I wrote recently about my experiments with amphibious leadership and of the centrality of soft skills (or soft power) in the repetoire of the amphibious leader. These skills are often ignored by mainstream higher education on the assumption that they are acquired through experience, need little attention, and are best inculcated by other institutions and actors in the development of young adults.
This means that universities have focussed instead on what they think they do best: promoting disciplinary knowledge and associated academic skills, Placements and problem-solving challenges are understood as desirable but “non-core” activities outside the scope of a university’s remit.
The tide is turning. In the UK, teaching and learning activities are integrating group work, presentations live competitions in the curriculum. In India, many engineering universities (mainly private), are insisting that all undergraduates take up to 15% of their undergraduate modules in social sciences and humanities to address their chronic deficit in these soft skills and to improve their communication.
This is commendable (and arguably long overdue), but there is a flaw in the reasoning that equates subject-based knowledge with methodology. The social sciences can be taught in as conservative ways as engineering or maths; it is the degree of interaction and self-reflexivity which sets apart empowering from restrictive pedagogies.
Integral to the school of amphibious leadership I am promoting is empathy: the critical faculty to decentre ourselves in favour of the perspectives of others. In business, this might be the perspective of customers. In our families, it might be that of our parents or children. Empathetic people make better parents, friends, business people, doctors and teachers. Empathetic people make more well-adjusted and content human beings.
Empathy lies at the core at what the writer David Foster Wallace so eloquently described as the real value of education – the freedom to choose what to think, and how to think about other people, to see as individuals with unique struggles rather than obstacles in our path. It is a skill atrophied by the struggle of everyday life, and the narcissism bred through social media and compounded by the heady rush of consumerism. It’s how we are hard-wired. There’s always a temptation to moralise empathy as a virtue, but in reality it has nothing to do with morality: it is a critical tool to live, work and act effectively by inhabiting another’s world-view in order to negotiate successful outcomes for everyone concerned. When we only see a situation through our own eyes, we only ever see human interaction as a debilitating zero-sum game.
That’s why it is incumbent on universities, as institutions of higher education, to help their students to understand themselves as designers of human experience and as human-centred problem solvers over and above their disciplinary identities as engineers, sociologists or management scientists.
This won’t happen simply by increasing their exposure to different subjects. To nurture future empathetic generations -and therefore effective, content human beings – we have to offer them situations where they are confronted with challenges which place them firmly outside their comfort zone, where they are outsiders and have to rapidly adjust to unfamiliar realities. Universities aren’t used to doing that (and neither are they equipped to do so) but if we are to move beyond higher education to human development, it is an evolution the sector at large has to embrace.