Words Matter

Some of us grew up with the saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” It was a line of defense on the childhood playground, a way to rebuff verbal bullies and avoid a fistfight. It is also false. Words can hurt – sometimes more deeply and with more long-lasting effect than sticks and stones. Words can also heal, inspire, uplift, and unite. Words matter. It’s hard to imagine anything with more impact on us as individuals and on our community than how we speak to and about each other.

At Miami, The Code of Love and Honor guides what we say and do, including respecting the dignity and rights of others and “their right to hold and express disparate beliefs.” Honoring that sentiment is vital for our growth, for problem-solving, for unity, and for our success. Insensitive or insolent words divide and weaken us. Mutually respectful dialogue helps us flourish.

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to witness the importance of words first-hand. At a demonstration near the Armstrong Student Center, words of division, bias, and intolerance were used by an outside group – words that could easily have caused hurt. What happened instead was that Miami students responded with words of their own – words of acceptance, tolerance, and support for those being targeted by protestors, their fellow Miamians. What a powerful gift many of them shared by living this line of the Code: “I demonstrate Love and Honor by supporting and caring for my fellow Miamians.”

Words are the way that human beings shape the world. We each seek coherence and meaning to the vast encounters we have in our environment. Language gives us the ability to understand, but it also puts us at risk of misunderstanding. Misunderstanding one word’s meaning can lead to completely misunderstanding everything a person may be trying to say.

As anyone who has studied a second language knows, most words don’t have only one meaning; they can be interpreted many ways. One challenging task of translation is selecting the most precise equivalent for the particular text from among an array of choices. A similar challenge sometimes arises in our conversations with each other. We might hear someone make a remark that is negative in our personal vocabulary, but we shouldn’t assume that’s what they intended to convey. That’s why dialogue is indispensable. Instead of reacting to a remark with “That’s not true,” dialogue starts with “What did you mean by that?” Through dialogue, we might discover how much we have in common despite the differences in word choice.

More than ever, we need such respectful engagement in the 21st century. We’re living in an increasingly diverse world, and we’ll have to learn to talk to each other to ensure that our differences are a source of creativity, delight, and enrichment rather than division and pain. We should, for example, respect the rights of groups to choose the names that are applied to them by others, and avoid using those names in any negative way.

Our commitment to Love and Honor, our history of standing up for human equality, and our virtues of openness, respect, honesty, and generosity put Miami in a strong position to model and convene civil discourse and fruitful conversations about the great challenges facing us as individuals and as a society. Knowing words can hurt, we can choose instead to use them to heal, elevate, and unite. We are One Miami.

Big problems require the fusion of the liberal arts with science, technology

Much attention is rightly given to the ways that science and technology can help solve big challenges in our time, from human health to energy and the environment. Yet, science and technology alone cannot solve the problems of political polarization, economic oppression, or mistrust and misunderstanding among human beings. Global trends have exacerbated these problems, as we see around us every day in inflammatory rhetoric, racial and religious bigotry, and class-based hostility and resentment.

For holistic solutions, we need the liberal arts, which require thoughtfulness and mutual understanding achieved through openness, respect, empathy, inclusion, and civil discourse – in short, the virtues and values instilled through a liberal arts education. Liberal arts in complement to science and technology creates holistic approaches to problems.

Consider: The medical humanities melds the complexity of hard science with humanistic qualities to improve healing and outcomes through compassionate care; medical schools are now incorporating humanities components – including literature and sociology – into entrance exams and medical education; powerful results have been seen from music and art therapies on special needs and aging populations.

Problem solving dialogue requires respect, not agreement

The dynamism of the modern world drives us to pay more attention to outcomes, a feature of “design thinking” that starts with empathy and considers a wide array of innovative possibilities and syntheses, with a view towards a better world. Achieving solutions requires welcoming insights and perspectives from people of different backgrounds, cultures, and experiences – the problems are too big and too complex to exclude ideas from those who seek to contribute. Such reasoned, evidence-based dialogue requires respect, not agreement. As Aristotle said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

The liberal arts prepare us for precisely this kind of engagement. Knowledge of history, sociology, and anthropology can foster empathy for others by boosting our understanding of their experience. Encounters with poetry, fiction, art, and other imaginative works can elevate our insight into the shared human condition as well as its unique expressions. Exposure to philosophy can provide a framework for structuring and communicating a clear, coherent worldview that remains open to new information and insights from others.

In synergy with design thinking, innovation, and inclusive excellence, a liberal arts foundation energizes people with passion and a capacity to fashion a more humane future.

Liberal arts universities position graduates to address the challenges of our time

Universities such as Miami University with deep roots in the liberal arts have always borne fruit in commitment to service, social justice, and building a better future for individuals and society as a whole. Infusing all majors with a liberal arts core positions our graduates as leaders capable of addressing the challenges of our time with the courage and optimism brought on by broad-based knowledge and an ability to solve problems and communicate well. Adhering to liberal arts values – which at Miami are expressed in our Code of Love and Honor – helps them do so with empathy, compassion, respect, and integrity.

Miami’s focus on the liberal arts upholds the heart of university education since the first institutions were founded in Europe in the 12th century. That focus also equips Miami graduates to flourish in the evolving 21st-century environment, a globalized world where the traditional elements of critical thinking, rigorous debate, and intellectual virtues operate in synergy with contemporary competencies such as entrepreneurship, design thinking, globalization and inclusive excellence. The aim of the liberal arts education remains the same – to equip individuals for full participation in society as free, responsible, engaged citizens and human beings.

In contrast to the geographically constrained and rather homogeneous milieu of the original universities, ever-accelerating advances in technology, communication, and transportation provide instant contact with others around the globe. Presumptions of static permanence have yielded to a dynamic, evolutionary understanding of life that expects the future to look different from the past. Presumptions of hierarchical status and superiority for particular groups have yielded to a recognition of human equality with increasingly democratic and inclusive approaches that provide more opportunity for individuals to participate in the shaping of society.

In more practical terms, demographic shifts signify that within a generation there will be no majority ethnic group in the United States. Thus, the importance of a liberal arts education, already vital today, will increase in the future as we strive to understand each other more fully.

From a more personal perspective, in high school I was a math and ‘hard science’ kid, interested only in being a physicist. I gave little thought to the humanities. In college, my main focus never changed, but with more exposure to humanities courses, my breadth of knowledge transformed me. I entered wanting nothing more than to be a physicist. I graduated with a better understanding of what it means to be human.