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The Humanities, Arts, and Education

A Question for Study:
What Are the Humanities Good For?

On November 14, 2014, in Washington, DC, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, in partnership with Phi Beta Kappa and the National Humanities Alliance, convened twenty-three experts to discuss the state of the humanities. With “What are the humanities good for?” as an organizing rubric, participants explored whether and how the benefits of humanities study and activity can be properly measured and described. Participants reviewed wide-ranging claims for the value of the humanities, including distinct skills of thought that benefit individuals and society (such as empathy and civic engagement), and the utilitarian and nonutilitarian benefits of studying and preserving the content of particular disciplines. A significant portion of the conversation focused on whom the audience for such research might be and how to set a scientifically valid research agenda that would nevertheless address the humanities on its own terms.

Following a general survey of the issues, participants heard brief reports from experts in specific stages of the life cycle, from K–12 education on to societal benefits and later adulthood. A recurring concern in all of the reports was the difficulty of measuring benefits from an exposure to the humanities in one stage of life on a later stage, or the cumulative benefits of multiple exposures over the life cycle. Nevertheless, each of the experts pointed to a growing body of evidence – often from small-scale studies – that suggests the humanities have some beneficial effects. Several of the participants also noted that some existing large-scale studies could be mined to answer particular questions about the humanities.

In the end, participants agreed that empirical research on the putative value of the humanities is possible and necessary, and they concurred on five principal areas that deserve particular attention:

  1. skills of thought and communication;
  2. useful knowledge peculiar to the humanities;
  3. skills in and inclination toward civic and political engagement;
  4. capacities for empathy and the entertainment of multiple perspectives; and
  5. capacities for innovation and creativity.

While the participants concurred on five broad topics for further research, a few additional areas of concern recurred throughout the conversation:

  1. the definition and boundaries of “the humanities” across an array of human activities (particularly the overlap with the arts);
  2. the extent to which “utility” or economic value should be the primary measure;
  3. the challenges in evaluating and reusing existing research (some small-scale studies are buried in obscure research journals, and some larger scale studies have not been gathered or mined for information on the humanities);
  4. the research challenge of whether internal value or benefits can be adequately measured over a life cycle; and
  5. the changes in the way the humanities are being taught and engaged as a result of new technologies (potentially making studies about the effects on past generations obsolete).

Taking account of both the positive interest and the challenges, staff at the Humanities Indicators are developing plans for a more advanced review of the existing literature in these areas, with the goal of highlighting existing work for a more general audience and laying the groundwork for a network of researchers in the field.

March 16, 2015

The Value of Research on the Humanities’ Effects

posted by John Churchill

In my work as secretary, or chief executive, of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, one of my most enjoyable roles is advocacy for the liberal arts and sciences. Sometimes, I am preaching to the choir, when I visit one of the 283 colleges and universities that shelter a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, More...

March 16, 2015

Identifying Value for Humanities Advocacy

posted by Stephen Kidd

Several months ago, I attended a White House ceremony hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama for the National Youth Arts and Humanities Program Awards honoring arts and humanities programs that engage underprivileged youth. The White House ceremony showcased the impact More...

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