I was on break from college, and proud to tell dad about my new major. “General Studies in the Humanities” sounded cool to me, but he was less impressed.
“What the hell use will that be in world?” he wanted to know.
“I’ll be a better human,” I snarked, stumped for a better answer.
The Heart of the Matter comes from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences. It makes the case that educators and policymakers risk failing the country’s students, and its democratic institutions, if the push toward science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education throws the humanities and social sciences overboard.
If you don’t want to read the report, you’ll get the gist of it by watching this short film starring scholars, and creative types like actor John Lithgow, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
The commission prepared the report at the request of a bipartisan group of senators and representatives, and included members from business, academia, government and the arts. From the executive summary:
As we strive to create a more civil public discourse, a more adaptable and creative workforce, and a more secure nation, the humanities and social sciences are the heart of the matter, the keeper of the republic — a source of national memory and civic vigor, cultural understanding and communication, individual fulfillment and the ideals we hold in common.
What are the humanities and social sciences? According to the report, the humanities include “the study of languages, literature, history, film, civics, philosophy, religion, and the arts.” Disciplines of the social sciences include “anthropology, economics, political science and government, sociology, and psychology.”
“Together,” the report asserts, “they help us understand what it means to be human and connect us with our global community.”
If that sounds a little touchy-feely, that’s the problem. Voices bemoaning America’s educational failures and slipping world rankings often point to students’ lackluster performance in the hard sciences. The report urges us to look at other aspects of education too.
According to the report, here’s what strengthening America’s commitment to the humanities and social sciences will achieve:
- Educate Americans in the knowledge, skills and understanding they will need to thrive in a 21st-century democracy.
- Foster a society that is innovative, competitive and strong.
- Equip the nation for leadership in an interconnected world.
And that’s how proclamations about something as squishy as the humanities and social sciences are made more palatable to the public: by framing the issue as one of salvaging our democracy, maintaining national security, and improving economic competitiveness.
It’s a stronger argument than the one I rudely made to my dad about why I was studying the humanities.
“So I could thrive in our 21st-century democracy” would have been a lot classier.
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