2017 Schwartz Fellow

2017 Schwartz Fellow

Alec Ross is one of America's leading experts on innovation.

By Khia Beeles '17 and MK Song '17

Alec Ross is one of America's leading experts on innovation. He served as a senior advisor to Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state and is currently a distinguished visiting fellow at Johns Hopkins University. In January, Ross visited the Hilltop as the 2017 Schwartz Visiting Fellow to talk about his book The Industries of the Future, which focuses on the importance of innovation in an age of intense globalization. In a world encompassed by technology, Ross strongly recommends today's students learn computer coding. He also stresses that classes need to be interdisciplinary to prepare them for complex problem solving. During his two-day visit, Ross delivered several lectures, participated in a panel discussion, and had dinner with the Pomfret community. As students, it was great to have a chance to ask him a few questions.

Your book, The Industries of the Future, focuses on digitization and globalization. What are the implications of this for high school students today?

Today, the world has about sixteen billion networked devices. This is the sum of our smartphones, laptops, sensors in supply chains, and everything else that sends or receives an internet signal. When today's high school students graduate from college that number will have grown from sixteen billion to more than forty billion, and it's not because we're putting more mobile phones in more pockets. It's because we are animating more "things" with computer code that previously weren't connected devices — everything from our homes to our cars to the electronics in our house. The "internet of things" is a driving force not to be ignored. In a world where computer code is interjected more and more into our lives, it means that today's students need to be interdisciplinary learners. They need to understand the code and algorithms that are growing more powerful, but they also need to develop their most "human" skills, those which will never be replaced with zeroes and ones.

What did you study in high school that prepared you to be a diplomat and successful author?

My studies — or at least my enthusiasms — were in the humanities. This included foreign languages, history, and other social sciences. It was through studying history that I came to understand how powerful and important science and technology were in setting the course of history.

Did you know in college what you wanted to do? How would you recommend a college student today figure out their path in life?

I knew that I wanted my thinking and doing to shape the world in some positive, consequential way, but I did not know how to really go about it. Joining Teach for America turned out to be the perfect solution. It gave me important work to do, but also gave me a two-year period outside of the ivory tower to map my academic interests into real world employment. For today's college students, I would counsel being focused on skills. What you have memorized is less important than the skills you have developed that allow you to apply critical thinking to solve interesting problems.

You graduated from college in 1994 when technology was not such a big deal. How have you gained your tech skills and what would you say are the base-level skills needed for digital literacy?

I fall well short of being an engineer. Those aren't my skills. I'm more interested in how technology shapes our economy or our society than I am in how the little transistors and discs work within it. Having said that, it's good for people to have the basics down. Computer code is the alphabet that much of the future will be written in. If I were in high school now, in addition to studying the economic and social aspects of technology, I'd take a few computer coding courses. Even if one does not grow up to become a computer scientist, it still gives him or her an understanding of frameworks that will be important, and it teaches people how to solve problems within an interesting logical framework.

If you were going to align high school graduation requirements with the industries of the future, what would they be?

To start with, everybody needs to learn languages: foreign languages, computer languages, genetic code. I'd also do the maximum possible to break down the traditional academic silos that predominate American education. Classes and learning need to be interdisciplinary. The rote memorization that I see in many if not most academic silos does very little to prepare people for the future. Other states and societies have been quicker than ours to adapt and they are reaping the benefits. I think, for example, about Singapore's mathematics curriculum and how vastly better it is than most of the instruction in America's high schools. We need to pivot, moving away from the heavy emphasis on educational content. We need to quickly abandon frameworks developed for the industrial economy and embrace the knowledge-based economy frameworks.

What advantages might a boarding school have in preparing students for an ever-changing world?

As learning communities, boarding schools ought not be bureaucratic and rigid. While maintaining a strong academic core, a boarding school ought to be flexible enough to reimagine its academic offerings to include courses that support the industries of the future. Public schools are weighed down by the demands and inefficiencies of government. In addition, because boarding schools are residential communities, they have the opportunity to reimagine the use of time in service of teaching and learning. A boarding school has no excuse for not being agile and creative in preparing its students for jobs that don't exist yet, but are visible on our horizon. There is nothing that stands in their way except their traditional mindsets and self-perpetuating inertia.