We see it so often that we barely notice it anymore. A child shows a love of music or literature and the parent frets. “Get serious”, they tell them. “It’s a nice hobby, but it’s not a career”. The message from parents and educators alike is: “Science, Engineering, Math — those are serious, “hard” subjects. Your art or humanities course is a ‘nicety’.” You can practically hear echoes of “get a real job” in that stance.
These traditional views about success and intelligence like to imply that the arts and humanities are “soft” subjects. It’s assumed they’re for students who don’t have the kind of mind to go into harder fields. But our children are coming of age in a time when we are in desperate need of a more purposeful and balanced education. If we hold on to one-sided educational values we may seriously curtail their chances for success.
For a good explanation of why this is so, you need look no further than your smartphone apps. Since the 2016 election, the practices and policies of Facebook and Twitter have come under increased scrutiny. The political echo chambers of their platforms have become an international political battleground. Fake news and viral conspiracy theories thrived during the past election and are still with us today. Political parties and international adversaries alike use these tools to warp public perception. Under the mass data collection practices of the social media giants, privacy is eroding. Kids and adults alike get addicted by design, spending hours upon hours on the platform, as the film Social Dilemma makes readily apparent.
None of these serious issues have simple answers that a single discipline of study can address. They involve politics, psychology, ethics, sociology, media communications, culture, design, and much more. Our traditional definitions of intelligence and education lose meaning in the face of such complexity. Understanding these issues requires the insights of many disciplines, both in science and the humanities.
Yet K-12 public education in the US continues to value specialization above all else, especially in STEM subjects. It’s been assumed that specialization in these subjects will keep us technologically and economically competitive. But the emerging challenges dominating our headlines today tell a different story. It’s one in which too much siloed specialized intelligence, especially in the hands of a group of lacking diverse contributors, becomes a liability instead of an asset.
In our interconnected world, this inward-facing and siloing of knowledge has become an unnecessary hindrance. It limits the capacity of our communities to make the most of these connections and their many benefits. In fact, we are seeing that the reverse is true. Interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research yields some of the most significant advances in knowledge production today. Several industries, scientific and otherwise, seek out traits often found in thinkers who can span disciplines and communities, and integrate knowledge in critical and creative ways. Grant institutions are increasing funding for interdisciplinary studies every year. In short, many signs indicate that integrative and multidisciplinary learning is the future. This makes an education balanced in the humanities and sciences more important than ever.
Yet, the myths persist. Many parents fear their child’s peers will dismiss their ideas and education later in life. They worry about their children getting jobs and making a living. So how can we change the conversation and move towards the common goal of preparing our kids to succeed in a post COVID-19 age?
Professor Robert J. Sternberg of Cornell University has an idea that could do exactly this. His “augmented theory of successful intelligence” upends our old definitions of intelligence. According to this leading researcher, “Successful intelligence is one’s ability to set and accomplish personally meaningful goals in one’s life, given one’s cultural context.” It consists of creative, analytical, practical, and wisdom-based skills. In essence, says Sternberg, “the individual needs to be creative in order to generate novel and useful ideas; analytical to ascertain that the ideas he/she has (and that others have) are good ones; practical in order to apply those ideas and convince others of their value; and wise in order to ensure that implementation of the ideas will help ensure a common good through the mediation of positive ethical principles.” * This intelligence produces revolutionary insights and purposeful change through more human-centered and holistic thinking.
When we silo our children’s education, only one of these areas gets developed. So in that sense, we may be right to course correct a child’s dreams of a life in the arts, but only if they are totally neglecting other learning opportunities in STEM disciplines. We would be equally right to redress the child who develops analytical abilities alone and neglects creativity. This is because without an intervention, both will have fewer options for success. That’s why we need a more balanced approach. Multi-disciplinary education encourages all these types of thinking. It also develops the all-important capacity to integrate them all.
To illustrate the point, let’s explore what might happen if the education of the ‘Mark Zuckerbergs’ of Silicon Valley promoted successful intelligence. As we do, we can see (in the example above) that some, but not all of Sternberg’s intelligence criteria are currently met. Indeed, Facebook is a creative and useful idea with many potential benefits. Its mass adoption is a testament to the company’s practical and analytical abilities to build the platform and attract users. But it comes at a serious cost: the common good. And the common good is achieved with thinkers who have backgrounds in philosophy and ethics, in gender and diversity, in languages and cultures, in latino or africana studies, among others.
A balanced education fills in the wisdom-based intelligence that is missing here. Being immersed in multiple disciplines that our society and our schools value on equal grounds, allows the next generation to integrate more fully creative, analytical, and practical insights. We already see it in children who study the humanities with the same rigor and seriousness we give the sciences. When we cut the arts and de-emphasize the humanities, all we are doing is passing the buck. We externalize the costs of a technological society and trap our intelligence in silos. These costs always come back to bite us. They underestimate the capacity of successfully intelligent people and undermine something we desperately need more of now: the common good.
If we neglect the integrative capacity of our children, we limit their success. But the reverse is also true. If we tip the balance back in the direction of the humanities and liberal arts, this trend can change. We can cultivate more flexible thinkers who view the world through holistic, systemic, and empathetic lenses. As adults, these kids will have more options for creating a meaningful life, no matter their career.