The best strategists think from all angles, employing what one might call an “ecological” approach: surveying the landscape; integrate technical, political, social, cultural and economic factors; and have an appreciation of timing. Many have written about the “grand strategies” of history such as Augustus’ building of the Empire in Rome, or here in the United States, the implementation of the Marshall Plan by President Truman after World War II and the reversal of the world trend by President George W Bush. The HIV / AIDS epidemic through the implementation of the Presidential Emergency Program for the Fight against AIDS (PEPFAR).
We could use this bold strategic approach in higher education today, addressing the current situation, defining the desired outcome and aligning existing (often scarce) resources to achieve that outcome. By adopting the ecological approach, a major education strategy could encompass a recognition and appreciation of interdependencies both within and among disciplines. An education that gives permission to be collaborative, where individualism is celebrated but serves as the basis for finding a common goal. An education that encourages the exploration of solutions in unexpected places.
A vivid example of how this approach would be extremely beneficial is the COVID-19 pandemic. Americans have shown their ability to develop comprehensive and creative strategies to address major security, development and health challenges, so why are we falling at work in the fight against COVID-19? We are approaching two years of the pandemic (the 1918 flu lasted 2.5 years), and the disease is still raging. Intensive care units are inundated in major areas of the United States; more than 660,000 people have died, the United States currently leads the country in per capita COVID-19 cases, and persistent health inequalities and disparities have been exposed. Almost a year after the development of COVID-19 vaccines, the United States still lags most high-income countries in adoption. What is happening here? We’ll be asking this question for many years to come, but four factors can be considered:
- First, we denied that the pandemic (and the inevitable future pandemics) requires global collaboration. We don’t plan as if “we are all in the same boat”, but rather as if each country can adopt its own good practices without any centralized governance structure. How can we think that a pathogen that crosses borders transparently will not outsmart a globe whose health strategy remains defined and limited by national borders?
- Second, we left behind our investment in K-12 public education, community colleges and public university land grant systems. Federal and state budgeting, often largely absorbed by health spending, has resulted in cuts across all levels of public education, and it shows. According to the National Association of Educational Procurement for Reading and Mathematics, in 2019, less than half of the 12 United Statese students achieved a “proficient” reading level and only 24% achieved a “proficient” math level. Without better reading skills, including critical reasoning based on primary evidence, the public cannot be expected to examine, digest, and make effective decisions when complicated information (e.g., how COVID-19 spread, how vaccines work) are involved.
- Third, we have allowed our divisions, which have undermined our confidence in government, to influence many decisions on how to deal with the pandemic. Without productive public commitment and support, large-scale strategies to deal with national and global threats are unlikely to succeed. As we have seen with COVID-19, even though the technology is available (tests, masks, vaccines), we cannot deploy them with enough consistency to overcome the viral threat, and the fundamental science essential to mitigate the lethality. of COVID-19 has become politicized.
- Finally, we have terribly underinvested in public health, in all respects. The United States spends about $ 94 billion per year on public health (about 2.5 cents of every dollar spent on health care). We spend $ 725 billion a year on national defense. The result is that national and local public health services are understaffed, lack an IT architecture to support widespread disease surveillance, and have ineffective means to mobilize populations through education or communications. experts. Public health is largely supported by taxpayer dollars, so while we may blame the public health field for the poor response to COVID-19 and disease prevention more broadly, all of us as voters and representatives of public opinion, let’s play a role.
What to do? Making more strategic decisions will require better education – on the second and third order effects of present actions on future well-being. It is not simply an education on specific facts and figures, but rather a way of thinking, to encourage an understanding of the interdependencies not only within a discipline but between disciplines. An education that encourages committed pluralism by recognizing that complex global problems cannot be solved by one nation, one idea, one ideology, but will instead require collaboration and cooperation towards common interests.
The liberal arts have these learnings as the basis of pedagogy, and often during residential college days, students live with some of the most diverse communities they will ever inhabit. It’s an opportunity to develop capacities that we currently feel are lacking, and to develop empathy and critical thinking to tackle pressing global issues, during COVID-19 and beyond.