College Art Association

CAA News Today

At the end of a day-long presentation on June 21st, a group of 200 academic corporate and government leaders gathered in the Capitol Atrium to hear “The Heart of the Matter,” a new report created by members of the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences  and supported by members of Congress about their personal and professional views on the value of the humanities. The three major goals of the report are to increase the literacy and knowledge of history for all Americans to help build better citizens; to invest in research and teaching; and to expand international cultural knowledge and awareness through the study of languages and international study.

The report addresses the hardest hit disciplines of language and literature as well as the drastically underfunded Fulbright Fellowship programs. Actor John Lithgow cited Senator Fulbright, a champion of the international education program that has benefitted thousands of students and enriched the country in incalculable ways, for a relatively small government investment. The report also calls for greater interactivity and communication between academics and the public and for open access to research. John W. Rowe, cochair of the Commission and retired Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Exelon Corporation, urged everyone in the humanities to get out in their communities, cities, and states to advocate the value of the humanities. David Brooks, New York Times reporter and PBS commentator, addressed the communication gap between academia and the public. He stated his belief that in the past the humanities’ importance and relevance in society suffered amid the turn toward political, gender, and race issues that severed dialogue between academia and the public, and turned attention  away from the core value of the humanities.

The Commissioners, who are leaders in the corporate, academic, legal, governmental, and philanthropic communities, focused on the value, need for support, and societal applications of the humanities and social sciences. The two recurring themes in the presentations extolled the wisdom of America’s founders who, as Senator Lamar Alexander quoted from the writer David McCullough, were “marinated in the humanities.” And almost every presenter recalled the transformative experience of their own college humanities courses. Pauline Yu, President of the American Council of Learned Societies stated that the country flourishes when it follows the example of its founders. Senator Karl Eikenberry, former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan and retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General, cited the need for more informed historians to warn the government against overreaching internationally. He characterized the humanities and social sciences as a wellspring of soft power.

Richard Broadhead, President of Duke University and cochair of the Commission, believes that the major issue facing the country today is how to bring the greatest number of people to reach their fullest abilities. He sees the current discussions about education as narrowing the issues to pragmatic concerns; parents, for example, might say that they do not want their children to study the humanities instead of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM disciplines).  Broadhead pointed out that the humanities and STEM disciplines are not at opposition but are interrelated and integrated. This concept was, in fact, graphically presented in a promotional film made by Ken Burns and George Lucas which used the image of a stem (read STEM) of a flower (read the humanities).

The report calls for support for the humanities from all sectors of the country, and the program provided many strong arguments to use, value, and nurture them. The hope is that this dialogue will continue on Capitol Hill to restore funding, and that it will provide greater exchange between the academy and the public for greater understanding of the importance of the humanities. Lithgow said he sensed a fresh breeze of bipartisanship that wafted through the Capitol yesterday with the focus on the humanities.

The report does not specifically address the visual arts, but it does address a greater focus on research and teaching in higher education. In the last four years there has been greater national emphasis on K-12 education and this report may assist in bringing the national dialogue around to higher education federal funding. The concept of a Culture Corps similar to AmeriCorps could serve to bring greater public access to the humanities and greater public-academic interchange. And, it could also provide the bridge between graduate school and the career path for students in the humanities. The report is a good catalyst for discussion and change. Let’s hope that the “fresh breeze” continues.