Advocating for the Arts and Sciences in American Higher Education
It’s no accident that the Phi Beta Kappa Society, America’s oldest academic honor society, shares its founding year with the nation. America was founded and flourishes through the principles and ideas steeped in the liberal arts. As George Washington noted in his Eighth Annual Address to Congress, “The assembly to which I address myself is too enlightened not to be fully sensible how much a flourishing state of the arts and sciences contributes to national prosperity and reputation.”1
Rather than lament how times (and Congress) have changed, the Phi Beta Kappa Society is placing renewed emphasis on our role as a public advocate of the arts and sciences. With higher education facing a crossroads today, many capable and articulate champions of arts and sciences education are producing superb books and articles that argue well for the broader value and purpose of the arts and sciences.2
Phi Beta Kappa’s role in this national conversation, as representatives of half a million beneficiaries of an arts and sciences education, is to grow support for the arts and sciences by equipping our members and other supporters with a clear message to convey to policymakers, business leaders, and opinion shapers. Our key message is simple: Education in the arts and sciences creates opportunity, drives ingenuity and innovation, and invests in America. In short, the arts and sciences are education for the unpredictable. They are education for all of life.
To carry this message forward, we created a multi-year campaign, the National Arts & Sciences Initiative, to reach influencers and policymakers with a compelling story about the benefits of the arts and sciences. To date, the initiative has used two main strategies. First, we created the Key of Excellence Awards, a series of events around the country to showcase organizations that engage their communities with the real-world value of the arts, humanities, and sciences. Second, we developed easy-to-use tools that make it simple for people to take action on behalf of the arts and sciences in their states.
The Key of Excellence Award event series allows Phi Beta Kappa to reach a broad audience through a celebration of diverse arts and sciences models across the country. Recipients must demonstrate a strong record of success at engaging the public through multiple disciplines in the arts and sciences; involve and engage a variety of constituencies in program planning and execution; and improve access to the arts and sciences in their community.
Take for example, Project Humanities at Arizona State University. Initiatives, such as the Encoded Textile Project, Science Café, Vital Voices, Black Women Walking, Humanity 101, and Top 10 Questions the Humanities Will Answer this Year, successfully blend academic research, community outreach, student development, and interdisciplinary approaches in compelling frameworks created by and enjoyed throughout the community. It sponsors approximately 100 programs a year, most of which are free for the public to attend.
The Key of Excellence Award, and its $10,000 prize, give visibility to programs like Project Humanities and provide a window into the real-world value of the arts and sciences. In addition, by engaging policymakers in recognition of the good work of their constituents, we are cultivating new legislative champions.
To expand our advocacy efforts to a national audience, Phi Beta Kappa also designed tools that anyone can use to advocate for the arts, humanities, and sciences. The State of the Arts & Sciences e-alert summarizes higher education news and provides monthly policy asks for non-academic audiences.
Most importantly, we developed the Arts & Sciences Are Key advocacy toolkit (toolkit.pbk.org). It gives members easy ways to talk about the value of an arts and sciences education to their national and state policy makers, local media, and social networks. The website includes infographics, information on how to reach lawmakers, and possible messages that they can quickly customize. The theme of the information is: “You can make the case.”
Through these combined strategies, Phi Beta Kappa is also working to become more visible in higher education dialogue. We are developing relationships with members of the media to position us as a source of reliable information for the value of broad-based arts and sciences education and commentary on higher education policies and trends.
We are using social media and videos to share the experiences of our members. Looking ahead, Phi Beta Kappa also plans to connect with employers on the value of Arts and Sciences @ Work.3
We have the weight of history behind us. We know the arts and sciences are key to the country’s future well-being. We’re committed to ensuring that an arts and sciences education is a vibrant piece of American higher education going forward.
John Churchill is secretary of the Phi Beta Kappa Society.
1. “Washington’s Eighth Annual Address to Congress,” Papers of George Washington,
2. For recent examples, see Helen Small’s The Value of the Humanities (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); Michael Roth’s Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014); Peter Brooks’s “Misunderstanding the Humanities,” Chronicle of Higher Education, December 15, 2014.
3. For a recent survey on employers, educators, and graduate perceptions of workforce skills, see AAC&U, “Falling Short? College Learning and Career Success,” January 2015,
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