Disruption and How We Must Adapt

By Dr. Allan E. Goodman, President and CEO of IIE

As I was on my way to speak at the annual Stavros Niarchos Foundation International Conference on Philanthropy in Athens on June 23, an officer at JFK airport stopped me just as I was about to board my flight to Istanbul, which would connect me to my ultimate destination. It was shortly after midnight, and the officer wanted to know an awful lot about IIE.

After hearing an extended elevator pitch about IIE, he asked what I was going to do in Athens. I explained that I was participating on a panel at the seventh annual Stavros Niarchos Foundation conference. The topic of the conference this year was “Disruption,” with a particular emphasis on how so many aspects of science and technology are creating futures that we can barely envision. This exchange was followed by a question of what kind of disruption I meant and what I was going to say. Also, he was curious as to why I was going via Istanbul.

Meanwhile about a hundred other passengers passed me by happily boarding the flight. So I started in on my remarks. The officer let me get about half way and then asked if I was carrying more than $10,000. When I said no, he waved me on. But by then I wanted to know what he thought of my remarks.

His advice: keep them brief! What follows is the result. 

With so much of what we once held to be certain now in a state of constant change or disruption, the Greek goddess of discord, Eris, is an apt figure to recall from classical mythology in our modern era. Thanks to Hesiod, we know that Eris has two natures: “One fosters evil war and battle” and the other is “far kinder to men.” “She stirs up even the shiftless to toil” and “makes men eager to work.” In ancient myth she is most famous for her role as the catalyst of the Trojan War that set the whole pantheon and human world at odds by disrupting a wedding with a golden apple inscribed with the provocative message – for the fairest.

Today, we continue to grapple with Eris-like disrupters. The question for advocates now is how can we transform Eris-like disruptions into the kind that makes us all eager to work or “to toil?”

One space where we know disruption is likely to come is higher education. Change does not always need to be feared. If leveraged the right way, it could ultimately be a force of good. Two areas where we might investigate the benefits of disruption or change are in equity and educational access.

Inequality poses a challenge when it comes to higher education because the very institutions that we represent are, in a sense, based on inequality. We think of education as a driver of excellence, but its fiercely competitive nature can widen gaps at the same time. Is society well served in the longer run by its persistence? If not, shouldn’t our aim be to reduce inequality? After all, we know that education, once given, also does this well.

The Ford Foundation, for example, provided international fellowships for more than a decade to persons who would have been denied higher education opportunities due to extreme poverty. A striking 98 percent of the more than 4,000 fellows completed their degrees (and many with top honors) and then returned home to promote social justice in ways that privileged students could perhaps never have done. The project shows that admitting even students from the most distressed of backgrounds is a risk well worth taking.

Or consider the need to put today’s emerging lost generation of displaced and refugee students back into school. Does the effort cause us to inadvertently exclude students who don’t have access to their legal and academic documents, or does it serve as a call to open our doors wider and to accommodate those who cannot come to us with all their paperwork in order?

We already have terrific results from such pilot programs by the Athens Community School in Greece and IIE’s work through the Camps to Campus program in Jordan and the global Platform for Education in Emergencies Response. We are learning that disconnected students (even after a considerable hiatus) can thrive when they resume their studies. Helping even one student activates a multiplier effect among many others who see hope and a viable path forward.

Or, finally, what about the coming disruption in the world of work? Recent studies at Oxford University and the Council on Foreign Relations indicate that half of all jobs today will disappear in the next 25 years. How should education respond to that prospect? Core curricula and most disciplines in the world’s top 100 universities have so far stood the test of time. As we struggle to learn what’s fully possible with AI and try to understand how this and the next generation actually learns, it could also mean that we will have stood still and allowed the pedagogy started here in Plato’s Academy to become obsolete.

If higher education is to survive disruption, maybe the best course is to embrace it. There is plenty of work ahead for all – and even the shiftless have a role to play.

Read more about Dr. Goodman’s thoughts on the role of international education in a changing world here.