AT the age of 18, Melati Wijsen was featured in the 2018 Time magazine’s annual list of most influential teens in the world for successfully banning plastic bags, straws and Styrofoam in Bali, Indonesia.
Gitanjali Rao, a Colorado teenager who invented a mobile device to test for lead in drinking water, was named the first-ever Time’s Kid of the Year 2020 for her “ability to apply scientific ideas to real-world problems – and her desire to motivate other kids to take up their own causes”.
The recognition of the rising voices of the youth in matters of global importance marks a significant shift in the emergent discourse of social innovation and change, largely seen to be a specialised arena of “experts”.
Globally, young people are fast emerging as drivers of social innovation and change, especially within diverse, developing countries, and fighting some of the world’s most pressing problems like environmental degradation, social injustice and gender discrimination.
Given this growing trend, the question is, how do universities empower the youth to reach their fullest potential and mentor them effectively to emerge as changemakers?
A bold move would be to train them through a multidisciplinary degree in social sciences that integrates complex ideas with experiential learning to propose innovative solutions to real-life problems.
Social science, a popular choice of leaders
Pandemics, climate change and infectious diseases are as much social challenges as they are scientific, and their solutions require a deep understanding of societies, cultures, economies and human behaviour.
A British Council research (2015) on education pathways of global leaders showed that an overwhelming 44% held degrees in social sciences, making it the most popular discipline for those at the top, followed by business (14%) and engineering (12%).
The findings clearly demonstrate that social science knowledge plays a central role in contributing to decision-making and innovation in the global system.
As the world stands at critical crossroads while combating the Covid-19 pandemic, the need for social scientists to take leading roles to resolve old and new global challenges is higher now than ever before.
Key success factors
Our youth need be inspired to make a difference through close interaction with role models, or outstanding leaders who have themselves brought about significant social change.
Shadowing great leaders and learning from their experiences of success and failure as part of the social science curriculum will enable the students to take the first step towards their own leadership journey.
Students must be trained to develop grit and resilience – two vital qualities for social leaders.
They have to be exposed to eminent local and international scholars from diverse disciplines like philosophy, social entrepreneurship, and data and technology for social innovation in a wholesome multidisciplinary learning ecosystem.
Students should be able to integrate theory and practice, and develop professional network in a real-life work environment.
Leading social change
A key attribute of social scientists is the ability to integrate knowledge and skills both from the curriculum and the real world, and to pursue continuous self-discovery through lifelong learning. A multidisciplinary foundation enables them to apply their learning to a wide variety of industry verticals and multifaceted social challenges like Covid-19.
Thus, it is no surprise that Science, Technology and Innovation Minister Khairy Jamaluddin possesses a degree in philosophy, politics and economics, or that both President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris of the United States possess degrees in social sciences.
One can lead social change at any age. We need to ensure that the right learning environment is provided for our young to lead change in the world that is going to be their future.
Assoc Prof Dr Anindita Dasgupta heads the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences, in the Faculty of Social Sciences and Leisure Management at Taylor’s University, Malaysia, and she is a visiting professor at University of Toulouse-Jean Jaures, France. Anindita is the book review editor for Millennial Asia: An International Journal of Asian Studies. Trained as a social historian with a keen interest in transnationalism and identity issues, Anindita has carried out studies in India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Malaysia over the last 15 years. A recipient of several international research grants, she has authored books, a monograph and over 30 publications. The views expressed here are the writer’s own.