‘The Humanities are in Crisis’: Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad Talks Creativity,...

EdSurge Podcast

‘The Humanities are in Crisis’: Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad Talks Creativity, Diversity and the Arts

By Jen Curtis and Mary Jo Madda (Columnist)     Jun 26, 2017

‘The Humanities are in Crisis’: Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad Talks Creativity, Diversity and the Arts

If he weren’t making podcasts, Jad Abumrad believes he would be teaching high school. The host and creator of the popular series Radiolab has obviously found another calling, but that didn’t stop him from giving educators a little advice on how to engage students. It boils down to this: There’s a benefit to being lost, and that should be shared.

“If I were a kid right now,” Abumrad told thousands of educators during his keynote at ISTE’s annual conference in San Antonio, TX this week, “I’d really want someone to help me figure out: How do I hold my nerve when everything seems so formless and uncertain? ....I wish someone had taught me there’s a usefulness to feeling bad.”

For most of us, that’s a hard feeling to accept—and an increasingly prevalent one. As Abumrad pointed out, the path towards success has become thornier, with recent college graduates holding four or five jobs in their twenties, with debt to boot. So how do you prepare people for a decade—or perhaps a lifetime—of uncertainty?

“I have no idea,” Abumrad admitted. “But I think it has something to do with commitment. Not to career or job but the larger questions: What does it mean to be a good citizen? What does it mean to be an adult?”

These are the types of questions he explores through Radiolab. On the show, Abumrad and co-host Robert Krulwich cover everything from how justice should be divvied out, to what end-of-life care could look like. But in keeping with Abumrad’s keynote theme, the show asks more questions than it gives answers. It’s right there in the structure of each episode: “You are lost, you have a brief moment of understanding, you get more lost and it just keeps getting bigger and bigger. And that mirrors life.”

We got a chance to sit down with Jad and hash out some of these ideas before he went on stage. Here are his thoughts on the creative process, the need to blend science with humanities, and how to cultivate that “tolerance for ambiguity” he believes holds the key to educating today’s students.

Check out this EdSurge On Air podcast extra, or scroll straight to the Q&A below.

EdSurge: When I found out you were giving the keynote, besides being insanely excited, I was curious: Why ISTE, why education? Do you see your role as that of an educator?

Abumrad: It’s funny because I feel very spiritually connected to teachers. I do feel like what we’re doing [as podcasters] is teaching in a way. I never want it to feel like I’m try to give a “lesson” but there are numerous points in any story when you want to do that thing that great teachers do effortlessly, which is seduce someone along with trying to explain something, honoring the nuance of a thought without losing something. So I do feel in an adjacent space to teaching.

It makes me wonder about your own K-12 experience. You are Lebanese American, growing up as one of the few minorities in a predominately white, Christian community. Did you have teachers who made an impact, or did you feel more isolated?

I think I had one or two teachers. I can’t even remember the others at this point. We’ve sort of woken up as a teacher community to the fact there’s a multiplicity of narratives. It wasn’t really that way then. I’ve had numerous times looking back 30 years later and saying “Wait, that’s not at all how I learned that.” So there’s a lot of that in my upbringing.

But I had a couple teachers...a writing teacher, who asked me to really critically engage: “What do you think of this? Make an argument.” I feel like I’m doing that now every single day, taking a huge piece of information and wrestling with it. I know it’s hard for teachers to do that because it’s formless, and there’s not a lot of ways to measure success, but it’s the one thing I feel was successful for me.

Podcasts have that potential to reach people even in pockets where they wouldn’t be getting that information. But there are a lot of stereotypes about who listens to podcasts that are at least in part grounded in truth: mostly well-educated, affluent. Is that something you think about and if so, how to make it the audience more expansive?

That’s something we think about a lot. Radio used to be this thing where you could be in your car and encounter some story you didn’t expect. There was serendipity built in. That’s been built out of the technology because now I need to choose the podcast, and likely I’m choosing it because someone I know and I have a lot in common with tells me I’ll like it. The word of mouth is self-enforcing. You can feel like you’re in a bubble a lot of the time: racially, socially-economically, politically.

Something we’ve been talking about is [not just] getting more diverse in our reporters and in our staff, but also trying to figure out ways to follow stories into the world and create actual brick-and-mortar conversations in different parts of the country. Because we’re doing a lot of stuff that’s pretty controversial and I want to see how those conversations play out in the world.

When it comes to creating these stories—going from an idea and question to the end of the process—there are a lot of steps. In terms of learning how to be a creative person, what are the skills you need and are these skills that can be taught?

There’s something to do with the balance between being super skeptical and super open to wonder. Then increasingly, I feel there’s the part [on Radiolab] where we’re trying to hold multiple truths. [On the show] there’s this person having a true experience with the information, and simultaneously they’re at odds with another person’s truth and we’re trying to grapple with multiple realities.

I don’t know how you learn this but it’s helped me to have a lot of science training, to know how to think critically about what’s the truth. What you learn in science is you can’t actually prove anything is true. But I was also a humanities guy. I took a lot of music, writing, poetry workshops. They’re as precise as science but it’s trying to gear you to find wonder and meaning. That is an important thing that someone should learn. But at same time you need to have a tolerance for ambiguity. Because that’s the answer to a lot of questions: Maybe this, maybe that. You have to have a tolerance for holding many ideas at once.

Is there still a place for the liberal arts in schools?

It feels like the humanities are in crisis right now. As much as we talk about a lack of science literacy in our country, which is real, I feel like STEM has deep footholds in education right now. The importance of that has been embraced but the importance of the humanities has been lost in a lot of places.

If [Radiolab] is doing science journalism, it’s science for poets, right? That sense of well-roundedness, to read 10 different things and critically think about the connections between them, that for me made all the difference. So it makes me a little sad to see classic liberal arts education withering.

Do you get that fix in the arts somewhere else? Podcasts? Reading? Museums?

Mostly what I do is watch movies. I read a lot. In the last year I started reading fiction again. When you read Abraham Lincoln’s biographies, he’d go to the theater in the middle of the Civil War. Fifty-thousand would die on his watch but he knew he had to go to the theater to have any kind of ability to process. I try in my own small way to be like Abraham Lincoln.

Would you like to give our listeners a book or film recommendation that could be potentially mind-opening for them?

One I just saw that was great was directed by Denis Villeneuve. It’s called “Incendies.” It’s about the Lebanese Civil War. It’s got the craziest twist in it. You’re watching and you’re just like “What?” and then three seconds later you’re like “OH!” and then five seconds later you’re like “Oooooh” and then you’ve got to lie down.

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