Artificial Intelligence and Higher Ed’s Future

What will people study in a post-work world?


This blog tries to stay grounded, shying away from speculation about massive societal shifts.  But it’s summertime – a good time to step back from the details and contemplate the big picture – so this post will mark an exception.

Despite everything that is going on in the world, the rapid and accelerating development of artificial intelligence may be the biggest story of all right now. This Tweet from a specialist in measuring AI progress points to how advances are now regularly beating forecasted timelines, with progress accelerating faster than predicted and with human performance already surpassed for some tasks.


From Clark’s slide 8 in the Google docs link: “The Game has changed. Artisanal science moves to industrial process. A big deal!”

See also this comment in response:

Ray Kurzweil’s prediction that artificial intelligence would surpass human intelligence –  the “singularity” – by 2029 looked far-fetched when he made it two decades ago but that date is approaching and Kurzweil is sticking to his guns.  Currently a solid plurality of AI researchers generally align with Kurzweil’s view and believe it will occur in various fields across the next couple of decades (numerous surveys exist, but linking to this MIT report dating from 2017).  The date by when AI will for example be capable of writing high school-level essays at a level equal to humans – 2026 – in the MIT article is fast approaching, and may arrive early.  (You wonder if secondary educators are aware of this situation.) Whatever the exact date, the singularity is coming and it will transform human society, along with people’s life goals and work.


What happens if artificial intelligence and robotics begins to displace workers and makes widespread employment motivated by economic rewards a vestige of the past?  An active debate has been ongoing for decades about whether technological advances are reducing employment – with advocates from both sides scoring some points – but advanced AI is a game changer and could very well make human work something done by a small minority of adults. Work becomes an option rather than a necessity.


Among the many profound transformations advanced AI would bring, its impact on the education system seems like a pedantic detail. Would education disappear? With this trend in mind, it’s worth considering how the US educational system’s current emphasis on professional development is not some universally-held goal, but one emerging from a specific social context. If that context changes, so will the goals.


Across cultures and time, education has more often been undertaken for spiritual and religious reasons. European higher education of course began with theologically-centered universities.


St. Thomas Aquinas debating theology at the University of Paris. The university didn’t have a career services office but students attended several church services each day.


In much of Asia and portions of Africa today, networks of tens of thousands of madrassas teach students at all levels from elementary education to post-graduate studies and, while madrassas do cover secular subjects, they are grounded in Islamic religion and teachings.


You think the US has difficulties tracking higher ed institutions? There are thousands of madrassas in Pakistan like this one, teaching all levels of students. A full count doesn’t exist.


Religious colleges are sprinkled across a secularized network in the rest of the world, including the US.  Whatever the current distribution, advanced educational programs often originate from a religious and spiritual basis.


Today’s focus on professional development and advancement, in this broader context, looks like an outlier and, if large-scale displacement of human workers occurs, one that would play a much smaller role in education. But that doesn’t mean that higher education would cease to exist. Students – maybe not as many as today but a significant number – could continue to treat college as a step on the way to adulthood, like they do today, but with different motivations, among them spiritual growth.


The fact that our society – pluralistic and individualist – is very different from those giving birth to madrassas and medieval universities isn’t a roadblock. We wouldn’t expect a single religion or belief system to predominate in the future, but rather a splintering of different schools of thought, co-educational, and spanning the spectrum from theistic to general non-theistic spirituality.


The fragments of such a future state are out there now. One current model would be Maitripa College in Portland, Oregon, a recently founded (2005) co-educational school following one of the Buddhist schools.  Not a Title IV institution and not yet accredited, Maitripa offers two master’s degrees squarely centered on spiritual growth, what it calls “Contemplative Education”.  A bigger, more mainstream model is Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado.  Enrolling about 1,000 students, it is Title IV compliant with several smaller undergrad and graduate offerings.  Bachelor’s candidates can’t major in accounting or chemistry, but they can major in Yoga Studies and Contemplative Art Therapy.  And these subjects can be found embedded in major non-denominational colleges, often through more academically-oriented programs.  Just to pick out one of many, USC offers classes covering Asia Pacific Religions. Though currently built as a traditional humanities curriculum, such programs could adapt to different student motivations and let’s say reduce the scholarly distance from what is being studied. These three programs are centered around Asian religion and meditative practices, but we can all name numerous denominational Judeo-Christian institutions across the country, colleges that have in many cases been migrating away from their religious roots but which could reverse course if the environment changed.  So the potential for the existing system to re-orient is there, even in today’s battered humanities field.


Rather than a prediction, take this as one possible path for education as progress on the AI front advances more and more spectacularly, and speculation about major changes to the employment landscape gets louder.  This post needs to be qualified with a big “maybe”.  But it’s a possibility rooted in educational traditions across a span of cultures.


Read this post and others at our CTAS Higher Ed Business blog on Substack.