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  • Writer's pictureChristine Henseler

A Balanced Education for 21st Century Success

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 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 the 21st century. If we hold on to these outmoded educational values we may seriously curtail their chances for success. 

For a good explanation of why this is so, you need not look 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 election. Political parties and international adversaries alike used 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. 

None of these serious issues have simple answers that a single discipline of study can address. They involve politics, psychology, sociology, media communications, culture, 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 already dominating our headlines tell a different story. It’s one in which too much siloed specialized intelligence becomes a liability instead of an asset. 

With a narrow focus on a single discipline, our society undoubtedly gathers very deep and valuable knowledge. But this depth comes at the price of scope. Often bogged down in jargon, many of the most valuable insights they offer remain unused or unusable. Even experts struggle to communicate this knowledge in a practical way. This presents a challenge in an era of complex problems needing practical solutions. If we or our children are to create a future we all want, expert insights must reach across disciplines. Likewise, the solutions they find must have practical applications across diverse cultures.

In our interconnected world, this siloing of knowledge has become an unnecessary hindrance. It limits the capacity of our leaders 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 interdisciplinary thinkers. Grant institutions increase funding for interdisciplinary studies every year. In short, many signs indicate that interdisciplinarity 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?

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 intelligence 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. This intelligence produces revolutionary insights and generative technologies. We associate successful intelligence with geniuses and leaders of industry. One might say that Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, or Martin Luther King, Jr. were successfully intelligent.

When we silo our children's education only one of these areas get 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 practicality. We would be equally right to redress the child who develops analytical ability 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. It’s 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. 

A multidisciplinary education fills in the wisdom-based intelligence that is missing here. Being immersed in multiple disciplines, children learn to integrate 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 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 situation.

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