Publication Date

June 21, 2013

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences released its report on the humanities last Wednesday night at a highly visible event in the US Capitol Visitor Center. The Heart of the Matteris intended to do for the humanities and social sciences what the National Academy of Sciences’Rising above the Gathering Storm did for the disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). To help promote the release and to start “a national conversation on the importance of the Humanities and Social sciences,” policymakers and cultural icons—including columnist David Brooks, Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), American Council of Learned Societies President Pauline Yu, actor John Lithgow, and Ambassador Karl Eikenberry—offered their takes on the importance of these studies and the significance of the report.

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences report, The Heart of the Matter

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences report, The Heart of the MatterEarly in the evening, Richard H. Brodhead, co-chair of the American Academy’s Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences, uttered the word “bipartisan” in describing the report, and at least one audience member offered spontaneous applause. Brodhead paused in his prepared remarks and agreed that we should have a round of applause for bipartisanship; the audience complied enthusiastically. The report we were there to celebrate emphasizes its own bipartisan nature, as did several of the speakers. The senators had, they later reminded us, started the day with a meeting on this report, but then went back to their contentious discussions of immigration reform. They seemed to be almost begging the humanities to save them from their caucuses’ own worst inclinations.

The Founding Fathers, Senator Warner stated, would probably not be welcome in either caucus today—too willing to compromise, too willing to let general principles and notions of the common good guide their legislation and conduct. The humanities tells us who we are, what it means to be an American, claims a short film by Ken Burns and George Lucas prepared for this event, and where to find common ground despite our differences.

Still, several speakers, after emphasizing the common national interest we share in promoting the humanities and social sciences, took the opportunity to draw lines and distinctions when it was their turn at the podium. Alexander cautioned against the supposition that government would be the sole or even the driving force behind bringing the report’s recommendations to pass—no “Great Society” here. Warner took the opportunity to tell the audience that government programs spend over seven times more on those over 65 than they do on those under 18, and he asked us to consider that ratio. And David Brooks shared his view that the humanities “committed suicide” when it started favoring worldly engagement over internal personal and moral development, and when it got involved in the “race, class, and gender business.”

These asides were a reminder that the report itself takes some definitive stands on controversial issues. The report takes issue with “lawmakers at the state and federal levels” who “have questioned peer-reviewed, curiosity driven basic research; criticized disciplines as diverse as anthropology and political science; and threatened to exclude them from funding through the National Science Foundation.” It doesn’t name names, but anyone watching these issues will recognize recent actions and statements of Florida Governor Rick Scott, Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, and Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, among others.

On another controversial topic, open online instruction, the report states: “As online instruction becomes a free-standing teaching mode of its own, the social sciences and humanities should embrace the opportunity to reach new audiences—audiences who in many cases do not have access to campus-based education or official enrolled-student status.” On the phenomenon of open online courses, the report is optimistic about how they “demonstrate the appetite for humanistic learning … and they show that this hunger for contact with the thought and expression of others across time does not end with student years, but rather is a lifelong passion.”

Even as disagreements about the Common Core Standards for reading and math heat up, the report gives a full-throated endorsement of the standards and “commends the Common Core State Standards Initiative for its inclusion of history and civics in the basic literacy curriculum.” Further, “State departments of education would perform a great service to the nation by following the Common Core initiative and revising their civics standards to provide reasonable and enforceable guidelines for k-12 teachers, including baseline competencies in history, government, and ethics.”

Reports like this can often strive to be noncontroversial and noncommittal, and it has already been noted that this report does not ask for a specific amount of federal funding (unlike the National Academy of Sciences’ report on STEM). But in several places, like the ones noted above, the commission that authored this report opted to take clear stands on hot-button topics. And since the American Academy will soon take this report “on the road” through a series of local meetings, these debates are likely to be part of the conversation and will be likely to reach a larger audience.

I was reminded, however, during the reception following the speeches, that the lines occasionally drawn by the speakers and in the report itself shouldn’t overshadow the larger purpose of the commission’s work and the importance of the fact that a wide-ranging group of people came together to make the case for the humanities and social sciences. After a bruising few years, in which these studies were overshadowed by STEM, made a political football by legislators, and mocked by conventional wisdom, a colleague reminded me, now, at last, “We have a report.” We have a strong and multidimensional argument for the humanities and social sciences. We have a starting place, and a touchstone for a more vigorous advocacy.

This post first appeared on AHA Today.

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