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.

 

The World Needs Love and Honor

Amid the excitement of moving to Oxford and beginning my first week as president of Miami, the flag at half-staff outside of Roudebush and the continuous news reports of lives cut short – club-goers in Orlando, black men in Minnesota and Louisiana, then police in Dallas, and more – was a somber reminder of the tragedy and turmoil that gripped the nation this summer.

A reflective walk for inspiration at the Freedom Summer Memorial on Miami’s Western campus renewed my hope. These times bear striking resemblance to the struggles of the 1960s. Just as those who gathered at Western in the summer of ’64 made a difference— a difference that still reverberates today — Miamians will continue to do so.

My fervent hope at Miami is for us to continuously reflect upon our values, advance our thinking to be all-inclusive, and seek unity as we progress towards a model of inclusive excellence. We must recognize the enormous power of diversity to boost creativity and innovation, to introduce fresh ideas for consideration, synthesis, and refinement.

We must aim to become a model of how to organize our community to reflect a healthy society that practices civil discourse.  We don’t have to agree, but we have to be able to have conversations where we truly listen, with respect and a genuine desire to understand.

The values summed up in our Code of Love and Honor immediately resonated with me, especially those tied to character, integrity, and respect for “the dignity of other persons”…and welcoming “a diversity of people, ideas, and experiences.” That commitment motivated our Freedom Summer predecessors, and it is fully alive today. It forms the starting point for any solution to divisions we face, here at Miami as well as globally.

In the short time I have been here, I’ve seen the power of a Miami education every day in students, faculty, staff, and alumni who are oriented toward social justice and who are passionate about making a difference. While we have much to do on our way to becoming a model for inclusive excellence, these dedicated Miamians can be our inspiration.

The flag at half-staff reminds us of how far we have to go – here at Miami and as we move on in the world – to achieve the justice and equality that we seek. The Freedom Summer Memorial reminds us that Miamians have the wisdom and understanding to remain focused on achieving justice and equality in the midst of upheaval, violence, and complexity; the empathy to inspire unity; and the courage to lead through these tumultuous times.

Love and Honor,

Greg

Group photo of attendees at the 2015 Freedom Summer Memorial conference and reunion

Attendees gather at the Freedom Summer Memorial for the 2015 conference and reunion.