Opinion: Graduate education must adapt to solve the world's problems

An empty classroom. Photo by: Pixabay / CC0

By many measures, the world is getting better every day. Fewer people live in poverty, fewer children are dying from preventable diseases, and economies are growing. We live in a world of unprecedented opportunity and we should continue perpetuating the massive progress made over the last century. But significant, intensifying challenges pose a grave threat to all these gains.

Global climate change produces routine flooding in coastal cities such as Miami and alters patterns of rainfall in sub-Saharan Africa critical to the lives of subsistence farmers. The human toll of the conflict in countries such as Syria and Myanmar spills into surrounding states, compromising the well-being of millions. Other community-level conflicts go unnoticed and unaddressed until they swell into wars.

People around the world are on the move far too often in order to flee conflict, economic stress, or environmental pressure.

These are examples of “wicked problems” which seem difficult — even impossible — to solve.  But we must engage with these challenges because they threaten decades of global progress and the promise of a just future.

These problems are compounded by governments and groups who turn away from the world at a time when their engagement is needed. Foreign aid budgets are under threat, global action on climate change lags, and people in need are turned away from national borders. The uneven distribution of wealth and capacity lurk behind these and other challenges, limiting opportunities for us all.

Academia plays a role in addressing these challenges, but its traditional disciplinary structures hinder our efforts.

Working alone, a climate scientist, economist, anthropologist, geographer, or engineer cannot offer effective answers to issues such as climate change. The questions we are currently asking — and therefore the answers we seek — lie at the intersection of our fields, if not in the spaces between them.

In the world of policy and implementation, questions of development and conservation often involve teams of ecologists, development specialists, economists, lawyers, and anthropologists working together.

I have lived this experience — whether it’s playing the role of translator between natural scientists and social scientists on global environmental assessments or trying to bridge the gap between disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation at the United States Agency for International Development. What I learned is that those who can negotiate the inevitable tensions and confusion that arise in such a team are the most effective at addressing the challenges at hand.  

The world needs more people who can operate in these spaces. And it needs academic institutions designed to equip young people with the tools to do so. If academia is to prepare students to identify solutions to the problems we face, it will have to rethink its intellectual and pedagogical approach to global issues.

We have long understood the need to end silos that divide research from policy. However, we pay far less attention to the ways in which our degree programs, which tend to focus on issues such as development and environmental threats as self-contained disciplines, continue to reproduce intellectual silos.

Those silos hinder both the careers of our graduates and our ability to identify and implement solutions to the world’s wicked problems, which fester at the intersections of disciplines and specialties and require a multipronged plan of attack.

Concretely, those of us teaching the next generation of development professionals need to build our curricula around a transdisciplinary framing that elevates problem-centered thinking in our programs.

In our classrooms, we must mimic the settings I encountered in my time at USAID: Opportunities to experience and negotiate the tensions — and confusion — that arise when people from different professional and intellectual backgrounds first work together toward a shared goal. We need more curricula that put environmental scientists, economists, anthropologists, and engineers in the same classroom, wrestling together with the same challenges.

There will be barriers to designing and executing such curricula, not least, the inherent difficulty of teaching transdisciplinary material to students with diverse intellectual backgrounds. It is not easy to walk a social scientist through ecological theories of resilience, or an environmental scientist through post-structural critiques of development.

While teaching development theory and resilience science in the same seminar is difficult, sharing that difficulty with my students is stimulating, generative of new ideas and gives approaches I could not have arrived at alone.

A graduate degree is often a prerequisite for employment in any sector that addresses these “wicked problems.” This places a heavy responsibility on programs to provide the rigorous training that prepares students to do meaningful work and advances gains against these problems that challenge human well-being here and abroad.

Programs too often reflect the needs of a different time, and it is time for that to change.

About the author

  • Professor ed carr clark university

    Edward R. Carr

    Edward R. Carr is a professor and director of the international development, community, and environment department at Clark University, a center of transdisciplinary research bringing academic research and teaching to bear on the world’s most pressing problems. He also directs the Humanitarian Response and Development Lab in the George Perkins Marsh Institute at Clark.