Dear Graduating High School Class of 2020 (or others considering college education), I would like to welcome you on your continued academic journey and also caution you that almost no one has given you a good sense of what you should major in when you attend college. It is not their fault. They are more likely than not basing their assumptions about what will come next on what has come before. It is possible that there has never been a time in human history where this kind of assumption has been less useful.
For the purposes of this article, I am assuming that I am writing to someone between the ages of 17 and 21 (or to someone with a loved one in or near that age range). This means that you and your classmates will likely live to see the 2060s, 2070s, and 2080s. Some of the people you know will also live to see the year 2100. It is probable that more change will happen in these decades than anyone alive today can fully comprehend. To be prepared for this future, you will need a Metamodern education.
How Did We Get Here?
About a century ago, a high school education was somewhat rare and quite optional for success in life. In the 1920s, fewer than 3 in 10 students graduated high school. Only a few decades before that, the numbers were well below 1 in 10 (Simon & Grant, 1964). As the industrial age intensified, there was an increased demand for workers and citizens more skilled in reading, writing, mathematics, and basic technical and scientific understanding. A modern high school curricula was generally sufficient for these purposes and so became more central to one’s career and life.
Half a century ago, the high school diploma generally reigned supreme. It was sufficient to ensure a decent career and was increasingly required to obtain one. By the early 1960s, 7 in 10 persons aged 17 had a high school diploma (Simon & Grant, 1964). Over the 100-year period between 1900 and 2000, the median educational attainment for persons aged 21 went from about 7 years (less than middle school) to about 14 years (2 years of college) (IPUMS). In 100 years, the length of formal schooling for most students effectively doubled.
Only a few years ago, a college degree in a single career-oriented or technical major seemed like an excellent doorway to finding decent employment. Much of this has already changed. These changes will only accelerate over the course of your lifetime. It is quite probable that the job you will be doing in midlife may not even exist yet. It is almost certain that the political, economic, and environmental challenges you will face in your 50s will require complex, transdisciplinary, tools to understand and address. Given this, you will need a new kind of education.
Where You Will Be Going
In broad terms, you will experience the beginnings of the Metamodern world. The Metamodern world is the world that is emerging following Modernism and Postmodernism. Beyond sincerity and irony is a kind of second sincerity. Beyond simplicity and complexity is a kind of second simplicity. This world of innocence on the far side of experience will be replete with opportunities for fresh new ways of living, relating, connecting, working, and governing. It will also be saturated in complex, global, challenges. These two facts will require a new kind of citizen adequate to the spirit of the times.
In the domain of work, you will be called upon to continually learn new skills and to solve novel problems, all while coordinating with interdisciplinary and multicultural teams. There is no straightforward preparation for this kind of role. It will inevitably involve a mix of academic and experiential learning. Writing for Pew Research Center in a comprehensive survey of the likely future of work, Rainie & Anderson (2017) noted that:
…when asked, “What are the most important skills needed to succeed in the workplace of the future?” while some respondents mentioned lessons that might be taught in a large- scale setting (such as understanding how to partner with AI systems or how to use fast- evolving digital tools) most concentrated on the need for “soft skills” best developed organically, mentioning attributes such as adaptability, empathy, persistence, problem- solving, conflict resolution, collaboration and people skills, and critical thinking.(p. 59)
These flexible, adaptable, metaskills are not the province of any one domain; they will require a new kind of interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary mode of understanding and engagement. They do not lend themselves to simple, technical, reduction. David Deming (2019) at the Harvard Kennedy School cautions:
…we should be wary of the impulse to make college curriculums ever more technical and career focused. Rapid technological change makes the case for breadth even stronger. A four-year college degree should prepare students for the next 40 years of working life, and for a future that none of us can imagine.
