The American Academy of Arts and Sciences recently released a major report called “The Heart of the Matter,” which argues for the centrality of the humanities and social sciences in promoting “a vibrant, competitive, and secure nation.” The report’s basic message is summed up in this introduction: “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.
The report makes three critical points. The first is that, in order to educate our people to thrive in a twenty-first century democracy, we need to support literacy, the preparation of citizens, expand on-line resources, and engage the public in the endeavor. This means bolstering the teaching of such subjects as English, communication, analytical skills, history, and political science, and ensuring that these resources are available to every citizen through well-supported libraries as well as via the internet.
The second is to foster an innovative, competitive, and strong society by increasing investment in research and discovery in the humanities and social sciences, creating a public awareness of the critical importance of such research, and strengthening our basic humanities and social science curricula and the effectiveness of those who teach them.
Finally, in order to equip our nation for leadership in an interconnected world, we need to emphasize foreign language and culture instruction, expand education in international and transnational studies, and support study abroad and international studies programs. We live in global society, and that is not going to change.
This analysis is exactly right. It does not in any way diminish the need for strong investment in the teaching of the sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics. It insists, however, that knowledge of those subjects is unmoored without the historical, ethical, and societal context in which it will be applied. Furthermore, it underscores the critical importance of the ability to analyze and communicate knowledge effectively, no matter what it is about. Knowledge of any kind does not exist in a vacuum. It relates to a myriad other ideas, and it is only useful if it can be communicated to others.
The report’s official release in June was accompanied by a video that very effectively makes the case for the mutual interdependence of the sciences and the humanities and social sciences. John Lithgow, YoYo Ma, George Lucas, and a goodly number of well-known figures in the sciences and humanities discuss the nature of this symbiosis. Finally, a chart in the report demonstrated that 51% of business leaders surveyed said they thought a liberal education was “very important,” but 74% of them wanted a liberal education for their own children.
The full report, an executive summary, and the video are on line at: www.humanitiescommission.org.