Prof. Yuval Noah Harari – Hebrew University lecturer, historian, philosopher, and author of Sapiens, one of the 21st century’s most influential books – joins the Dean of Humanities, Prof. Nissim Otmazgin, for a thought-provoking conversation on the challenges faced by higher education, the skills graduates will need for tomorrow’s global job market, and what role the humanities will play in the 21st century.
Otmazgin: Welcome, Yuval, it’s a pleasure to have the opportunity to interview such a distinguished member of our faculty. Many thanks for joining us today.
Harari: It’s an honor, Nissim. As you know, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem has been my home for most of my life, since the age of 17 when I first began my BA studies in history. I’m thrilled to be here.
Otmazgin: Yuval, what do you think is the greatest challenge faced by institutions of higher education today?
Harari: I think that the challenge I’m most concerned about is the politicization of science – the manner in which scientific theories and debates have rapidly become political debates – and how it creates new threats to our academic freedom and our freedom of speech.
We see this trend in history departments all over the world. Many politicians feel that history is much too important to be left to the historians, and politicians frequently distort historical evidence in the name of ideology. This, of course, isn’t new. History has always been a political subject, and has always struggled with censorship and political repression by those who dislike what historians have to say.
Otmazgin: Would you say that this challenge is limited to historians and the humanities?
Harari: More and more disciplines are being politicized, including disciplines that thought they were completely immune to this problem. People in the natural sciences sometimes think that politicization is a problem limited to the humanities and social sciences. They are wrong. We saw it most recently during the pandemic – in epidemiology and medicine – when Covid-related research became highly politicized, and professors found themselves neck-deep in fierce political debates and threatening confrontations. The same has happened in the field of environmental sciences, as climate change has shifted from scientific theory to a hot political topic. We also see it in computer science, which is changing the job market, daily life, and the geopolitical balance of power in the world.
Otmazgin: Would you say that the politicization of academia is inevitable?
Harari: I would say that it is not accidental. It’s the result of science having become the most important change factor of the 21st century. The theories being developed within the university, and the technology emerging from the labs, are changing the world. For better or for worse, scientific debates just cannot be confined within the walls of academia. Nowadays there’s a direct line from the computer science department to the Knesset, the Supreme Court, and the military. It’s therefore unreasonable to expect that the research remain immune to politics. I’d actually like to see political parties drawing up an agenda about algorithms, about AI, about which technologies to develop or not to develop, etc.
Otmazgin: Another pressure we feel within the university is the expectation that we equip our graduates with skills relevant for the global job market, ones that will make them more employable and help them cope with the challenges that await them. What transferable skills do you think our students will need to successfully navigate the job market once they graduate?
Harari: Well, the key problem is that nobody has any idea what the job market will look like in 20 years. This is the first time in history that we are unable to anticipate this. The only thing we know for certain is that it will be completely different from what we see now, and will probably be very surprising. But, what types of jobs people will do in 20 years, and what kind of skills they will need for them, we simply don’t know.
Throughout history, while it was never possible to predict the future, the job market was always relatively stable. 1,000 years ago, in 1022, people couldn’t predict wars and epidemics, but they could confidently anticipate that 20 years forward there would still be a need for farmers skilled in growing food, and soldiers who would know how to ride horses and shoot bows. Those that worked in the royal administration would need to know how to read and write. Yet, when we consider what to teach students today so that they have the relevant skills for 2040 or 2050, we really have no idea. This is a first.
A lot of jobs will completely disappear, a lot of new jobs will emerge, and many existing jobs will evolve. It’s almost impossible to predict how exactly they will change, and therefore we don’t know what particular skills people will need. Take, for example, a skill such as coding. We can comfortably assume that, with the advancement of technology, a lot of code will need to be written over the next few decades. But who’s to say that 20 years from now artificial intelligence won’t be doing the bulk of the coding for us?
Otmazgin: Even if we cannot predict the future job market, how do you think the humanities will fare?
Harari: I believe that philosophy, in particular, will become much more important and applicable in this century. Many complex philosophical questions that, for most of history, had no practical implications for how people actually lived their lives, are becoming practical questions of engineering. The example everybody gives is self-driving vehicles and the need to program ethics into the algorithm. If the vehicle has to compromise the safety of the car owner in order to spare a pedestrian in the middle of the road, how should it proceed? This type of debate turns very old philosophical dilemmas into extremely relevant questions. And, as opposed to philosophers who rarely applied their teachings to reality, algorithms behave precisely as they are programmed. The responsibility is therefore much greater.
Another example is surveillance. Governments throughout history dreamed of monitoring their citizens, but due to technological limitations, it was impossible to monitor everybody all the time. Now, for the first time in history, it is becoming possible to completely annihilate privacy. The surveillance tools developed by researchers and students in our university are applied just a few kilometers away – in Issawiya, Anata, and the Shuafat refugee camp – to create an unprecedented surveillance system. These tools are then exported by Israeli security companies to all kinds of regimes throughout the world, sometimes in order to spy on journalists, minorities, human rights activists, and opposition parties. What is our responsibility in this?
At the very least, I think our university should mandate that every student who learns how to develop such technologies be obligated to take courses on ethics, similar to the requirements for medical students.
Finally, in the 21st century we are likely to learn how to use biotechnology to engineer, reengineer, or even manufacture bodies and brains. This is an extremely dangerous development that raises many philosophical, ethical, and spiritual questions, some of which have been pondered by humans for thousands of years without any practical implications. And now that they are becoming so urgent, I believe that in the 21st century the humanities will be more important than ever before.