San Francisco Chronicle
Sunday, June 25, 2006
By C. L. Max Nikias

America’s future lies in its imagination. At a moment in which China and India together produce many times the number of engineers and scientists that we do, politicians and journalists have asked with urgency how the United States can catch up with China and India. It is the wrong question to be asking. The United States, indeed, must respond to the challenges posed by low-cost technological services in India, China and other emerging economies—but the more relevant question is: What might American global leadership look like in this century? Global leadership is an enduring aspiration for a nation that has dramatically influenced so many other nations. Such leadership requires strategic investment in the American research enterprise. Just as important, it requires a renaissance of the arts and humanities within American education.

Sufficient federal funding for basic research is vital: Cutting-edge science and technology discoveries can lead to marketplace innovations that create vast new economic sectors, businesses, jobs and products to drive the global economy. The American-born Internet is today’s exemplar; tomorrow’s exemplar may be nano-science or quantum computing. How many technologists must the United States produce toward this end? Depending on which study you believe, China is producing anywhere from 350,000 to 600,000 engineers annually, compared to anywhere from 70,000 to 120,000 engineers in the United States (with roughly 30,000 of those being foreign-born).

But this is not simply a numbers game. We must carefully ensure that we maintain a critical mass of engineers and scientists to stay competitive—but beyond maintaining such a critical mass, the quest for leadership requires that we produce a citizenry with a far broader set of skills than technical ones. Numerous experts have noted in recent decades a cultural divide separating the arts and sciences. Many also have noted an educational tilt toward logic-and-science-based “left-brain” functions that have benefited Americans economically—while creative, emotional “right-brain” functions have suffered benign neglect.

Business writer Daniel H. Pink contends in his book, A Whole New Mind (Riverhead Books, 2005) that, as automation and low-cost Asian technological labor whittle away at America’s technological lead, many left-brain workers in this country face career extinction; and that future leaders in traditionally left-brain realms will need to master right-brain creativity, if they are to thrive. This is a credible assessment—and it is good news, too. Even in relatively left-brain-driven decades, Americans have innovated while others have imitated.

Our creative edge can be honed, even as other edges grow blunt. While most of China’s new engineers must focus on developing and servicing China’s vast infrastructural needs, American infrastructure is already so well-developed that lower-level technicians can service it. This reduces the need for the United States to produce a matching number of engineers, and also allows the bulk of American-based engineers and scientists to dedicate themselves to technologies that can drive our economic future.

But a revaluing of the arts and humanities is essential to this process. Numerous lofty reasons exist to re-value the right-brain realms: to ignore the arts and humanities is to commit cultural suicide. The arts help us discern what it is to be fully human, and to live in the society of other humans. They ask us to determine how to comport ourselves individually and as communities—here and now, in conversation with our forebears, and in anticipation of our posterity. There are practical reasons too: The arts help us produce better engineers, better scientists, better physicians and better entrepreneurs. Art is the ability to impose a meaningful pattern on experience and existence, the English mathematician Alfred North Whitehead noted. An artless technologist, one who attempts to innovate without this ability, may produce at best a sterile work. At worst, his work may be dangerous.

The University of Southern California moved in the past decade to give special recognition to “renaissance scholars,” students who demonstrate mastery of integrated learning. And the university launched an arts and humanities initiative last fall—with film festivals, humanities lectures, exhibitions and performances, preceded or followed by exploratory discussions—to challenge students from every discipline, at the core of their being. In a high-tech, consumer society, what does success mean? What does abundance mean? Will a new technology offer a boon to the marketplace or a curse to the human condition? The right brain is crucial for meaningful answers.

Science and technology are means toward an end. But art is our true end as fully mature human beings living in society. This has the additional benefit of producing better science and more beneficial technology. That, then, is true global leadership. And it begins with imagination.