Oh boy, was I wrong. “Who needs these humanities requirements?” I asked as a college student. I was going to be a scientist and wanted to place my attention on (what I thought was) my ultimate goal.
Sure, I learned to appreciate the genius of Shakespeare and enjoyed the scrum in my political science classes. But I loaded up on the hard, not the social, sciences. I bought the promise that technology had the answers to everything. One couldn’t be a whole person without a rock solid background in math, chemistry, physics, biology.
Whole person, huh? I said I was wrong, right? I’m not sure I can say it enough. I’ve come to hate mutual exclusivity and false equivalencies and yet, there I was. It took me years to figure out (with no small contribution from my wife) that interesting people, valuable people, are a package. We should have an appreciation—a facility, even—with a multitude of subjects spanning a range from STEM subjects to the liberal arts.
We need to know enough about both the humanities and science to be capable citizens. With the politicization of so many topics—vaccines, evolution, climate change, stem cells—a more roundly educated public is essential.
We need to expect and demand more of our leaders, too. I wonder how many of them read books like David McCullough’s 1776 or John Adams that chronicled how the founding fathers built a nation on progressive values; Peter Watson’s Ideas, with two million years worth of language, thought and invention; Constantine’s Sword by James Carroll on the evolution of faith and systematized prejudice; Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time to make your head ache when contemplating the enormity of our universe; or Abe by David Reynolds to show us how personal evolution and compromise gave rise to one of our greatest presidents.
Social media and cable news echo chambers have made it all too easy to receive what the algorithms are trained to feed us. We suffer from inertia, from a lack of curiosity, from what used to be the common practice of debating the issues (and not the facts). If the facts don’t fit the person’s worldview or “frame,” as the cognitive linguist George Lakoff termed it, the facts bounce off like bullets shot at Superman’s chest. Your opponent deflects all the data, swears on what they believe to be true, while you get blue in the face.
But now comes the latest assault on holistic education. The New York Times recently reported that West Virginia’s “flagship school will no longer teach world languages or creative writing—a sign, its president says, of the future at many public universities.” What the WVU administration is calling a “transformation,” others are calling a “blood bath.” It’s frightening to think this could be the beginning of a very dangerous spiral.
The questions of how to educate, what to teach, and with what money are not new. But this is different. We’re looking at institutional changes that could take years, generations to repair. If we’re not careful, if we don’t invest in expansive, accessible education, we will be less able to govern, less capable of informed, civil discourse, and less capable of maintaining our competitiveness on the world stage. The hollowing out of education, and the under-budgeting and the reversal of opportunity are as grave a threat as any facing our country.
Paul Oestreicher, PhD is a recognized expert in strategic communications, marketing and public affairs, and crisis, change and reputation management. He is the author of Camelot, Inc.: Leadership and Management Insights from King Arthur and the Round Table and the blog C-O-I-N-S: Communication Opinions, Insights and New Strategies. Follow him @pauloestreicher.