The billionaire investor Mark Cuban recently echoed these sentiments by being explicit that English, philosophy, foreign language, and other liberal arts majors were likely to be the best preparation for the demands of the future and the majors most likely to be in demand in the coming decades:
I personally think there's going to be a greater demand in 10 years for liberal arts majors than there were for programming majors and maybe even engineering, because when the data is all being spit out for you, options are being spit out for you, you need a different perspective in order to have a different view of the data. And so having someone who is more of a freer thinker [is vital].(Jackson, 2017)
While Deming and Cuban are making the case for the classical liberal arts education, and it is a direction that I generally support, this educational model is still mired in some assumptions that do not appreciate that the Metamodern version of the college degree will ideally be both moderately broad and moderately deep in a way that goes beyond disciplinary silos and even the classical corpus, capable of bridging longer inferential differences (Yudkowsky, 2007). In short, this education does not yet exist, so you will need to be your own educational hacker. I am going to show you how to acquire the essential pieces you will need to prepare you for a lifetime of growth, adaptation, and learning.
Liberal Arts Reinvigorated
In effect, we will be updating the concept of the “liberal arts education” and democratizing the notion of the “renaissance man” in order to create a sound foundation for the Metamodern Person. The Metamodern Person will be someone with moderately deep, flexible, skills in a range of disciplines, along with the metaskills necessary to adapt to conditions that are not presently foreseeable. Neither simply broad, nor only deep, the Metamodern Person will need to be good at a range of modes of analysis, able to create in novel ways, and able to network with groups of others doing the same. This will necessitate some hard skills, many soft skills, and the ability to see and coordinate a multiplicity of perspectives.
Just as there was a 7-year increase in the median education between 1900 and 2000, there will probably be a similar increase between 2000 and 2100. Graduating from high school in 2020, you will want a target of about 2060 to focus your trajectory. Just using a linear extension of educational trends over the last 120 years, the median education in 2060 could easily be 18 years, that is 6 years of college or college-like training after high school. I have a recommendation here for how to spend your first 5 years of college education after high school. I am going to encourage you to either have 1 major and 3 minors or to have 2 majors and 2 minors. I am also going to encourage you to do this on a 5-year plan that is dedicated to learning and networking.
The Plan Part 1
Going to college can be about many things: learning for its own sake, career preparation, experiments in living, sports, partying, and a gamut of other things. I am going to offer that the best use of your time at college will be to engage in a combination of learning and networking and that if you do each of these well, you will actually be doing career prep better than any of the other advice that is generally out there right now.
As far as the learning goes, your goal should be to achieve some basic mastery in 4 distinct disciplines. This combination of breadth and depth, should be sufficient to allow you to grow over the course of your life, while also having a combination of skills that will allow you to problem solve and create on day 1. In short, pick 2 disciplines from list A and 1 discipline each from lists B and C. This will ground you in an understanding of context, reasoning, culture, aesthetics, and the sciences most likely to be of relevance during your lifetime. Plot a course between slacking off and optimizing only for grade outcome; you will want to learn in such a way that what you learn sticks with you for years to come and feels relevant to your personal life and world.
Below are some illustrative examples of what this kind of education might look like.
The Inspired Designer
Majors: Computer Science & Psychology
Minors: Art History & Philosophy
The Inspired Designer builds digital products with a keen eye for aesthetics and user experience as well as a mindful concern for the role her products might play in affecting the minds and environments of her fellow citizens for good or for ill. She strives for both excellence in design and vibrant wellness in the wider world.
The Context-Aware Leader
Majors: Political Science & Sustainability
Minors: Data Science & Literature
The Context-Aware Leader works both within and with a multiplicity of networks to facilitate win-win scenarios. They build shared and enduring narratives and systems that support the needs of a diversity of stakeholders in effective and sustainable ways. They strive to leave an intergenerational legacy that is profoundly positive.
The Self-Aware Citizen
Majors: Philosophy & Psychology
Minors: Statistics & Religious Studies
The Self-Aware Citizen is able to make astute discernments about what is likely to be true and what is likely to be false within a diversity of meaning-making systems. He is able to see the partial truths and coherence in a range of seemingly disparate systems, while still able to make cross-system comparisons that illuminate distortions and liabilities within and between a given set of structures of meaning. He knows that his civic duty is at least in part a perpetual engagement in deep support and visionary challenge of himself and his fellow citizens, in the service of an existentially vital commons.
