There is both hope and important lessons we can glean from the experience of the Antonine Plague that nearly ended the Roman empire 200 years ahead of schedule. Roman society, however, under Emperor Aurelius rebounded after the Antonine Plague of 165 CE, the exact nature of which remains unknown. The empire under Marcus Aurelius, according to historian Edward Gibbon was a time when “the human race was most happy and prosperous,” even though it encountered enormous and enduring human misfortunes.
There are important parallels between the Roman Empire of the second century CE and current US society as both enjoyed superpower status when it came to military might and dominance with respect to culture, economics, and politics. The success of the Roman empire was attributed to good governance that emphasized community, planning, and working together to rebuild. So, which lessons are transferable as we navigate through the present global pandemic and crisis?
As leaders and members of the higher education community, we have an important role to play by drawing from these lessons and implications, from rebuilding community outreach and partnerships, engaging in new research with an increased emphasis on fiscal and social responsibility, to providing lessons in wide-ranging broad-based planning and coordination. In this essay, I could focus on the financial implications and the decimated business model or the new modes of more effectively delivering education from online learning to stackable micro-credentials. Nor is this article about the wraparound services that are necessary for our students to succeed in college, services like advising, tutoring, access to technology, a support structure of friends and other members of the community, healthcare and counseling, and basic needs such as food and safe spaces.
Here I focus on one critical question that is relevant to the future of higher education institutions: what can you teach me that specializing in my discipline/major cannot? Or the bigger question, why should I attend a traditional college that was founded on the principles of a liberal arts education? What will I learn that is so different?
A recent article, The End of Economics, by Fareed Zakaria, reminded me of how academic specialization and the division of various academic fields by subject matter have impacted the academy, research programs, policymaking, and the workplace. My discipline, Economics, typically studies the allocation of scarce resources with prices serving as the primary signaling mechanism, and the construct of markets and economic organizations. Disciplines can also be defined by methodology or approach; for example, Economics could be defined by how it approaches decision-making, centered on models of rational optimization. However, as one might suspect, subject matter and methodology do not perfectly intersect or line up together.
As an example, for the past 30 years, Behavioral Economics has established an increasingly strong foothold in understanding the role of human behavior in economic decision-making. Leading research in the fields of neuroscience, psychology, anthropology, and sociology, among others, influence our understanding of the behavior of consumers, producers, workers and investors as economic agents and question the dominance of the rational optimizing model as the primary framework to study economic problems. Methodologically, Economics has learned a lot from the use of randomized control trials that first originated in the field of early medicine and then psychology. These connections across disciplines are easier to make if one is intentionally exposed to different approaches across the curriculum, and we purposefully spend time on reflection and making meaningful connections across the core curriculum.
And that is a good thing for all of us, especially those of us that have argued that disciplinary boundaries are human-made and they must be questioned and crossed to better understand the messy world we live in and to address the complex problems that we face that are not solvable within the domain of a single discipline. The often-maligned liberal arts core curriculum – also called the general education program when done right – offered by universities and colleges in the United States, offers the best solution to train our minds to think creatively in holistic ways that are not confined to disciplinary thinking and a single way of knowing. This curriculum is founded on the principle that there are multiple ways of knowing and developing an understanding of how human knowledge allows us to step outside of our disciplines and our familiar methodology of addressing problems to think outside our disciplinary box.
The coursework that makes up the core liberal arts curriculum develops breadth of knowledge and perspective as students explore how the study of history helps us to understand the human experience and evaluate and conduct historical research. A course in science helps us better comprehend the natural world and the processes of scientific experimentation to create scientifically literate citizens. This approach is precisely what we need if we are serious about addressing complex real-world problems that do not nicely fit into one of the human-made disciplinary confines we have created.
However, the all too typical smorgasbord approach to general education (or core curriculum) that we currently have, where students take these required courses from a long list of alternatives “to get them out of the way,” is the wrong approach. At many schools, students must take anywhere between 30 to 60 credits of core curriculum coursework. That is a full one to two years of coursework. What a shame if we treat it as something to get out of the way or those unjust requirements we impose on our students, which keeps them from learning what they came to college to learn, be it Business, Pre-Med, or Political Science. We must be more intentional in our approach as we craft a core curriculum that delivers on developing breadth in knowledge and exposes our students to how different disciplines approach the pursuit of knowledge and understanding issues in their respective fields. It is not enough to introduce our students to the different disciplinary dots we must help them to connect these dots in a coherent way.
Further, it must go beyond coursework. As we re-envision pedagogy and engagement and blur the boundaries between the academic world and the world that surrounds us, how can we more intentionally connect our students to engaging with and understanding and untangling messy complex problems in our communities? Can we develop community-based learning projects that engage students with their communities and ask them to use their multidisciplinary skills to better understand and seek creative solutions?
Perhaps the COVID-19 pandemic that we are all battling on a global scale will serve as a great reminder that we need an integrated multidisciplinary lens to create better models, predictions, and policies to understand, prevent and contain the pandemic. That the lack of clear answers and contradictory theories is how we stretch the boundaries of knowledge and the dogged pursuit of understanding the issues and finding solutions is how we acquire agency. It could be the catalyst to help us refocus on the purpose of the core curriculum and how we deliver on its promise, pushing us out of our comfortable disciplinary silos and pushing us towards the unknown and the unmastered curriculum. This will require tools that go beyond technical skills and experience.
The global economic and other consequences of this pandemic and policy responses can be best understood via the lens of philosophy (utilitarian theory), history (past plagues), geography (spatial human interaction patterns), politics (government and power structures), science (understanding scientific research methodology and protocols) and the limitation of technology (assuming it will solve all our problems) to list a few interconnected disciplines. I cannot think of a better way to prepare leaders, change-makers, and professionals of the future than grounding them in the foundational principles of the liberal arts curriculum that’s built on intentionality, seeing connections and understanding diverse disciplinary perspectives and traditions, understanding ambiguity, confronting the fact that we do not know and do not understand, and integrating that knowledge when solving complex problems or confronting messy conundrums. We must reclaim who we are, even as we adapt and lead in meeting current and future societal needs. We are more than a credentialing center, we are first and foremost a learning and a knowledge creation center, serving the greater good, that is intrinsically connected to our surrounding communities and region which makes standardization in higher education both difficult and undesirable. Reclaiming our larger diverse purpose is critical as the very future of higher education depends upon it.
Dr. Pareena G. Lawrence is a visiting fellow at the MacMillan Center at Yale University. She is the former president of Hollins University.