The Things That Aren't On the Syllabus

Educators today are preparing our students for jobs and careers that do not yet exist, using technologies and solutions that have not yet been invented, to solve problems that society does not yet recognize as problems. That, as they used to say in Detroit, is job number one. And one very formidable challenge.

Just take a look at the freshman class who entered our colleges and universities last year. They were born in the mid-90s. This generation of digital natives has already been well-connected to each other. They have always been able to plug into USB ports. As their parents held them as infants, they may have wondered whether it was the baby or Windows 95 that had them more excited.

A tablet is no longer something you take in the morning. Java has never been just a cup of coffee. In the age of Pandora, the CD player in their parents' car is now ancient, inefficient and almost embarrassing.

The amount of new technical knowledge doubles every two years, meaning that half of what students learn in graduate school will be obsolete in two years. So let us speculate about the future that we face. Consider just a few predictions of the world's futurists:

First, by the year 2100, 70 percent of the world's 10 billion inhabitants will live in cities. By 2025, there will be 27 megacities around the world, each with populations exceeding 10 million. The real population explosion is not the sheer number of the world population, but the relentless urbanization in places unprepared for this growth.

Megacities in northern Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, China and Indonesia -- where poverty is already severe -- will face more environmental degradation and become havens for terrorism and crime.

Second, tablet PCs, mini-tabs and laptops will be extinct by 2022. Instead of relying on hardware, workplaces will become ubiquitous computing environments, where everything from the door knob, the coffee pot, and the window will come equipped with connectivity and computing capabilities.

Third, by 2020, data will have a life of its own. Algorithms will talk to other algorithms, things will connect with millions of other things, and sensors will gather even more data, processed by more computers, all scarcely discernible to humans.

Fourth, the "cloud" will become more intelligent, not just a place to store data. Cloud intelligence will evolve into becoming an active resource in our daily lives, providing analysis and contextual advice. Virtual agents could, for example, design your family's weekly menu based on everyone's health profiles, fitness goals and taste preferences.

You may be familiar with mathematician John von Neumann's theory of "technological singularity," which is the hypothetical moment in time when artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence. Proponents predict that singularity will occur between 2017 and 2112, with a median year of 2040. Some of us may still live to see that day.

How are we to prepare for this uncertain future? It was Lincoln who first said, "the best way to predict the future is to create it." The Spanish poet Miguel de Unamuno later said, "We must try to become the parents of our future rather than the offspring of our past." While we must certainly honor the past, we must with even greater enthusiasm embrace the future.

There is a story that recounts how, when trying to create the light bulb, Thomas Edison failed more than 1,000 times. When asked about it, Edison replied, "I have not failed 10,000 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work." He also reportedly said that the light bulb is an invention with 1,000 steps. The point is that America was founded on taking risks and nurturing your resources. Viewed through that prism, a failure is simply a postponed success.

Take the Harry Potter fantasy series. The author J.K. Rowling did not succeed overnight. Penniless, recently divorced, and raising a child on her own, she wrote the first Harry Potter book on an old manual typewriter. Twelve publishers rejected the manuscript. A year later, a publisher gave her the green light, accepting the manuscript on one condition: Rowling had to find a day job because the publisher believed that she had little chance of making money in children's books. Supposed she had stopped at the first rejection? The fifth rejection? Or the tenth?

What about Walt Disney, the man who gave us Mickey Mouse and Disneyland? A newspaper fired him because the news editor felt that Walt lacked creativity and imagination, and had no good ideas for cartoons. His first animation company went bankrupt. The story in Burbank, my university town, is that Walt Disney was turned down 302 times before he got financing for creating "The Happiest Place on Earth."

Dr. Walter Edward Dandy, one of the founding fathers of neurosurgery, practiced in the first half of the twentieth century. The first 13 of his neurosurgeries were not successful. What if you were patient number 14?

When it comes to excellence and achievement, never give up. The key is perseverance. And this says a lot about the ability to learn from your mistakes and to learn from what others do. The principle itself isn't brain surgery.

The U.S. civil rights leader Julian Bond once wrote:

The pessimist looks out from his corner to the world and bewails the present state of affairs and predicts woeful things for the future. In every cloud he beholds a destructive storm, in every flash of lightning an omen of evil, and in every shadow that falls across his path a lurking foe. He forgets that the clouds also bring life and hope, that lightning purifies the atmosphere, that shadow and darkness prepare for sunshine and growth, and that hardships and adversity nerve the race, as the individual, for greater efforts and grander victories.

Challenges are opportunities in disguise. Success occurs when opportunity meets preparation. As the value of higher education is questioned from seemingly every corner, I hold fast to the conviction that the best way to prepare ourselves for this uncertain future is preparation through a process of lifelong learning.

Luis Maria R. Calingo, PhD., is president of Woodbury University in Los Angeles and San Diego.