The Transformational Writer
Minors: Psychology & Anthropology & Economics
The Transformational Writer constructs scripts that reveal coherent and compelling visions of what can be possible in living. These deeply moving works communicate the felt texture of new and daring modes of relating, working, and playing. The Transformational Writer draws on what is and what has been to synthesize new horizons of what can be. Neither merely fantasy nor only realism, these hyperreal worldscapes act as attractors pulling humanity towards more freedom, greater vitality, deeper connection, and wider possibility.
The Plan Part 2
In addition to your academic studies, you should be working to build a tight network of friends and a medium-sized network of acquaintances while you are at college. Whatever else college is, it is also a place where people from varied economic strata, cultures, and geographic regions mix while engaged in learning and personal growth. You will want to try and get extremely close to about 6 people and somewhat intimate with about 20 to 30 others. These connections will be the lifeblood of your next 20 to 40 years of community, support, and career opportunity.
The way to do this, however, is not some ham-handed cliché from business school or career day. You will want to build actual, deeply-felt, relationships with your fellow students. That means you will need to spend about 50 hours of real together time with your acquaintances and at least 200 hours of time deeply connecting with your more intimate friends. While this is not simply a quantitative process (in fact it is a deeply qualitative one), this should give you some sense of the degree to which you will need to carve out time and space for this to happen.
Some excellent ways to do this might include Circling, no phone/internet hangouts, a regularly occurring leaderless group process, weekend intensives you attend together, a community sharing night (poetry, music, etc.), a game night (in-person, interactive games), authentic connection activities, eye-gazing, etc. The general idea here is that you want to encourage and share authentic connection and listening. If you spend 50 or more quality hours listening to others and being heard by them, sharing your struggles and hearing theirs, you will usually form a lasting bond with them. You will also have a good sense of them as a person.
Within this group of peers, you will want to try and balance your time between those that are naturally the Prolific Networkers, the Passionate Doers, and the Deep Thinkers. First, honestly now, which of these best describes you? Whichever of these it happens to be, you will want to prioritize connections with peers who are most naturally the other two. If, for example, you are a Prolific Networker, you will want to get close with several Passionate Doers and several Deep Thinkers and maybe one or two other Prolific Networkers. You will also want a good mix of different locations and backgrounds in your friends. While we can often feel the need to connect with people like ourselves (usually on superficial dimensions), we are far better served in connecting with those least like ourselves (provided such relationships are workable and healthy). In any event, make connecting with other students and deeply encountering their worlds a key priority in your college experience.
There are, no doubt, a range of potential criticisms in regard to what I am recommending. I will outline a few that I have heard or that I have thought about, but this list is by no means exhaustive.
How can you really expect young people to spend 5 years in college? Isn’t college already cost-prohibitive?
I would say that college affordability and prioritization needs to be addressed, and I am all for that. I would also say that whatever the cost will be, it does not change the necessity of acquiring a comprehensive set of lenses and tools with which to approach the emerging challenges of the Metamodern world. Further, I would add that most careers will need these core skills and then likely add specific technical trainings on later through emerging educational platforms. That is, rather than picking one major and getting graduate degree in it, most will be better served with a broader base and periodic skills acquisition thought the remainder of their life, so for some this will actually be a cheaper route than undergrad + MBA or whatnot.
Won’t recommending a quadruple concentration just leave most young people out of this, as it demands too much of them?
I have two answers to this. First, basically the same things were said about high school and college. In 1900 it would have seemed preposterous to many that some college would be the norm in less than a century, when at the time most adults only had a middle school education, yet society has moved to a place where almost no adults are only at a middle school education; the same will be true with this. Second, if the expectation is a 4.0 in four distinct disciplines, then yes, this is unrealistic. What I am advocating for is a cohort with solid Bs in four concentrations that have actually learned the core concepts, tools, and modes of inquiry disclosed by these concentrations. This learning foundation will be more important in a Metamodern world than the complete mastery of one discipline.
