One of the things I fear we are losing today, as a society, is the capacity of people to listen.
More and more people seem to live in an echo chamber in which they get their news and information only from sources that reflect their own view of the world. Narrowcasting has replaced broadcasting, and collectively, we are the worse off for it.
I believe that universities, and especially the liberal arts, offer a powerful antidote to this ill. It is by studying great ideas, important texts, culture, and history that we teach our students to be critical consumers of ideas. While our students need to study science, technology, engineering, and math, our universities have a much larger role to play than only preparing students for the workforce. Historically, colleges and universities have been places that prepare students to play important roles as active citizens in our democracy, by helping students develop the reasoning skills that will allow them to participate effectively in public debates about the great issues of our time. We should not lose sight of that fact.
The most intractable problems in our collective life can be understood and addressed only with the knowledge and insights gained from study of the liberal arts. Around the world, disputes between religious fundamentalists and modernizers have profound implications for politics and society. The debates over climate change and the federal deficit have at least as much to do with our understanding of what one generation owes to another as they do to the science of greenhouse gases, or to modern economic analysis. And from reproductive rights to cloning, deciding how we react to new developments in the life sciences is essentially a question of values. How do we think about fairness as we seek to balance the rights of a mother with those of her unborn child? And how do we approach issues of pricing, accessibility, and priorities in medicine?
None of these issues represents a problem that can ever be solved once and for all. All of them are ongoing challenges. In confronting them, whether we are conscious of it or not, we will always need to come back to the liberal arts.
Lawrence Bacow is president of Tufts University. He was an ACE Fellows Program Mentor in 2000–01, 2006–07, and 2008–09.