Moreelse Clio - muse of history

Educating Leaders

Posted by Barry Strauss under on March 1, 2023

How do we educate future leaders? How do we educate future citizens? In fact, how do we educate young people more generally? We teachers often think about these things.

For serious students, a college major can chart a lifetime career’s course, so it matters what you study. Nowadays it’s common to choose STEM over the Humanities, and with reason. These days, STEM is the royal road to success but that’s not the only thing in its favor.

Our economy, our security, and our physical health all depend on science and technology. Evidence suggests that we need to do better in this all-important area. Straws in the wind:

  • According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, America is facing a critical shortfall of at least six million engineers.
  • Some heavy-hitting analysts think that China is ahead of the United States in the contest for supremacy in artificial intelligence, which could threaten both our economy and our security.
  • A Pew Research Center survey suggests that, at least in the mind of the public, young Americans don’t study STEM because it’s too hard.

In short, we need college students to study STEM. But STEM is not enough because reality is not just a matter of science. I’ll get back to that shortly, but first, a word about the curriculum.

Anyone who aspires to be a leader needs to have a basic knowledge of math, science, technology, and economics. Someone going into politics must also add a basic knowledge of contemporary politics and military matters. That may seem obvious. What’s not so obvious anymore is that future leaders must also study the humanities: philosophy, literature, and above all, history.

Americans these days are in a “history is bunk” mood about the humanities, to quote Henry Ford. Too many names and dates, too few job opportunities. That’s wrong. History won’t make you rich, but it will make you think.

Historians learn how to read skeptically and critically. Look at the wry, inquisitive look on the face of Clio in the illustration, from a painting by the Dutch artist Johannes Moreelse. The ancient Greeks considered Clio to be the muse of history. The painting, I think, captures the inquisitive, probing frame of mind that allows historians to ask big questions about rise and fall of civilizations.

For the future political leader, history is the foundational study, because it is the repository of knowledge of the past, both wisdom and folly.  One of the founders of the historical profession, Thucydides, put it simply: the future is likely to resemble the past, so we need to study history. His book, The Peloponnesian War, is a classic – no, really a classic, not “classic rock” classic, but “a possession for all time.” That’s what Thucydides claimed, and he was right. If you want to understand war, then you need to read Thucydides.

True, nowadays, the academic study of history is less focused on matters of war, politics, and statecraft than it once was, but the discerning college student can still find courses on just those subjects.

Philosophy trains the mind to think clearly and rationally. In our age of ad hominem attacks, it teaches students to discuss arguments not personalities. Political philosophy introduces us to the great debates about the best regime and the most desirable way of life.

Literature unveils the subtlety and complexity of human behavior. A statesman needs a thorough knowledge of that, and great writing is a perfect source. So argues the late Charles Hill, himself a diplomat, in his Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft, and the World Order (2011). “Literature’s freedom to explore endless or exquisite details,” writes Hill, “portray the thoughts of imaginary characters, and dramatize large themes through intricate plots brings it closest to the reality of ‘how the world really works’.” He adds: “Literature lives in the realm grand strategy requires, beyond rational calculation, in acts of the imagination.” (p. 6)

“Beyond rational calculation” and “acts of the imagination” bring us to the heart of the matter. For all the importance of data, algorithms, and expert knowledge, human decisions, especially at the highest level, are a matter of values, ideals, creativity, and faith. They are also a matter of judgment and experience.

The social sciences train the mind to think rigorously. But the humanities add an inestimable fingertip feel to our mental toolkit. The French philosopher Blaise Pascal captures the difference between the two in a famous distinction. There’s a spirit of geometry, writes Pascal: measured and regular. And then there’s what he calls a spirit of finesse: subtle, intuitive, hard-to-pin-down, but often spot on.

The Nobel-Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman refers to something similar in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow (2013). As Kahneman argues, we have two ways of thinking, one fast and intuitive, the other slow and analytical. The two are complementary; when things go well, they help people to make the right decisions. Good decision-making requires both systems.

Yes to STEM in higher education, but yes to the humanities as well. Our future leaders need to study both.

Barry Strauss © 2024