On Education

Global Reset Series / by John McArthur /

With a cross-disciplinary approach to education, we can train a new class of problem-solvers to address current global challenges, from poverty to climate change.

A two-pronged dilemma underpins many of the foremost global challenges, including climate change, chronic hunger, water management, extreme poverty, and disease control. On one side is the fact that these issues are all complex and often interrelated. On the other side is a mismatch between tasks and skills. Despite the broadly recognized importance of these problems, the world faces a systematic gap in preparing people to solve them.

Consider the integrated challenge of achieving the Millennium Development Goals, the internationally agreed-upon targets set in 2000 for tackling extreme poverty in its many forms by 2015. Progress on the goal for safe drinking water and sanitation is needed to cut diarrheal disease, a major hurdle en route to the child-mortality goal. Likewise, the education goal is directly influenced by progress in disease control. For example, reducing malaria infections allows more healthy children to stay in school, and antiretroviral medicines allow more HIV-infected teachers to stay alive.

Sustained advances against hunger and income poverty similarly hinge on joint progress in health, education, infrastructure, and opportunities for girls and women. Meanwhile, all of the goals are subject to the broader forces of anthropogenic climate change and the vicissitudes of the global economy.

Each program sphere requires systematic management of policy design, implementation systems, and sources of finance. How do we train people to manage problem-solving processes across these interrelated areas? The simple answer is that we don’t—yet. Today there are two core relevant paths to professional education. One is the high-level specialist, the PhD or perhaps medical doctor, who might receive eight to 12 years of post-secondary education to prepare for a career in which advancement depends on refining expertise in a particular area of focus. The other path is a policy degree at the masters level, which typically entails five or six years of less formal post-secondary training in social science methods, sometimes with an emphasis on a particular discipline, such as environment or public health.

The global skill gap arises because neither the high-level specialist within a discipline nor the policy-school graduate is likely to be equipped with the skills needed to solve global problems of a cross-disciplinary nature. The experts provide crucial insights, but their skills are typically focused on generating research, debating ideas, and addressing narrow issues rather than large-scale professional problem solving and management. Meanwhile, the policy graduate typically lacks the grounding in core scientific principles across the appropriate range of topics. The solution lies in training sophisticated science-educated generalists who can coordinate insights across disciplines while managing complex agendas for results.

Thankfully, three trends foreshadow a potential breakthrough in global higher education for sustainable development. The first is a rapidly growing recognition among universities and development professionals that generalist practitioners require a more holistic and science-based approach to policy education. This was the finding of a recent international commission that I co-chaired in collaboration with the MacArthur Foundation (no relation). Inspired by the 1910 Flexner Report that revolutionized medical education in North America, a global cross-section of leading practitioners and academics recommended the creation of a new form of degree program, a Masters in Development Practice (MDP). The aim of the MDP is to produce highly skilled generalists equipped with basic mastery of health sciences, natural sciences, social sciences, and management.

The MacArthur Foundation allocated $15 million to seed graduate programs in all regions of the world, fostering the collaborative launch of 11 university programs across eight countries and six major regions—East Asia, South Asia, Europe, North America, Oceania, and sub-Saharan Africa—all in less than 18 months. It is notable that so many academic institutions have launched a new type of formal degree program so quickly, systematically, and globally—and it can only be a harbinger of new initiatives to come. The MDP academic agenda addresses a particular gap in education systems. Worldwide academic movements targeting other key priorities will likely launch new programs and standards with increasing efficiency and focus in the years ahead.

The second key trend is the advent of low-cost online-network technology that allows students to hold live discussions spanning large numbers of classrooms and time zones around the world. As a microcosm of the broader initiative, Columbia University and the MDP network have launched a “global classroom” survey course that links students weekly at 8 am New York time, 8 pm Beijing time, and a dozen time zones in between.

These global discussions foster rich access to content alongside an instinctive and practical appreciation of the range of perspectives held in different parts of the world. They underscore how much can be learned through a concerted emphasis on listening. Such discussions also provide students with a strong sense of empowerment, for instance, when they can interact with a globally eminent lecturer located on the other side of the planet.

The third trend is in many ways a product of the first two: Most universities cannot provide the entire cross-disciplinary, cross-border educational experience on their own. In the MDP context, all of the universities have signed up to be part of a global academic network that allows them to draw upon the collective resources of partner institutions and expects them to contribute their own. Few institutions can provide the full complement of health science, natural science, social science, and management courses. Rather than hire a professor to teach a course in agriculture and food systems, why not partner with another university that already has such faculty? The partnership principle would apply equally in specialist programs. A Canadian hydrology class focused on groundwater depletion in South Asia would learn vastly more if doing joint analysis with students in South Asia and other parts of the world.

Together these trends will likely redefine the model of the university within the next half-century. Highly skilled specialists will learn and work alongside highly skilled generalists with strong cross-disciplinary scientific education. Students and faculty will join global educational coalitions through the flip of a webcam. More new degree programs will be launched concurrently around the world to tackle newly identified global gaps. And universities will increasingly compete based on their access to other universities’ faculties and student bodies, not just their own.

None of these trends will reduce the size and complexity of the challenges already on the global docket, nor those forthcoming. But they should dramatically improve the world’s ability to generate professionals with the mix of practical skills, scientific insights, and empathetic perspectives that will be essential to guide global problem solving for generations to come.

John McArthur is the chief executive officer and executive director of Millennium Promise and a research associate at Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

Originally published December 25, 2010

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