Developing the soft skills needed to solve global problems

In a world of finite natural resources, where all too many human actions lead to sadly destructive consequences, it is essential for the academic community to make its voice heard.

That, of course, applies not just to the realm of the sciences in highlighting their response to the challenges of global warming, plastic waste, toxic pollution, and loss of species.

It applies equally to other fields whose business is to inform and influence by changing the ways people think, act and interact, thereby helping to “move the needle” in terms of public appreciation of precisely what is at stake.

The subject was addressed during June’s Times Higher Education (THE) Liberal Arts Forum, co-hosted by Times Higher Education and Lingnan University, with three panellists asked to assess the importance of combining knowledge of the sciences and humanities at a time when global emergences are becoming ever more pressing.

In particular, they considered the role of liberal arts in promoting sustainable development and how it can be a vehicle for positive change.

At one level, evidence of this can be seen in the way universities in Asia are incorporating and promoting the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in their curriculum design, teaching, research initiatives, and ongoing engagement with external parties.

At another, it is found in the widespread commitment to encouraging members of each student cohort to use their talents and training to rise to the challenge in practical ways and have a discernible impact.

“Our students are trained to serve society and [confront] real-world challenges,” said Chulathida Chomchai, dean of Mahidol University International College in Thailand. “Science teaches us to understand things from our own perspective, but liberal arts disciplines allow us to understand each other and raise students’ awareness of what is going on around them.”

Thanks to its location and connections, she added, her institution is in a great place to give an understanding of both the science and the soft skills it will take to achieve SDGs – and come up with wider-ranging solutions.

“Some of the SDGs require real technical knowledge,” Chomchai said. “But you have to listen and communicate well to find out the needs of each community. Without those soft skills, the solutions may be very narrow.”

Professor Ka Ho Mok, vice-president and chair professor of comparative policy at Lingnan University, also stressed the value of an interdisciplinary approach, effective collaboration, and the “human touch” when dealing with anything related to sustainable development.

A quality liberal arts education should give students a global vision, an interest in local issues, and go beyond the classroom by introducing co-curricular activities which involve learning about climate change, smart cities, and creating more age-friendly societies.

“We promote inter-generational conversations and translate the principles of a liberal arts education into SDGs which are linked to well-being and health,” Mok said. “We also have a service learning office to help us understand what kind of support people need in order to reduce poverty or, for example, produce a better air purifier. For us, the SDGs offer a very good framework to engage in research projects that solve real-world problems and can translate into findings that have a positive impact.”

For Lingnan University, he noted, the key to all this was to focus on “four Cs”: connecting, caring, collaboration and contribution. It was also important to accept that, these days, no discipline on its own could hope provide the answers to a persistent problem affecting communities around the world.

“Sustainability competencies must be integrated into curricula,” Mok said. “When faculty members and students see the real benefits of doing this, they all lend their support.”

As vice-provost of teaching and learning at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China, K. Cohen Tan has noticed the growing emphasis among employers of skills over knowledge, but pointed out that many of today’s more sought-after competencies can’t be taught in the classroom; they must be developed.

“Learning is fundamentally a social activity,” he said. “So, through engagement with civic partners, our vision is to offer an education that is more than a degree. We pursue the spirit, not necessarily the letter, and encourage the exercise of critical thinking and freedom to question.”

Tan added that with issues like human rights and gender equality, it is relatively easy to reach a broad consensus and find a collectivist expectation people unconsciously conform to. However, liberal arts students soon discover there is no simple answer. Getting somewhere requires a much more integrated approach.

“With a liberal arts mindset, you are able to reframe existing presumptions and prejudices and get back to the root of things,” Tan said. “The traditional separation between STEM subjects and humanities is unfortunate. The key thing is balance, an integrated approach, as part of the holistic development of a person.”