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A new book explores our global challenges in all of their complexity

Elisabeth Paté-Cornell and two other scholars collect more than 25 short essays from leaders in their fields to examine a range of issues from different perspectives.

"Reason must prevail if we’re going to get anywhere. But reason implies that people talk to, not past each other." | Image by Stocksy/Chelsea Victoria


In the political arena, pressing problems are all too often presented in simplistic and partisan terms. But issues like international security or the need for educational equity must be resolved by reasoned discourse rather than partisan gamesmanship, writes Stanford Management Science and Engineering Professor Elisabeth Paté-Cornell in a new book of essays, Perspectives on Complex Global Challenges.

With co-editors, Stevens Institute of Technology professor William Rouse and former MIT President Charles Vest, who died midway through the project, Paté-Cornell secured more than 25 essays from thought leaders wrestling with the nation’s greatest quandaries, including seven Stanford faculty members. “Our objective was to present these problems in their full complexity, examining them from different perspectives, emphasizing rationality above all else,” says Paté-Cornell.

Rouse says the book was conceived when Paté-Cornell and he were discussing the 2012 presidential election. Both had watched party strategists on the television news networks explaining issues such as climate change and getting things “utterly wrong,” he says. “Elisabeth and I were deeply concerned about uninformed pundits trying to sway people to one point of view or another. So frustration really drove this project. We contacted Chuck [Vest], and he was a tremendous help in recruiting contributors.”

While the book can serve as a useful reference for the next Commander-in-Chief, Paté-Cornell observes, its ultimate value is predicated on the resolution of another problem: polarization of both the electorate and government representatives. “Virtually all the contributors expressed deep concern about the present election cycle and the extreme rhetoric that has been expressed in some quarters,” she says. “The next president needs to know all sides of each issue, and that’s what we tried to present here. Reason must prevail if we’re going to get anywhere. But reason implies that people talk to, not past each other.”

One example, she says, is in the very different, but both highly principled, views on education held by Stanford’s Linda Darling-Hammond and former Intel CEO and Chairman Craig Barrett (below).

The book is comprised of five sections – Education, Energy, Health Care, Security and Resilience – each including about five short essays from prominent writers. Here are excerpts from some of the writers’ observations:

Former Tufts University president Lawrence Bacow on rising college costs

“We actually know how to make higher education less expensive,” writes Bacow. “It is not that hard. All it requires is larger classes, less student-faculty contact, less hands-on learning, a simplified curriculum, fewer student services, simpler facilities, and less support for athletics and other co-curricular activities.” Such approaches are not acceptable to most people, of course, so Bacow suggests alternative technological and policy remedies, including the expansion of MOOCs (massive open online courses) and the reduction of institutional competition through extensive collaborative programs.

Former Intel CEO Craig Barrett on U.S. K-12 educational reform

Barrett observes that multiple attempts to reform K-12 education in the U.S. have failed. “What was once a leading system in the world is now mediocre by international standards, with U.S. children ranked in the lower half of the industrialized world in math and science and only about average in language arts (English),” Barrett writes. As remedies, Barrett advocates for greater competition among schools by encouraging charter schools and increased choice for parents. He also recommends basing curricula on internationally benchmarked exams, encouraging schools of education to focus on teaching content mastery over pedagogical technique, and taking an “intelligent” approach to technology, which doesn’t substitute computers and the internet for competent teaching.

Stanford Professor of Education Linda Darling-Hammond on the U.S. educational system

Darling-Hammond concurs with Barrett that the U.S. educational system faces profound challenges, but differs with him on both causes and cures. She notes that a profound “opportunity gap” exists between children from upper- and lower-income families, and suggests remedies that include centralized funding of schools, performance-based teacher licensing, enhanced teacher evaluation methodologies, and increased educational support and higher salaries for teachers. “Our challenge is to move beyond pilot projects and fleeting innovations to scale up the professional building blocks that will create a strong teaching force in every school,” she writes. “With that solid foundation, we can provide our children the education they deserve and the learning system that a leading nation requires.”

Elizabeth McGlynn, director of Kaiser Permanente’s Center for Effectiveness and Safety Research, on big data in health care

While big data is driving efficiencies in health care delivery it also is raising concerns about compromised privacy. McGlynn urges health care leaders to understand big data, “get involved in its methods … and seek a balance between healthy skepticism and embracing innovation.” Big data, concludes McGlynn, is here to stay, and “will encounter both successes and failures along the way. … One future path is where big data and little data (human-entered information such as medical documentation and surveys) interact – with big data pointing to smoking guns and little data testing or monitoring changes that might be made in response to those insights.”

William Perry, a former Secretary of Defense and Director of the Preventive Defense Project at Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation, on military education

Enhanced incentives, training options, and educational opportunities offered to noncommissioned officers (NCOs) in recent decades have lifted the U.S. Armed Forces from the deep doldrums of the 1960s and 1970s, Perry observes. “After the Vietnam War, the U.S. military was held in low esteem by the American public and had exceptionally poor morale and discipline,” he writes, adding that “superior training programs not only gave us better-qualified NCOs, but also gave us a major advantage in decision making in a real combat situation.” While Perry acknowledges such extensive training is costly, he emphasizes its necessity, particularly in light of the impacts of advanced technology on the global military arena. “It is clear that in today’s high-tech world, the most effective military will depend on technology, not just for its weapon systems, but for the training of its personnel who have to operate these technically sophisticated systems,” he writes.

MIT Sloan School of Management economist Richard Schmalensee on the U.S. electric grid

Schmalensee observes that the absence of a coherent national electricity policy creates challenges for local and regional power producers, and argues that organization, production, distribution, and cybersecurity must all be improved. “Changes in power system design and operation and in federal transmission siting policy will be necessary to efficiently accommodate increased generation from large-scale variable energy resources (VREs), particularly wind and solar generators,” Schmalensee writes. “Advanced metering infrastructure [presents] the opportunity for the electric power system as a whole to become ‘smart.’” Schmalensee notes that electric grid security currently is managed by multiple state and municipal utility commissions. This, he writes, is dangerous. “It is important that a single federal agency be given responsibility for cybersecurity throughout the U.S. grid, along with the necessary regulatory authority.”

Former Secretary of State and Hoover Institution Distinguished Fellow George Shultz on nuclear proliferation

“When I first saw the picture of Hiroshima [I] was appalled,” writes Shultz, who had fought as a Marine in the Pacific during World War II. Even though he acknowledges that dropping the atomic bomb had saved American lives, Shultz expresses a passionate commitment to full nuclear disarmament. “I sat beside [Ronald Reagan] in Geneva in 1985 when he and General Secretary Gorbachev agreed that a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought, and in Reykjavik in 1986 when they agreed on the objective of eliminating nuclear weapons,” he writes, adding, “I am deeply convinced that Ronald Reagan was right and that we must persevere in seeking the end of nuclear weapons.”

Other than the academic and professional standing of the contributors, the book’s most salient quality is the disparity of the opinions that are presented. This was deliberate, says Paté-Cornell.

“As editors, we weren’t partisan,” she says, nor did they try to encourage writers to move in one direction or another. “We weren’t trying to write a manifesto or blueprint. We wanted to showcase different perspectives – but perspectives from highly accomplished and formidably intelligent people who present their conclusions logically. Because no matter how we deal with these challenges, it’s clear that civil exchanges of rational views will be necessary for any successful resolution.”