence in which New England was arguably the national leader.

That simple paradigm, however, has been superseded in practice. Today, the much greater variety of institutional forms and procedures, much more heavily reliant on rapidly developing technology, and the recognized need for broader inclusion of previously neglected and disadvantaged populations, calls for reconceptualization and rewording, reflecting the broader new reality of postsecondary, lifelong, continuing education and training.

New England is no longer the generally acknowledged national leader in this proliferation; the paradigm-shifting is a nationwide phenomenon. Nonetheless, though the rationale for a New England regional umbrella organization for both educational and training infrastructure has been transformed, it persists. Now it is needed to help the two branches of postsecondary human and skills development work in mutually reinforcing ways, despite the challenges—which are accelerating and growing—for both branches. Lifelong continuing education and training will be enriched, strengthened and refined by their complementary collaboration for all demographic constituencies.

How this might happen among an increasing variety of institutions still needs to be worked out in this highly fluid and dynamic environment. That is the urgent challenging mission and responsibility of the umbrella organizations. At the ground-level, individual professionals need to be reassessing their jobs defensively in humanistic directions, for which they will be fortified with a strategic sense of mission as a crucial element in the comprehensive infrastructure. Beyond that, coordinated organization will help form multiple alliances among institutions in a united front against encroaching AI robotization. This may be the only pathway for retaining roles and responsibilities by humans into the future.

George McCully is a historian, former professor and faculty dean at higher education institutions in the Northeast, professional philanthropist and founder and CEO of the Catalogue for Philanthropy.



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