The best strategists think of all the angles, employing what we might call an “ecologic” approach: surveying the landscape; integrating technical, political, social, cultural, and economic factors; and having an appreciation of timing. Many have written on “grand strategies” of history such as Augustus’ building of the Empire of Rome, or here in the U.S., President Truman’s implementation of the Marshall Plan after World War II, and President George W Bush’s turning the tide of the global HIV/AIDS epidemic through the implementation of the President’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).
We could use this bold strategic approach in higher education today, addressing the current state of affairs, defining the desired outcome, and aligning existing (often scarce) resources to achieve that outcome. Taking the ecologic approach, a grand education strategy might embrace a recognition and appreciation of interdependencies both within and across disciplines. An education that gives permission to be collaborative, where individualism is celebrated but serves as a foundation for finding a shared purpose. An education that encourages exploration of solutions in unexpected places.
One stark example of how this approach would be of enormous benefit is the COVID-19 pandemic. Americans have shown the capacity to develop comprehensive and creative strategies to tackle major challenges in security, development, and health—so why are we falling down on the job 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 flooded in substantial regions of the United States; more than 660,000 people have died, the US is currently in the top tier of countries in terms of COVID-19 cases per capita, and persistent health inequities and disparities have been laid bare. Nearly a year after COVID-19 vaccines were developed, the US still lags most of the high-income countries in adoption. What is going on here? We will be asking that question for many years to come but four factors can be considered:
- First and foremost, we have denied to ourselves that the pandemic (and future inevitable pandemics) requires global collaboration. We do not make plans as if “we are all in it together,” but rather as if every country can adopt its own best practices without any centralizing governance structure. How can we think a pathogen that crosses borders seamlessly will not outsmart a globe whose health strategy remains defined and constrained by national boundaries?
- Second, we have let our investment in K-12 public education, community college, and land grant public university systems lag behind. Federal and state budgeting, often largely consumed by health care expenses, has resulted in cutbacks at every level of public education, and it shows. According to the National Association of Educational Procurement for reading and mathematics, in 2019 less than half of U.S. 12th graders performed at a “proficient” level of reading, and only 24 percent performed at a proficient” level of mathematics. Without better reading ability including critical reasoning based on primary evidence, the public cannot be expected to review, digest, and make effective decisions where complicated information (e.g., how COVID-19 spreads, how vaccines work) is involved.
- Third, we have allowed our divisions, which have undermined our trust in government, to influence many decisions about how to confront the pandemic. Without productive public engagement and support, large-scale strategies to take on national and global threats are unlikely to succeed. As we have seen with COVID-19, even if the technology is available (testing, masks, vaccines), we cannot deploy them with enough consistency to overcome the viral threat, and basic science critical for mitigating the lethality of COVID-19 has become politicized.
- Last, we have woefully under-invested in public health, by any measure. The United States spends about $94 billion per year on public health (about 2.5 cents of every dollar spent on health care). We spent $725 billion per year on national defense. The result is that country and local public health departments are understaffed, lack an information technology architecture to support widespread disease surveillance, and have ineffective means of mobilizing populations through education or expert communications. Public health is largely supported by tax dollars, so while we may blame the public health field for lackluster response to COVID-19 and prevention of disease more broadly, all of us as voters and representatives of public opinion play a role.
What to do? Making more strategic decisions will require better education—about the second and third order effects of present actions on future wellbeing. This is not merely education about specific facts and figures but rather a way of thinking, to encourage understanding interdependencies not just within a discipline but across disciplines. An education that encourages engaged pluralism by recognizing that complex global problems cannot be solved by one nation, one idea, one ideology but rather will require collaboration and cooperation towards shared interests.
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The liberal arts have these learnings at their root of pedagogy, and often during residential college days, students live with some of the most diverse communities they will ever inhabit. This is an opportunity to grow the capacities we seem now to lack and to develop the empathy and critical thinking to tackle the pressing global problems, during COVID-19 and beyond.