At the end of last week, I attended quite a few commencement events. For the most part, the thunderstorms held off, and most events were held on Healy Lawn. But it was quite hot for many of them, and I sympathized with the black-robed graduates soaking up the hot sun.
I heard many commencement speakers. Each took a different tone, but there were some common thoughts advanced by many:
• The world is increasingly interconnected.
• The world enjoys the benefits of wonderful advances in technology and biomedicine.
• The world is broken, with conflicts proliferating in many countries, producing large numbers of refugees.
• Georgetown’s Jesuit and Catholic values give to the graduates a burden and challenge to address these issues.
There were, however, some memorable thoughts unique to a single speaker, which have, at least in me, generated some reflection.
One speaker, Admiral Thad Allen, a leader in the post-Katrina and BP oil spill disasters’ operations, is a man who has faced the task of helping save and nurture millions of people whose lives were brutally disrupted by natural or man-made disasters. In identifying key personal attributes needed by a 21st century leader, he said that we need the “ability to confront complexity.”
I had not taken confronting complexity as an organizing principle previously, but it instantly had appeal to me. By “complexity” he meant, I believe, that nothing seems to be independently operating these days. Everything is connected to everything else. Solutions to a disaster displacing thousands of persons need a systems’ approach, reflecting that housing, transportation, energy, food, medical care, all need to be coordinated.
But even in non-disaster situations, we’ve learned that problems facing society are complex mixes of human behavior, science, law, markets, ethics, and literature. A great question deduced from this is “What educational experiences best prepare a person to confront complexity?” What are the skills actually needed to diagnose carefully a problem that has many tentacles and to discern how to approach a comprehensive solution? How can one determine what one does not know, and gain the skills to assemble an effective cross-functional team? How does the mission of solving the complex problem stay the focus of the team, despite the need to address diverse sub-issues?
One quickly thinks of the skills that researchers acquire when they are attempting to identify the mechanisms that drive various processes. For example, for reasons important to me at the time, I once concentrated on answering the question of why people agree to comply with the request from a stranger for a task about which they had no experience. That moved me from sociological, to psychological, to linguistic mechanisms that might jointly underlie the behavior. Certainly intense observation of any phenomenon can breed the skill of “confronting complexity.”
One wonders whether there might be an academic course organization that could give students the cognitive skills to diagnose, deconstruct, and find system solutions to complex problems. I suspect many of our courses do so as an auxiliary benefit, but I wonder if there is any merit in creating a unit explicitly focusing on dealing with complexity.
Another comment that sticks in my mind is a quote from John Gardner, the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, tackling the social and economic ills connected with the Great Society programs of the Johnson administration. President Degioia echoed Gardner — “What we have before us are some breathtaking opportunities disguised as insoluble problems.”
I love the quote.
It is a fitting companion to the observations of the complexity of problems facing our world. The quote itself has the power of refocusing our attention. Who among us has the right to label a problem as “insoluble?” Why can’t we reframe the issues? Why can’t we challenge the traditional approaches that have failed in the past? Why can’t we employ completely different solutions? Can we combine one “insoluble problem” with another to motivate a completely different approach? Why, indeed, do we accept the labeling of a problem as “insoluble?”
Breathtaking opportunities instead of insoluble problems.
“Breathtaking opportunities” was an apt phrase to deliver to a set of new graduates ready (I hope) to confront the intense complexities of the problems facing our world.