The first memory of my school is the hours under the flickering kerosene lamps, in the sketchy shack set up in the middle of the forest for city children to evacuate to the countryside to avoid bombs.
I started elementary years in the North when the war against America was fierce. Our children at that time had no idea of a stable learning environment.
I study everywhere I can, from my home, in an evacuation place, to the woods. I learn from anyone willing to teach, from my mother, my neighbor’s aunt, or my elder brother or sister in the village. It was not until 1972 that I knew what a real school was when I returned to Hanoi after the bombings stopped.
For our generation, war and its consequences have created a world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity – today called the world. VUCA.
However, those challenges could not bury our thirst for learning and passion for knowledge. I read and memorized every book I could get my hands on, be it history, literature, or biology. In a way, that was the “liberal education” that I created for myself.
However, my VUCA world at that time was small and closed. Everyone has the same starting line, and faces the same challenges. But for today’s young people, the world VUCA is facing is completely different.
It is a place where changes take place day by day, hour by hour and are unpredictable due to the rapid development of science and technology. Automation and artificial intelligence, while bringing great value to society, also lead to unprecedented economic turmoil as many industries – from assembly-line work to retail and law – in danger of disappearing quickly. It is a world where, as scientists predict, about 80% of the jobs in 2030, less than 10 years from now, have not yet appeared.
During the past years, and now, when the Covid-19 pandemic is upsetting the old normal order of life, we educators often ponder the question: Education, especially education What can university do to prepare today’s young generation so that they can firmly cope with the uncertain future out there? Will traditional university models designed to train only a narrow major still be suitable for unimaginable changes?
There has been too much debate about higher education reform, about the higher education philosophy that Vietnam should pursue. But I think, in the end, we need to return to the true mission of higher education, which is “helping learners adapt and manage the changes taking place in society”. I believe that the university of the 21st century must teach students how to “learn how to learn”, so that they know how to forget the knowledge that is no longer relevant, learn and continuously recreate knowledge and skills. new capabilities as the Covid-19 crisis itself is teaching us.
That is also the reason why from day one, we founders of Fulbright University Vietnam decided to pursue a liberal arts education model – a proven model of equipping learners with ability to adapt to change in work and social environments through a broad knowledge base and vital skills such as critical thinking, problem solving and creativity.
But the journey to convince society of new educational options and experiences has not been smooth. I still vividly remember the first days five years ago, when we invited some parents and education experts to talk about liberal arts education. There are many questions and doubts about the practicality of this approach. Given that most Vietnamese believe that going to university to get a career, many cannot understand why students have to spend at least the first year at Fulbright to learn about many areas of fundamental knowledge, from science to science. from the natural sciences, to the social sciences, to the humanities and the arts, before deciding on a particular major.
But just two years after Fulbright took on the first batch of students, the answer became increasingly clear. Recently, I received a sharing from a human resources director of a large Vietnamese technology company, she said that their CEO highly appreciates Fulbright students who are intern here because of their presentation skills, advice and ideas. Critical thinking, problem solving and teamwork are much better than expected. Some students have received official job offers from the company even though they have only completed their sophomore year of university and even though they have not yet chosen a major. For us educators, it is a meaningful encouragement.
In the famous “human capital” theory, Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker once pointed out that human capital usually accounts for 70% – 75% of a country’s potential for prosperity. Asian countries, from South Korea to Japan, are cited as examples of economies that have used education to drive growth. Although they have very few natural resources, they have invested heavily in the education system, especially higher education in order to develop human resources and reap the rewards.
Vietnam is no exception if they want to follow their successful path. In order to achieve better socio-economic achievements, Vietnam must successfully transition to knowledge-intensive and high-value-added economic activities. But whether we like it or not, we still have to admit to each other the fact that there is a big gap between the urgent need for high-quality human resources and the state of Vietnam’s higher education, which is clearly reflected. The unemployment rate is increasing day by day.
What can we learn from the current Covid crisis? That is, perhaps: delaying action in preparing for change comes at a heavy cost.
Change is no longer in the future tense. It is happening right now, here, and requires each of us to rethink how the VUCA world will shape the lives of each individual, each community, and the country to which we belong.
That journey, more than ever, must begin with education.
Dam Bich Thuy