Why young people must be taught to think broadly

Our education systems should be designed to produce flexible, resilient and creative people who are prepaed for the future, writes Deborah Williams

When I was 16, I wanted to be a ballerina. I spent almost all my non-school hours in the studio, sweating and straining to gain the strength that would allow me to create the illusion of floating en pointe. My duck-footed walk and knobbly toes were badges of honour that attested to my hard work.

Despite my efforts, however, by the end of high school, I had to face the fact that “ballerina” wasn’t in my future. I was good, but not that good.

The idea of becoming a literature professor never occurred to me; I didn’t find my way to a PhD programme until several years after I graduated from college. Along the way I waited tables, sold flowers from a cart, worked in shops and taught high school. Now, decades into a career as a professor, I talk with students who are sure beyond a shadow of a doubt that they want to be doctors, engineers or writers, only to have them come back a few months later to say that they hate biology, their screen-writing course or statistics. Frequently, they’re panicked, because everyone in their life has been telling them that by the ripe old age of 20 they need to have a life plan, a clear trajectory from where they are to some imagined future point.

I know there is pressure to get out of university and earn a living, but if we all take a minute to think back on our own young selves, how many of us are doing now what we wished for in our youth? We can’t all be ballerinas and football stars, after all.

And in our grown-up lives, how many of us function in jobs that demand only one set of skills? If you’re an engineer, you need to write up reports for your clients; if you’re a musician, you need maths for music theory and notation; if you’re a journalist, you may need a scientific background for an interview subject. Those of you intent on careers in international law or finance will soon find out that you need to understand local customs and attitudes and how to communicate with both clients and managers.

In other words, thinking about education in terms of single disciplines or areas of focus doesn’t meet the demands of a world that seems to get more complex by the day. People who insist that a steady diet of science, technology, engineering and maths is the solution are just as much out of step as those who say that students don’t need to study computer science, just the classics.

We would do this next generation a favour if we helped them think broadly rather than narrowly, especially when they’re young. Instead we’ve created systems such as the A-levels, which too easily funnel students into either a science track or a humanities track, which in turn dictates their college choices; or the US system, which gives students a range of courses to study but neglects in-depth study of foreign languages. We have universities that ask students to declare their majors without making clear that a major is an area of interest, not a lifetime contract. Consider, for example, the US magnate Ted Turner, who majored in classics at Brown University and then went on to start a little news channel called CNN; or Andrea Boccelli, the opera singer who was a defence lawyer until he was 34; or Julia Child, the chef, who worked until she was 50 for the Central Intelligence Agency.

An even more pressing question, however, is how to prepare students for careers that might not yet even exist? Very few of us will be ballerinas, but most of us will have to work for a living; we need to educate people for the lives they’re going to have.

The future– whether next month or the next decade – will demand workers who are flexible, resilient, and creative: shouldn’t our educational systems be designed to produce those sorts of people, rather than 20-year-olds who sink into the equivalent of a midlife crisis because they’ve realised that they’ve got no interest in what they chose for their high-school exams or their early years in university?​

Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi