Barry Schwartz’s recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, “What ‘Learning How to Think’ Really Means,” should be required reading for anyone wading into the debate about the state of higher education in the US. With articulate prose, he argues in favor of a system that simultaneously teaches students the skills that will be of greatest benefit to their professional lives, but also develops the virtues that will make them decent human beings and citizens with whom we can be proud to work and live. He draws clear connections between these virtues and long-term career success, arguing that it is actually these virtues that often truly differentiate people in the world of work.
I wanted to take a moment to echo Schwartz's sentiments, and expand upon what this means to the CEO of a company that looks for employees that are well-skilled, strong critical thinkers, and of the virtuous ilk necessary to staff a conscious business.
My first thought reading through Schwartz’s list of virtues (love of truth, honesty, fair-mindedness, humility, perseverance, courage, good listening, empathy and wisdom) was how closely it parallels the essence of the frames from the new information literacy standards: Authority Is Constructed and Contextual, Information Creation as a Process, Information Has Value, Research as Inquiry, Scholarship as Conversation, and Searching as Strategic Exploration. In an academic sense, this seems obvious, but it doesn’t always translate to the business community, despite the fact that we are moving more and more into a knowledge economy where such abilities are more important than ever and simple answers to complex problems rarely exist.
In an earlier blog post I pointed to recent studies showing that employers are less interested in hiring recent graduates who have mastered a particular skill or discipline, valuing instead the ability to continuously adapt and learn new skills for the rest of their career. I’m reminded of the concept of teaching to the test. You may produce a class well-versed in a few points of a certain subject, but what do they do after that test? In business there is no test with pre-determined answers we can train our employees to memorize. Instead we hope to hire individuals who will be able to recognize problems that yet don’t have an answer, have the creativity and perseverance to solve them, and then use that experience to inform strategies for the future.
In the same way we see faculty speak to the lack of student research skills upon their arrival at college, business leaders also lament a skills gap of recent graduates entering the workforce. If it were as simple as saying, “not enough applicants are proficient at coding with Java,” I think we could all imagine the solution would be fairly straight-forward. But of course it’s more complicated than that: what graduates lack are foundational critical thinking skills, the ability to learn how to learn. Schwartz writes, “Workplaces need people who have intellectual virtues, but workplaces are not in a good position to instill them. Colleges and universities should be doing this training for them.” I couldn’t agree more and would emphasize the point by comparing the ease of learning a second language in one’s twenties versus picking up that language as a child. Schwartz reminds us that, “Aristotle argued that virtues are developed through practice,” to which I would add that it is better to begin that practice sooner rather than later.
After finishing the article, I thought about what makes a great company, and the answer isn’t necessarily having a room full of only the smartest people. Great teams make great products, and as I read through the list of Schwartz’s virtues I imagined a team of people who were good listeners, who used empathy to understand customer needs, and strong critical thinking skills to address those needs. I imaged lovers of the truth, who sought to understand market conditions, pain points and efficiency issues by weeding through the mounds of data available to us in the modern era, setting aside biased or nonauthoritative sources with skewed data and focusing on collecting and evaluating the most-reliable information. I imagined a team that had the courage to try new things and leaders with the humility to admit when certain projects didn’t pan out, who could look at failures with the honesty necessary to get to the root causes and the confidence to try again. Actually, what I saw looked a lot like the team we are working to build here at Credo, and I was excited to think about the possibilities of a world where the virtues and skills we prioritize here are the norm rather than the exception, where the next generation of workers is learning and developing these virtues and the wisdom that comes with an academic career oriented to Schwartz’s prescribed moral compass.