Won’t this emphasis on interdisciplinary/transdisciplinary learning will only further widen the gap between students graduating from well-funded schools and students graduating from underfunded schools?
This is clearly a possibility, though I would say that the problem lies predominantly with the chronic disparity in primary and secondary resources, and I am all for a more equitable funding, staffing, and supporting of school districts. I can also see a way where precisely the kind of education I am advocating will help to address these preexisting problems. If more people are generally thinking about our problems in developmentally-informed, context-aware, ways, the move towards remedying these systematic disparities will likely gain momentum.
I heard that we need more tradespeople, why are we even talking about college?
In the short term, many industrialized countries will probably need additional skilled and semi-skilled tradespeople. That said, if you are 17-21 now, you will spend most of your adult life living in an increasingly post-industrial world. These jobs will be mostly gone by the time you are midcareer and it will be far easier to navigate life with these core metaskills present from the start than it will be to try and integrate them in later decades. Further, education is about far more than just work. If we are to have a democratic citizenry adequate to the challenges of the next 20-60 years, vocational and trades-based education will not cut it. I recognize this will likely elicit irritation or dissonance in many readers, but it is the most probable trajectory and any decent educational advice will need to honestly account for this reality.
You are emphasizing Philosophy and Art History, what about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Math) and how important it is?
First, if you are a solid STEM student, great for you! Seriously, I truly mean that. What I would challenge you to do is to at least upgrade to something like STEAM/STEEM by adding an Art or Ethics minor. Science and technology are important, but they must occur in the context of an awareness of values. The mathematics is not fundamentally different for describing what happened with a V-2 rocket or Saturn V rocket, but the difference between terrorizing a civilian population and ambitious exploration is about as large as it can get on the social and ethical dimensions. If you are in STEM, you probably see yourself as something like “smart” or “capable,” great. I am betting that you are plenty smart enough and capable enough to stretch to accommodate and integrate other methods into your toolbox.
Second, while STEM will be important for some, the non-engineer will need a different kind of training. When it comes to math, most citizens are likely better served with a functional understanding of statistics, than with a one-and-done forced slog through a Calculus for Non-STEM Majors course. You might also note that I am encouraging at least one concentration from: Computer Science, Data Science, Economics, Environmental Science, Genetics or Statistics. While these are not as heavy-hitting as a Physics or Electrical Engineering concentration, I think the world will generally have more need of Artists fluent in Python than citizens capable of describing the functions of computer from the transistor on up or able to program in Fortran.
I want to thank you for taking the time to read this, and again I want to welcome you on the next phase of your journey. In the future, there may be an integrated K-16 curricula that is optimized for the social, technical, and existential demands of the Metamodern age, but that time is not now. You will be a part of a generation that grapples with the decaying of old, antiquated, Modern and Postmodern structures, while creating the vibrant, antifragile, process-oriented structures of the new Metamodern age. To do this, you will need to create your own educational track. By the end of your life, it will be very unlikely that anyone will have the same mix of skills, experiences, and perspectives that you will. To that end, I hope you set a firm foundation to support the life you are building.
Deming, D. (2019). In the salary race, engineers sprint but english majors endure. New York Times Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/20/business/liberal-arts-stem-salaries.html
IPUMS. (n.d.). U.S. Census Data for Social, Economic, and Health Research https://usa.ipums.org/usa/
Jackson, A. (2017). Cuban: Don't go to school for finance - liberal arts is the future. Business Insider Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/mark-cuban-liberal-arts-is-the-future-2017-2
Rainie, L., & Anderson, J. (2017). The future of jobs and jobs training. PEW Research Center Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/2017/05/03/the-future-of-jobs-and-jobs-training
Simon, K. A., & Grant, W. V. (1964). Digest of Educational Statistics, 1964 Edition. Bulletin, 1964, No. 18. OE-10024-64. Office of Education, US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.
Yudkowsky, E. (2007). Expecting short inferential distances. LessWrong Retrieved from https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/HLqWn5LASfhhArZ7w/expecting-short-inferential-distances