Never before has a generation needed or had access to more tools to take on the real work that needs to be done in our societies. New leaders are emerging who are less willing to define themselves with a job title than their ability to create value wherever they are. In response, hundreds of new higher educational programs have emerged that focus on creativity and preparing students to solve the world’s big problems.
This is because education is shifting from a focus on what works for teachers to a focus on what students need to succeed and thrive. Businesses learned this long ago, with the emergence of the "consumer-driven" paradigm—a self-evident revelation that’s easier to agree with than it is to execute. When education serves students, many of the old beliefs become obsolete; schools that considered themselves competitors become partners by sharing content, faculty and facilities, combining strengths, offering more customized learning, and making life more interesting for all involved.
But in order to truly serve the future leaders of our society, we need to look at the existing failures of contemporary higher education, and the innovations taking place to improve them.
Inside some of the highest-rated business schools in the country, MBA students prepare themselves for secure jobs in management at healthy corporations with plenty of opportunities for growth, or for jobs on Wall Street where fast money can be made. But they are preparing for a world that, for many of them, will never exist. For a real model, we should look instead to the schools that are teaching creativity and design as part of business, like the Rotman School in Toronto, which is preparing students to create their own opportunities wherever they are. And schools like Babson, where the skills of entrepreneurship are required learning for every student who wants to work in business.
Tenured faculty live in inward facing lives of glacial bureaucracy and politics, respected and rewarded for new thinking but unable to act on new ideas because they are frozen in place by administrative processes that take years to evolve. But educational institutions share the same need for agility and fast decision-making to stay relevant and prepare students to meet the demands they will face. Many schools are addressing this challenge by adding affiliated labs or institutions outside the purview of their institutional procedure that can move more quickly to adapt to the changing world outside.
More than anything, education is still a world of silos, where people are taught that becoming a specialist has prestige, meaning, and built-in-job-magnetism. Expertise in a vertical area is important in the mix of required talent, but we need more visionaries with broad experience and curiosity. Breakthrough ideas inevitably come from people who see the relationships between the complex and interrelated systems that connect every single aspect of modern life. We should emphasize programs they develop to bring diversity and cross-disciplinary thinking into their communities. The Social Enterprise Bootcamp co-hosted by Columbia, NYU, and SVA in New York is a good example of students taking learning into their own hands.
The only way to succeed in creating something new is to define the desired end at the beginning. We need business to become more adaptive to the realities of our planetary limitations and more responsible. We need a sustainable economy that supports mission-based organizations. We need to create the kind of jobs that will build a resilient future and not simply more of our unsustainable past. Our goal, as a species, has to be to address the challenges we have created, to invent new solutions using fewer precious resources, to increase our understanding of the impact we have, and to change our behavior accordingly.
Education is learning how to teach us to do that.