In December, Shanghai schools gained international attention by outscoring other countries on standardized tests, but this is not the kind of challenge that it first seems.
Ironically, educators in Shanghai are acutely aware of the deficiencies of the educational model that has led to their high international ranking. Students are trained to follow orders and not question underlying assumptions. As a result, these educators value the role of the arts and humanities in U.S. education as precisely the element that is sorely lacking in their system.
Today, as a society, we're facing a double challenge. Even though we live in what has widely been called a knowledge economy, many Americans seem to have lost their confidence that knowledge matters. As a result, we have to argue again that science and the so-called STEM professions — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — are crucial to the economy and the future of the country. At the same time, cultural knowledge is equally crucial but has slipped off the radar.
We've been here before. In 1957, the sudden success of Sputnik galvanized the United States to invest in science and technology, and mobilized students to pursue these fields in their education. The space program, personal computers and the Internet followed, transforming the economy so that information and knowledge has become the basis of growth.
By now, arguments for STEM professions have entered the public sphere as grounds for reinvigorating higher education. This argument is far from winning the day, and deserves strong nonpartisan support from all of society. These fields are crucial for economic development and innovation so that the United States can compete effectively in a world now filled with strong, emerging economies in Asia and Latin America.
Yet despite this unfinished debate, cultural fields are equally vital to success in a globalized economy but have disappeared from public discussion. As the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11 approaches, this could be a time to pause and consider why.
When Sept. 11 violently demonstrated that the United States could no longer count on its oceans for protective security, it should have been a wakeup call. Just as Sputnik triggered an intense commitment to science and technology half a century ago, Sept. 11 demands an equal commitment to cultural fields today. A military response is unavoidably a short-term solution, but generals in the field are leading the argument that this is a conflict that cannot be won by military force alone. The Arab Spring demonstrates more powerfully than any bomb that cultural transformation is what is at stake in what first appeared as violent threats.
Although science, engineering and business appear to be universal values, their implementation always takes place in specific cultural contexts. When an engineer from the University of California at Berkeley develops a low-cost water purification system for rural India, he learns that it must be redesigned to fit with local social needs. While AIDS prevention is vitally important in Africa, it can only be successful if social values are included and local initiatives embrace new policies. When American business executives try to negotiate a deal in Japan, they belatedly learn that what they consider straight talk is seen as unspeakably rude and ruins the deal. The examples are endless.
Success in a globalized knowledge economy demands expertise in both scientific and cultural fields. Yet those areas of higher education that specialize in cultural contexts — journalism, social sciences, and most importantly the arts and humanities — are precisely those that have been jettisoned in a rush to emphasize economic development.
Fortunately, there are a few indications that misleading assumptions are being questioned. "Academically Adrift," a study of undergraduate education led by Richard Arum that came out earlier this year, makes an eloquent argument that humanities courses are precisely those that train people best for leadership roles in a rapidly changing society. The logic is clear: Memorizing material for a test can lead to little long-term learning, but writing an essay trains students to analyze problems and develop a methodology that leads to a solution. These skills are valuable not only for the research and new knowledge on which our economy is now based, but for new initiatives in all fields, from middle management and entrepreneurial innovation to artistic invention and solving intractable social problems.
Cultural fields now need to be reconceived as crucial to participation in a world society. New opportunities and risks are emerging in the world economy every day, and only with an effective grip on cultural terrains can we wrestle with rapidly changing historical conditions and succeed.
Scott Nygren chairs the faculty senate at the University of Florida.