On Friday, March 28th, the USC Sidney Harman Academy for Polymathic Study was privileged to welcome students for a lunch and a “Discussion of Current Security Challenges” with special guests General David H. Petraeus and Congresswoman Jane Harman. The Academy was particularly privileged to welcome General Petraeus to this lunch as one of the featured events in his bi-annual faculty visit to USC, as he was a friend of Academy founder and namesake Sidney Harman. General Petraeus embodies many qualities of a polymath having pursued the medical track as an undergraduate student at West Point, holding a PhD in International Relations, and having held a wider variety of jobs in the United States Army and government.
We were also honored to welcome Congresswoman Jane Harman, wife of the late Sidney Harman and polymath in her own right. Prior to participating in the lively lunch conversation, Congresswoman Harman also met with several female students from the Academy to talk about their career goals, how the Academy shaped their lives, and serve as a mentor to these promising young women. Harman was able to see how her husband’s vision has shaped and enhanced the undergraduate experiences of USC students from her personal conversation with these ladies and her participation in the lunch discussion.
The lunch conversation ranged from issues of national security and the current actions of the NSA to promoting the positive cultural image of America abroad to questions of cyber-security and labor displacement to the role of the arts/culture as a diplomatic tool. Students volunteered questions on this wide range of topics, and General Petraeus and Congresswoman Harman maintained a thoughtful dialogue in response to each query.
Harman and Petraeus both spoke to the need to improve the narrative of the United States around the world. Harman stressed that good stories are not told often enough, even though they exist. They both stressed how culture is an extremely important aspect of diplomacy that is often under-rated or overlooked. Both Harman and Petraeus agree that heightened sharing and awareness of arts and culture would give the United States a unique opportunity to improve our image around the world if it were used as a diplomatic tool.
Finally, Petraeus pointed to the displacement of the workforce as a result of the increasing mechanization of labor as one of the greatest challenges our country will face going forward. The General stressed the power of rational optimism – understanding our problems and a need to solve them, but also believing that we will always find a solution. Congresswoman Harman added to this that Washington DC will be the number one security threat to the United States if the partisanship problem that currently stalls legislation and progress is not resolved.
Both guests concluded with a reflection on the importance of the arts as a tool for bringing people and nations together. They felt that the arts are deeply integrated into all forms of inquiry and that one way to address many problems we face as a nation is to return to the power of culture and the arts as a diplomacy tool.
The luncheon ended with some closing remarks from Faculty Director Tara McPherson, as she thanked General Petraeus and Congresswoman Harman for sharing their time and knowledge with this group of polymathic students. The Academy was privileged to welcome these guests to interact with our students and looks forward to welcoming them back when they are next at USC.