Humanities need to get ahead of the curve to benefit from Fourth Industrial Revolution

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Humanities cannot remain retrospective, but need to get ahead of emerging technologies, if higher education students are to be prepared to face the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

As pure sciences and information technology alone are not able to equip students for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, universities must ensure that students are equipped with human and social sciences perspectives to embrace the changes that this epoch brings with it for maximum human benefit.

This was one of the main messages conveyed by speakers at the Africa Universities Forum 2019: Universities Powering Africa’s Renaissance for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, held in Johannesburg recently.

Humanities subjects or the arts give students the critical thinking, debating and problem-solving skills needed to explore the complex human-to-robotic relations that we are already experiencing in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Various academics debated whether universities should be adopting a stronger interdisciplinary approach to course delivery to prepare students for what lies ahead, and whether, at a time when machines are rapidly learning, how can arts and humanities enable us to better understand the use and impact of emerging technologies.

Participating in a panel discussion at the forum, Dr Nhlanhla Thwala, Academic Director at Pearson Institute of Higher Education, argued that humanities can be looked at as the study of lived human experience.

“Human beings live and interact with various phenomena and form reactions. Technology is just one of those phenomena that we have to deal with and have been dealing with during each of the preceding industrial revolutions,” he said.

“The issue is very simple – have Africans extracted value from all the previous industrial revolutions? The answer is, yes.”

However, Thwala noted that one of the biggest shortcomings in the field of arts and humanities is that the study of its elements has traditionally been retrospective and focused on esoteric concerns of academics and specialists in the respective fields.

“We study humanities, we see what society has created, but we struggle to see what lies ahead. It’s difficult, because our methods are empirical. We look at the past and we struggle with projecting what is going to happen.

“I haven’t seen a single study in humanities that predicted what was going to happen in the next epoch. Things evolve and we wake up after the fact and then we study them. That is one of the major problems in academy,” Thwala pointed out.

In terms of restructuring the curriculum to prepare students for the future, Thwala stated that there is the issue of practically defining what is meant by the Fourth Industrial Revolution in relation to humanities.

“How are we going to – without knowing in depth what the Fourth Industrial Revolution means –structure the curriculum in such a way that we can impart that knowledge to students?” he asked.

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