Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


social-sciences

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.

More From Michael Todd

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 30 • 4:00 AM

Grad School’s Mental Health Problem

Navigating the emotional stress of doctoral programs in a down market.


September 29 • 1:21 PM

Conference Call: Free Will Conference


September 29 • 12:00 PM

How Copyright Law Protects Art From Criticism

A case for allowing the copyright on Gone With the Wind to expire.


September 29 • 10:00 AM

Should We Be Told Who Funds Political Attack Ads?

On the value of campaign finance disclosure.


September 29 • 8:00 AM

Searching for a Man Named Penis

A quest to track down a real Penis proves difficult.


September 29 • 6:00 AM

Why Do So Many People Watch HGTV?

The same reason so many people watch NCIS or Law and Order: It’s all a procedural.


September 29 • 4:00 AM

The Link Between Depression and Terrorism

A new study from the United Kingdom finds a connection between depression and radicalization.


September 26 • 4:00 PM

Fast Track to a Spill?

Oil pipeline projects across America are speeding forward without environmental review.


September 26 • 2:00 PM

Why Liberals Love the Disease Theory of Addiction, by a Liberal Who Hates It

The disease model is convenient to liberals because it spares them having to say negative things about poor communities. But this conception of addiction harms the very people we wish to help.


September 26 • 1:21 PM

Race, Trust, and Split-Second Judgments


September 26 • 9:47 AM

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what’s new and different more attractive.


September 26 • 8:00 AM

A Letter Becomes a Book Becomes a Play

Sarah Ruhl’s Dear Elizabeth: A Play in Letters From Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again takes 900 pages of correspondence between the two poets and turns them into an on-stage performance.


September 26 • 7:00 AM

Sonic Hedgehog, DICER, and the Problem With Naming Genes

Wait, why is there a Pokemon gene?


September 26 • 6:00 AM

Sounds Like the Blues

At a music-licensing firm, any situation can become nostalgic, romantic, or adventurous, given the right background sounds.


September 26 • 5:00 AM

The Dark Side of Empathy

New research finds the much-lauded feeling of identification with another person’s emotions can lead to unwarranted aggressive behavior.



September 25 • 4:00 PM

Forging a New Path: Working to Build the Perfect Wildlife Corridor

When it comes to designing wildlife corridors, our most brilliant analytical minds are still no match for Mother Nature. But we’re getting there.


September 25 • 2:00 PM

Fashion as a Inescapable Institution

Like it or not, fashion is an institution because we can no longer feasibly make our own clothes.


September 25 • 12:00 PM

The Fake Birth Mothers Who Bilk Couples Out of Their Cash by Promising Future Babies

Another group that’s especially vulnerable to scams and fraud is that made up of those who are desperate to adopt a child.


September 25 • 10:03 AM

The Way We QuickType


September 25 • 10:00 AM

There’s a Name for Why You Feel Obligated to Upgrade All of Your Furniture to Match

And it’s called the Diderot effect.


September 25 • 9:19 AM

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.


September 25 • 9:05 AM

Sponsors: Coming to a Sports Jersey Near You

And really, it’s not that big of a deal.


September 25 • 8:00 AM

The Most Pointless Ferry in Maryland

Most of the some 200 ferries that operate in the United States serve a specific, essential purpose—but not the one that runs across the Tred Avon River.


September 25 • 7:00 AM

Hating Happiness

People all over the world are afraid of happiness, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s yet another challenge to the notion that positive thinking can heal all wounds.


Follow us


Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what's new and different more attractive.

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.

How a Second Language Trains Your Brain for Math

Second languages strengthen the brain's executive control circuits, with benefits beyond words.

Would You Rather Go Blind or Lose Your Mind?

Americans consistently fear blindness, but how they compare it to other ailments varies across racial lines.

On the Hunt for Fake Facebook Likes

A new study finds ways to uncover Facebook Like farms.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.