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In my opinion

Preparing Gen Z for an unpredictable future

The value of tools like ChatGPT depends on how we use them, which makes interdisciplinary undergraduate education more important than ever.


ChatGPT is suddenly everywhere. From Hollywood writing rooms to the stages of Davos to the halls of the U.S. Congress, the AI-powered chatbot has our attention.

It has also hit higher education by force. Reactions run the gamut, with some people welcoming – even celebrating – ChatGPT’s potential as a “co-pilot” in the classroom and others seeing it as the end of modern education as we know it.

It’s both.

Love it or hate it, this technology is undoubtedly a game-changer. Artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, and virtual reality will transform how we teach, not just courses like English or history, but all subjects. The chatbot is pretty decent at writing code as well as essays and will only get better at both.

Yet it’s important to remember that ChatGPT, like all machine learning, has its limitations. It can’t reason, or feel, or have personal experiences. It doesn’t do novelty. AI can only make connections that already exist. Yes, it’s good at mimicking human prose and spitting out a passable paper or serviceable email. But it won’t solve the climate crisis, broker a peace agreement, or end hunger.

ChatGPT is neither empathetic, nor a creative thinker.

In 1994, Steve Jobs stressed the importance of keeping public trust rooted in people, not relying on technology alone. Tools are simply tools, he said. Their effectiveness depends on how humans use them.

Mr. Jobs believed that great success and revolutionary change in the world would come from the intersection of technology and the humanities. A computer should be a work of art.

In the same vein, teaching our young people to approach their work – and their lives – with a multidisciplinary mindset is key to preparing them for a cultural and technological landscape that’s moving at warp speed.

Tools like ChatGPT are revolutionizing the way work is done. According to the World Economic Forum, over a billion jobs are going to be impacted by technology in the current decade. Half of all existing jobs are at risk of automation. As machines take on more and more tasks, a person’s soft skills, paired with knowledge gleaned from exposure to different ways of seeing and understanding the world, will become more valuable to employers than writing, coding and programming skills alone.

In this climate, labour market forecasts are of limited value to students who are considering what four-year degree to take. After graduating, they may be in the job market for 40 or 50 years, perhaps longer. Who knows how many careers they’ll have over their lifetime?

How then, do we prepare this generation of college and university students for what is coming their way?

The answer is purposely building interdisciplinary thinking into undergraduate education by incorporating history, anthropology, literature, languages, psychology, philosophy and religion into STEM and business degrees. And equally so, vice versa.

We’re already seeing this happen at places like MIT, where all undergraduates take a series of required courses, a quarter of which are in the arts, humanities and social sciences. And while it’s early days, the decades-long decline in humanities enrolment is showing new signs of life. At UC Berkeley, one of the top feeder schools to Silicon Valley, the number of first-year students who’ve declared majors in the arts and humanities is up 121 per cent over last year, leading other schools to anticipate an uptick in enrolment as well.

Preparing today’s young people to excel in careers that have yet to be invented is a tall order. But we can hedge our bets. Exposure to a range of ideas and subjects offers young people a lifelong foundation for creative thought that can surface in unexpectedly useful ways. Mr. Jobs famously credited the calligraphy course he’d audited at Reed College in 1972 for his insistence that computers can, and should, have beautiful typography – a defining feature of all Apple products since the first Mac was released in 1984.

Increasingly, the best ideas will be born from the fusion of advanced tools such as ChatGPT; human creativity, empathy and curiosity; and the ability to bring a multifocal lens to the world’s problems and opportunities. We can’t predict the future. But we can help our students prepare for it.

Alan Shepard is president of Western University and chair of the Council of Ontario Universities.

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  1. John Hatch / March 28, 2023 at 17:23

    If you are going to make the case, then you should be an example of what you’re writing about. Sadly, Western University has been gutting its Arts and Humanities Faculty in favour of STEM for the past 15 years when it could have easily increased its Arts enrolment by lowering the entry average which is the highest in the country for the Arts.