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A depiction of Europe's oldest university, the University of Bologna, Italy. (IMAGE: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Save the Humanities—From Themselves

• June 20, 2013 • 4:51 PM

A depiction of Europe's oldest university, the University of Bologna, Italy. (IMAGE: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

The humanities and social sciences in America could use a white knight, but instead they got a white elephant.

The humanities and social sciences are under attack, literally, and their partisans are rallying to fight back. This week the U.S. Congress received a 92-page cri de Coeur from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to make it public policy to restore these disciplines to their presumed former prominence. The authors aim for their report to echo the impact that the National Academies’ 2005 report on science and math education, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” had on those fields.

It’s an uphill fight in a nation that’s always been friendlier to tinkers than thinkers.

High-profile shots across the bow like Senator Tom Coburn’s restrictions on what political science projects the National Science Foundation could fund, or a bill to outright ban the National Institutes of Health from paying for economics studies, tend to obscure the drip-drip-drip of students avoiding subject areas that won’t provide a clear career trajectory. (Take a look at this Kiplinger slideshow of the “Worst College Majors for Your Career” to hammer home the point.)

The drip, as much as the specific attacks, leaves some bemoaning a crisis in liberal arts, which in turn has left a lot of academicians mulling their fields’ legitimacy. As Sameer Pandya (a sociologist!) wrote for us three years ago:

A student recently came into my office, seeking advice on whether to declare sociology or Asian-American studies as her major. I took a deep breath.

The career services counselor told her she was going about it the wrong way. Think about the type of work you are interested in, the counselor advised. The major is secondary. This struck me as unhelpful advice, particularly in our recessionary times.

The deep breath was a stall tactic because I didn’t know what answer to give her. I wanted to tell her to march over and take some accounting classes, but instead I toed the (liberal arts) party line and said that both were fine and equal, and that she should choose the major she enjoyed more.

The fact was, I didn’t have a clear answer for why picking either major was a good idea. And for the moment, I want to punt my responsibility and say that my lack of a clear answer is the lack of a clear answer in liberal arts education as a whole.

Pandya wrapped up his piece—a review of Louis Menard’s The Marketplace of Ideas—with a defense of his turf, but also a challenge: “the liberal arts need to rethink their core purpose in order to forge a future.”

But rather than a rethinking, the National Academies defense, prepared by a town-and-gown panel dubbed the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences, is instead a very traditional document. With its 54 members ranging from Emmylou Harris to George Lucas and former Lockheed Martin CEO Norm Augustine, and top-flight academics like Kathleen Hall Jamieson (who chairs our editorial board), Robert Hauser, and Kwame Anthony Appiah, the commission has both star power and intellectual firepower.

The takeaway message they offer echoes a parent urging their two-year-old to eat their veggies: “Trust us. The humanities are good for you.” Rather than making a case for the preservation, or resurrection, of these disciplines, the report cuts right to the steps they recommend for doing so—improve literacy, narrow the digital divide, promote learning a second language, strengthen support for teachers. Noble intentions all, along with the inevitable –spend more on our field—and the genuinely innovative—create a “culture corps” to transmit cultural literacy (we used to call such corpsmen “grandparents”).

“We must recognize,” the authors write, “that all disciplines are essential for the inventiveness, competitiveness, security, and personal fulfillment of the American public.” I’m not disagreeing—in fact, I vehemently agree—but if this stuff was settled there wouldn’t be a need for a wake-up report. In this bottom-line oriented age, give me reasons, a la Kenneth Prewitt or our Seth Masket or Tom Jacobs, and not rhetoric.

There is some throat-clearing about the value of the humanities and social sciences, most of it is composed of general statements, i.e. “they help us understand what it means to be human and connect us with our global community,” or they are “a source of national memory and civic vigor, cultural understanding and communication, individual fulfillment and the ideals we hold in common.” Such maxims, offered as evidence, are, to parrot Pandya’s word, unhelpful.

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

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