Letters to the Editor: Commentary: Binary thinking is a danger to education

As a college president in one of the most innovative tech and entertainment centers in the world, I am concerned that we are in an age of unreason, or unreasonable thought when it comes to the importance of a liberal and performing arts education. Specifically, I worry many of us think of the world as a binary system: right or wrong, black or white, with us or against us.

This life view is reflected in our polarized society and government and, sadly, is afflicting our educational system. Let’s take the case of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. Given that we are living in a technologically advanced world economy, the study of STEM is essential. But it should not preclude the study of the arts, humanities and social sciences, which are the bedrock of a civilized, educated society.

One of the fundamental tenets of the debating societies during my academic career was to argue the “gray” areas of the human condition and the physical world. There were seldom right or wrong answers. A position on a humanity issue often varied depending on one’s religious beliefs and ethnic origin, and topics related to the physical world such as light, which behaves as both a particle and as a wave, couldn’t be described on a binary level either.

Unfortunately, our political arena currently accentuates a divisive, either/or view of the world. But this age of binary thinking is not new. Here are two examples in our last two presidencies:

President Obama was one-half white and one-half black, but he was referred to in the media as “black”; and President G.W. Bush stated after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”

This one-sided approach is starting to make its way to academics as well. The central debate in both secondary and higher education is about technology versus the liberal and creative arts. Some commentators are presenting it as a binary choice: the technology path will revolutionize education; the arts path is discredited, often on the idea that it adds no economic value to our gross domestic product. The choice presented is either total disruption or not. There is little commentary about a middle path or the danger of binary thinking.

The city of Burbank, where my institution is located, is going through a budget crisis like many other cities in the country and has severely cut “non-STEM” education in the middle and high school systems, yet the city is surrounded by creative arts industries in entertainment, media and fashion. Fortunately, nonprofits like the Burbank Arts for All Foundation, along with philanthropic individuals, have stepped in to support a wide variety of dance, theater, music, fine art and media arts activities in our public education system. Their fundamental belief is that the arts are transformative, the secret sauce of an educated, thriving society. It is a great example of a public-private partnership providing a middle path.

I believe we need to cultivate an age of reason, of reasonable thought and action. The future of college should not be a binary choice but a hybrid of both the new digital and the traditional time-tested worlds. We are excited that digital technology is already having a positive impact on our creative academic majors, such as architecture and filmmaking. But we also have to nurture critical thinking, design thinking and storytelling in these majors. Otherwise, who will sustain the exciting and creative strengths of our culture? Without arts education, who will grasp the passion of Shakespeare’s opening scene in “Twelfth Night,” or appreciate the beauty of the Sibelius Violin Concerto?

David Steele-Figueredo is president of Woodbury University in Burbank.