In Defense of the Department of Education, Diplomacy and . . . Defense

April 13, 2012

Two unrelated articles in yesterday’s New York Times – one about the ostensible decline of influence in American geopolitics, and the other about the ostensible rise of autism in American schoolchildren – have led me to consider a radical proposal:

Let’s merge the Departments of Education, State and Defense.

Georgetown professor of foreign policy Charles Kupchan indirectly argued for such blasphemy when he noted the ways in which the landscape of modern diplomacy is shifting uneasily beneath our once-sturdy Western feet. Pointing to the nascent revolutions in the Middle East, the success of state capitalism in China and Russia, and the growth of left-wing populism in India and Brazil, Kupchan illustrates the ways in which “rising nations are fashioning their own versions of modernity and pushing back against the West’s ideological ambitions. As this century unfolds,” he argues, “multiple power centers, and the competing models they represent, will vie on a more level playing field. Effective global governance will require forging common ground amid an equalizing distribution of power and rising ideological diversity.”

In foreign policy circles, Kupchan’s observation is not a new one. Just a year ago, two members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff anonymously released a Pentagon report (published under the nom de plume of “Mr. Y.”) in which they questioned America’s ongoing willingness to overvalue its military might, and undervalue its young people.  “By investing energy, talent, and dollars now in the education and training of young Americans,” they argued, “we are truly investing in our ability to successfully compete in, and influence, the strategic environment of the future.” In a subsequent article for Foreign Policy, Center for American Progress scholar John Norris sang a similar tune: “The key to sustaining our competitive edge, at home or on the world stage,” he wrote, “is credibility – and credibility . . . requires engagement, strength, and reliability – imaginatively applied through the national tools of development, diplomacy, and defense.

Meanwhile, in the same section of the paper, journalist Amy Harmon reported that one in 88 American children are now diagnosed with some form of autism. While not everyone agrees about the root cause for the spike in numbers, Thomas Frazier, director of research at the Cleveland Clinic Center for Autism, thinks it’s an accurate reflection of modern society. “Our world is such a social world,” he said. “I don’t care if you have a 150 I.Q., if you have a social problem, that’s a real problem. You’re going to have problems getting along with your boss, with your spouse, with friends.”

Drawing a link between these two articles may feel like a stretch until you consider that the central problem in both stems from the same troubling source: our systemic inability to make deep and lasting sense of the perspective of others. In fact, there’s a growing theory in the scientific community that autism is the result of an early developmental failure of mirror neurons – the cells in the brain most responsible for allowing us to imagine (and empathize with) the thoughts and feelings of others. This theory may help explain why the greater the impairment in an individual on the autism spectrum, the greater the likelihood that individual will fixate on objects, not people. And it may help explain why some of the most promising new treatments involve little more than non-autistic adults imitating the behavior of autistic children. As UCLA neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni explains, “When the therapist imitates his patients, he may activate their mirror neurons, which in turn may help the patients to see their therapist, literally.”

What both articles underscore is how badly we need to invest in our collective capacity to see the world, and each other, more clearly. Kupchan’s characterizations about the changing landscape of geopolitics echo Dwight Eisenhower’s warning of more than 50 years ago, in his final formal act as commander-in-chief, when the five-star general suggested that the most promising path to peace rests in “learn[ing] how to compose differences, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose.” And Harmon’s report on the rise of autism speaks to a larger deficit in our society – a deficit we have partly fueled by putting the knowledge cart before the emotional horse for so long. Indeed, whereas the 20th century cast the quest for global harmony as a black and white battle between neatly categorized competitors, the 21st century playing field is shrouded in overlapping shades of gray. To negotiate such a surface effectively, we need citizens endowed with a different set of habits and skills – ones more aligned with what Tom Friedman famously called the end of the “command and control” system of organization, and the beginning of the “connect and collaborate” approach.

For these reasons, the future fates of these three departments – Defense, Education and State – are more inextricably linked than ever before. America’s approach to foreign and domestic policy cannot be separated any longer. “Smart power” abroad will never be wielded without “smart growth” at home. And when it comes to contemporary notions of diplomacy and national defense, there is no American institution more essential to the unique modern cause than our public schools, and no skill-set more valuable than the ability to see – and be seen – without firing a single bullet.

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Sam Chaltain

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Sam Chaltain

Sam Chaltain is a DC-based writer and education activist. He works with schools, school districts, and public and private sector companies to help them create healthy, high-functioning learning environments.  Earlier in his career he taught high school English and History in the NYC public...