Educating for Uncertainty: The University's Preeminent Mission?

The process of managing uncertainty starts by spending time thinking about the future. That may sound a bit facile, and probably doesn't seem like an academic pursuit on its face. But planning is a discipline
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Viewed through the widest possible lens, the mission of the university is to help students marshal the skills needed to cope with, and plan for, uncertainty, whatever shape or form it takes. That's especially true of economic uncertainty; across the U.S., the trajectory of sustained upward economic momentum -- a given among generations of students -- has been disrupted, at least temporarily. How long "temporary" persists is anyone's guess, but how do you say to someone in his or her early 20s that the current phenomenon isn't likely to go away any time soon? Today's students need the wherewithal to at least manage uncertainty, if not master it.

The process of managing uncertainty starts by spending time thinking about the future. That may sound a bit facile, and probably doesn't seem like an academic pursuit on its face. But planning is a discipline, a means of honing tools that can be applied inside and outside the classroom. If I may be permitted a generalization, millennials as a group typically prefer instant gratification; they're not predisposed to planning per se. That's perhaps a byproduct of impatience (not necessarily a bad thing) and a sense of entitlement (rarely a good thing). With the support of helicopter parents, millennials are in a hurry to achieve big things.

Our students at Woodbury are quite different, in part because so many are the first in their families to attend college. They have had to work extraordinarily hard against tough odds to obtain things they value/enjoy, higher education being one of them. Our students are enrolled full time, but a substantial number are also fully employed.

They are more predisposed to planning than university students at large. That may well be because principles of problem-solving and critical thinking underlie most of our curriculum, both undergraduate and graduate. In recent years, we have taken this foundation even further, into the realm of "transdisciplinarity." Put another way, we're now wired to prepare our students for uncertainty.

While transdisciplinarity sounds esoteric, it is anything but. Transdisciplinarity harnesses the creative power of multiple disciplines, coming together to share perspectives across boundaries -- and then find solutions. Transdisciplinarity is predicated on new approaches to social change, through understanding of differing points of view; confidence-building, through empowerment and the capacity to enable others; critical thinking, a core educational model at our university; and informed citizenship, through a deeper understanding of how the world works.

Transdisciplinarity is that meeting place between the classroom and the world outside (it's tempting, but incorrect, to say "the real world" -- both worlds are real). It's about erasing boundaries between the two. In terms of what universities do, one might think that an institution more theoretical than ours, one less focused on professional tracks, would embrace transdisciplinarity as interesting pedagogy. But it's precisely because Woodbury is tied so intimately to the worlds outside the classroom that we find transdisciplinarity compelling. So compelling, in fact, that we have made it one of the four pillars of our institution, along with civic engagement, entrepreneurship and design thinking.

We believe that the professional discipline in which a student specializes in important, but that how that student thinks, how he or she solves problems, is even more critical. Certainly, discipline-based methods (a.k.a. "majors") matter. But we're finding that transdisciplinarity is a quantum improvement over how problem-solving has been approached in the past. We believe that transdisciplinarity is the new liberal education.

We like to cite the recent case of a brilliant architecture student who became a successful entrepreneur, applying the methodologies of different disciplines to create something wholly new and idiosyncratic. It's ultimately about looking at education differently -- of being institutionally eclectic, ad hoc, spontaneous. More or less like life itself.

The tools that students need are often beyond what professional training, or strict academic disciplines, can offer. We often observe that while many liberal arts colleges become or add, professional schools, ours is a professional school that has moved to strengthen further its roots in liberal education. That only goes so far, however, because it embodies the thinking that there is a dichotomy between liberal education and professional preparation. In reality, that dichotomy is artificial. If you truly believe in education, you need to address the entire person. The Jesuits have a term for this -- cura personalis, care for the total person. Education is a multi-dimensional concept, one that cries out for balance. It's not only what you learn in the classroom, but also what you do outside of the classroom, how you apply that in your community and how you reflect on all of these things.

My university is now striving to infuse transdisciplinarity into the curriculum, to integrate it throughout our various schools and programs. We recognize that some degree programs will do that more successfully than others.

While society is awash in studies on academic performance, statistics confirm that people who go to college end up doing better financially than people who don't, no matter what institution they attend. But, clearly, there's more at stake. The question that transdisciplinarity poses is how versatile, how flexible, a person are you? How do you cope with change? How do you deal with the unexpected?

How certain are you that you can manage uncertainty?

Luís María R. Calingo, Ph.D., is president of Woodbury University ( in Los Angeles and author of the blog Reflections on Excellence.