What is education for? The beauty of a PhD is that it is a place where individuals can immerse themselves in learning without focusing on where this will take them.

Building social capital isn’t the focus of most education systems. The beauty of a PhD path is that it is a place where individuals can immerse themselves in learning without focusing on where this will take them.

Last year, Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, gave a speech in London called “Inclusive capitalism: creating a sense of the systemic.”

Carney’s 2014 speech is worth reading in full, but it is his remark that “we need to recognise the tension between pure free market capitalism, which reinforces the primacy of the individual at the expense of the system, and social capital which requires from individuals a broader sense of responsibility for the system” that resonates most strongly. Carney then goes on to say, “a sense of self must be accompanied by a sense of the systemic,” a theme threaded throughout much of the speech.

As an entrepreneur, it matters to me that every ambitious person with the talent, imagination and drive to turn ideas into reality is provided with opportunities to succeed. This is what makes capitalism an “engine of broadly shared prosperity,” and that is the reason for countless innovations that have changed how we live. Indeed, although we cannot guarantee the outcomes of such efforts, we should be confident that capitalism can help all people flourish regardless of their age, race, gender, place of birth or level of education.

However, in looking at how our public conversations about education are transforming, it is deeply worrisome that we are focusing on the wrong things, moving farther and farther away from a world where equal opportunity between individuals is possible. In a society where education is seen as a means to a job, and where higher education is seen as a path to a particular kind of employment, we miss what education is actually for. Moreover, the things that contribute to the full development of a person, such as an appreciation for philosophy, science and history, fall to the wayside as we place greater emphasis on subjects with short-term returns.

When a person focuses on achieving a particular end goal, they narrow themselves to the opportunities for exploration and experimentation around them. The beauty of higher education is that it is a place where individuals can immerse themselves in learning without focusing on where this will take them. The writing and ideas of Aristotle, Nussbaum, Sen and Oakeshott might not help students achieve particular outcomes, but they contribute to the development of a particular kind of person. It is regrettable that in most conversations I have on this topic, most people give a funny look when the words “intrinsic value” or “philosophy” are uttered.

Equally, I have found the same to be true in terms of how young people think about careers. Constantly focusing on the “next step,” we fail to reflect on the whys and for what purposes we are working. It is only after dropping out of Oxford, working as a sous-chef, living as an amish farmer and dabbling in governmental and advertising work that David Ogilvy founded the ad firm Ogilvy & Mather – at the age of 37. Had Ogilvy cared about short-term career prospects, he would have joined a consultancy.

Along with issues such as climate change and artificial intelligence, inclusive capitalism is among the most pressing of our time. But we will only re-instil trust in capitalism, and develop an inclusive society built on equal opportunity, if individuals possess what Carney calls “a sense of self… accompanied by a sense of the systemic.” Developing a sense of self requires thinking about who we are, a question that requires experience gained over many years through consistent introspection. But we cannot predict, optimize or aim at this experience; Bandura is right when he writes that many of the most influential moments in a person’s life arise through the most trivial of circumstances.

There are thankfully positive examples to which we can refer: in late July 2015, close to 120 young leaders from across North America converged in Calgary, each representing their city hubs in the Global Shapers network. A specific example that comes to mind is Arjun Gupta, curator of the Toronto Hub which has raised over $1 million for the Sick Kids Hospital and built multiple successful companies – demonstrating the curiosity, selflessness and drive we should see out of society’s young leaders.

Broadly stated, education is a means to developing an inclusive society over the long-term. However, it can only take place through a renewed focus on teaching what is fundamentally important. Focusing on jobs and short-term success is what leads us to pursue growth for the sake of growth; a deeper appreciation for learning allows us to ask what growth is for.

We need business leaders like Carney, as well as Lynn de Rothschild and Paul Polman, who continue to ask basic and yet fundamental questions regarding the purpose of wealth. Business should be seen as a vocation, as they have already written. But we also need university presidents and provosts, politicians and civil servants doing the same. “What is education for?”, “What kinds of people do we wish to develop?” and “How do we collectively engage in this dialogue?” might not contribute to GDP, but they will help us build a more powerful engine in the long-term, and more importantly, a society where equality of opportunity exists.


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