Guest Column

Societally Connected Thinking

by Donald B. Louria, Howard F. Didsbury Jr. and Fred Ellerbusch

Our educational system is not teaching students how to think critically and is not adequately preparing them for the long-term commitment needed to solve major societal problems. It is failing both young people and our society.

We propose a change in our approach to education that could make a huge difference. Schools should instill in students, as an intrinsic part of the curriculum, what we shall call societally connected thinking, a form of critical thinking that blends interdisciplinary learning with systems thinking. This has never been a component of the educational process in most schools. Instead our schools have concentrated largely on incorporating technological advances.

Unless we imbue our students at all levels with the need to think in a societally connected way, we will continue to develop decision makers who are unable to cope with the increasing complexity of the world and a public who is not committed to participate in seeking solutions to major problems. This could lead to a societal catastrophe.

Interdisciplinary Learning
Societally connected thinking has three interrelated components:

* Mandatory interdisciplinary courses. At every educational level—from middle school to graduate school—the curriculum should include mandatory interdisciplinary courses that cover the current major problems facing society at local, state, national and international levels, as well as the critical problems we are likely to face in future years and decades. The courses must be interdisciplinary and obligatory.

* Systems (nonlinear) thinking.
Students must be taught to think about these problems in a manner that is comprehensive, integrated and holistic, using the principles of systems thinking. That is the bedrock of our proposal.

Systems thinking is a framework for identifying interrelationships and patterns, for seeing the whole rather than just the parts. It integrates learning disciplines and requires we think in terms of systems composed of circles of influence with various feedback loops and leverage points to exert change instead of the linear (straight-line) approach that characterizes most of our thinking processes. It helps us remember that while we must often reduce problems into component parts to solve them, we also must place the problems and solutions back into the context of its system.

Long Life’s Impact
The potential for extraordinary longevity will illustrate the usefulness of the systems approach.

The amazing scientific discoveries being reported with ever-increasing frequency offer the potential for literally resetting our biologic time clocks, allowing life expectancy to increase in coming decades or centuries to a span of 120 to 180 years. These advances, focused on understanding genetic and molecular determinants of aging, have led to the following linear thinking: Determine the mechanisms of aging, then develop pharmacologic agents that change the aging process, enabling people to live extraordinarily long lives.

That is a formula for potential societal disaster.

A systems approach would raise questions about the world’s population, the quality of life for very old people, the expectations for work life and personal financial support and the burdens on the health care system. Above all, a systems approach would inquire where the research on aging is going, where we want it to go and what limitations, if any, we want to impose on it.

* Commitment to problem solving.
Our educational system must conscientiously and deliberately seek to instill in students a long-term commitment to addressing major societal problems. In decades past, we taught civics with the assumption it would engender commitment to lifelong volunteerism, though it infrequently did. Some schools today require community service by students, but this too is unlikely to result in lifetime dedication to solving or ameliorating critical societal problems unless the concept of commitment is vigorously nurtured throughout their educational experience.

One problem is that many young people will be concerned that as individuals they can have no significant impact on major societal problems. To cope with those concerns, attempts at instilling commitment must be accompanied by specific involvements that are rewarding enough to persuade students they can indeed make a difference.

These changes in our education system will not cost a lot of money, but they will require a change in the way most educators think. It is really not difficult.

The future of our society, indeed whether that society has a future, may well depend on how we teach our students to think about the major problems facing their society.

Donald Louria is professor and chair emeritus of preventive medicine and community health at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, 30 Bergen St., ADMC 1605, Newark, NJ 07107. E-mail: Howard Didsbury Jr. is president of Alternative Futures Research Associates in Washington, D.C., and Fred Ellerbusch is president of Systemsthink in Warren, N.J. They acknowledge the support of the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey.