On June 19, 2013, the Academy’s Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences released its report, The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a vibrant, competitive, and secure nation. An evening program at the Congressional Visitors Center in Washington, D.C., featured Commission Cochairs John W. Rowe and Richard H. Brodhead; Commission members David Brooks, Karl W. Eikenberry, Pauline Yu, and John Lithgow; Senators Lamar Alexander and Mark Warner; and Congressmen Tom Petri and David Price.
The Heart of the Matter has generated considerable media attention. Coverage has included op-eds written by Commission members as well as columns published in Time magazine, USA Today, and The New York Times. The Wall Street Journal, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, CNN, and Slate published stories about The Heart of the Matter. In addition, several Commission members appeared on PBS NewsHour and NPR ran five segments across the country about the report.
Less than two months since its release, The Heart of the Matter has been downloaded from the Commission website almost 42,000 times, and the accompanying film, with appearances by Ken Burns and Yo-Yo Ma, has received 20,200 plays. Outreach efforts continue with at least fifteen events planned in cooperation with state humanities councils across the country, in cooperation with the Federation of State Humanities Councils and the National Humanities Alliance.
The following is an edited transcript of the presentations from the June 19th meeting.
John W. Rowe
John W. Rowe is Cochair of the American Academy’s Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences and retired Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Exelon Corporation. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2009.
As a retired utility executive, amateur Byzantinist, and part-time high school history teacher, I was asked to cochair the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences. The Commission is looking at the importance to our society of the array of things that relate to how and why we communicate with one another. It has been an honor to serve with my cochair, Richard Brodhead, president of Duke University, and to work with this most diverse, witty, and erudite group of Commission members.
My job tonight is to say thank you. Thank you, first, to Senators Lamar Alexander and Mark Warner and Representatives Tom Petri and David Price for calling on the Academy to form this Commission. Thank you to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for its support of this Commission and its unwavering support of the humanities. Thank you also to Carnegie Corporation of New York for its support. And thank you to all who are here listening to us tonight.
As you might expect from such a diverse group as ours, we find vast importance in what are called the humanities. That is why we titled our report The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences. Our recommendations include additional public and private support for K-12 education as well as high culture, or the high arts. We talk about history and the social sciences, as well as about dance and music. We believe we must maintain–and where possible, increase–our funding for those things. We do not believe it can all come from the federal government. We must all look for ways to help where we can.
Our work does not end tonight. To keep this report from becoming one more piece of paper collecting dust on a shelf, we must continue to get out in our cities and states, with people beyond our normal circles of contact, and explain why we care so much.
Richard H. Brodhead
Richard H. Brodhead is Cochair of the American Academy’s Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences. He is President of Duke University and the William Preston Few Professor of English. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004.
Our Commission was sponsored by Senator Alexander, Senator Warner, Representative Price, and Representative Petri. The fact that these four public servants have chosen to start and close their day with us acknowledges that we are talking about an issue of national welfare. It is also a rare bipartisan issue.
The core issue is this. Can this nation create the circumstances likely to produce the greatest number of highly capable people? People who have the equipment they need to lead rich personal lives, to fulfill their duty as citizens, to respond knowingly and imaginatively to a world that will keep changing?
If we can, our society is likely to prosper. But if we cannot, we will surely pay a price.
Education is at the root of the solution. Fortunately, in recent years, we have seen a growing national consensus about the importance of education to our social fate. At the same time, even as the public’s sense of the critical role of education has grown, the sense of the goals of education has narrowed.
STEM education has many champions and few foes, but the authors of the Gathering Storm report did not think that science and technology subjects alone could produce a capable population. They knew we needed other skills.
Discussion of the goals of education has narrowed in a second way as well. Nowadays, it passes as a wise thought to say, “I don’t want my children studying useless subjects. I want them to be able to get a job the day they get out of school.”
But consider the people you know who have led capable, successful lives in the world. The number who studied only things that could get them a job the day they graduated is just about zero. The people who lead lives that become more meaningful and valuable to society as time goes on are people who had a broad base of education at the beginning, without knowing for certain what good it would do them. The knowledge they gained through education was still with them when they needed it at a later date.
At this time, we need a broader vision of education and human empowerment. We are not arguing against increased education in the sciences. We are arguing for the complementarity of the humanities, social sciences, and sciences for the adequate training of the citizens of this country.
The Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences came together in the name of this belief. It has been one of the great honors and pleasures of my life to serve on this committee, and I thank the members who made it so rewarding. Together, we have come up with a report that not only elucidates the value of the humanities and social sciences to our nation and its citizens, but lays out steps that would advance the cause.
Today is the day we begin to find out whether our report will make a difference. We are committed to ensuring that it will.
But two things are needed for it to make a difference. First, people who care about the values we are espousing need to speak up. There is no lack of such people, though the current discourse about education in our country might make you think otherwise. People who care about the values associated with the humanities and social sciences, people whose lives testify to the power these fields provide, need to say publicly why they matter. We need to make the case in many ways, to audiences of all kinds.
Second, our report makes concrete recommendations that, if enacted, will lead to significant change. No single agent will solve the problem, however. The solutions to the challenge we diagnose will involve everything from public schools to local historical societies and community arts organizations to colleges, universities, libraries, businesses, foundations, and state and federal governments.
Each has a role to play. But above all, we urge these parties to work more concertedly together, to see the humanities as part of a lifelong continuum that needs the support of many organizations at many phases of its life.
At the start of this program, a group of wonderful children sang: “If you want to get somewhere, you have got to do the things you need to do to get there.” This sage advice is my takeaway from this evening. We would all love to shake our fists at the senators and congresspeople and say, “Until you give us billions of dollars, we can’t be expected to make any progress on this problem.” But every individual and group who cares about these issues has work to do, because only through the totality of our efforts can we achieve the needed change. It’s time to get to work.
Lamar Alexander is the Senior United States Senator from Tennessee.
This morning I ate breakfast with Philip Bredesen, the former governor of Tennessee. He said that one of the real privileges of a conspicuous public position, maybe the best privilege, is that you get to meet so many interesting people. And that would certainly be true of this remarkable Commission. Thank you for your work.
As you know, we are debating immigration in the Senate. The four most important words in the immigration debate are, “We are all Americans.” And how do we decide whether we are all Americans, and how important is it? If you want to become a citizen of China or Japan, you can’t become Japanese or Chinese, really. But if you want to become a citizen of the United States, you must become an American.
And how do you do that? Well, you do it by learning a common language and by understanding a few ideas and where they come from. And the ideas come from our very wise Founders.
What did the Founders study? Well, they were students of history, language, classics, psychology, and law. They were students of the humanities. David McCullough said that they were marinated in the classics. Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, and Washington. They read essays by Locke, Hobbes, Smith, Montesquieu, and Rousseau.
The ideas that unite us as a country come from there. The right to life, liberty, and property: from Locke. Our three separate but equal branches of government: Montesquieu. The power of the people in a democratic government: Rousseau.
The late Samuel Huntington once said that most of our politics is about the collision of principles that unite us as a country and our disappointment with not reaching the goals we establish for ourselves. Goals such as all men are created equal. If we don’t know those goals and we don’t understand those principles, then we are not able to say why we are all Americans.
My first speech on the Senate floor was about the importance of putting the teaching of U.S. history back in its rightful place in our schools, so our children could grow up learning what it means to be an American. During my ten years in the Senate I have brought many outstanding U.S. history teachers onto the Senate floor to search for the Senate desks of Daniel Webster, Jefferson Davis, and their home state senator. One of the great joys of my Senate career has been to see these teachers admire the government we have and to imagine what they will say to their students when they go home.
Among all of the other advantages of studying the humanities is the one we are debating in the U.S. Senate this week. Most of our wealth may come from the technological advances of the last fifty or sixty years. But most of our American character comes from a study and understanding of the humanities. By helping to lift the status of the humanities in our society, we help ourselves understand why we are all Americans.
Mark R. Warner
Mark R. Warner is the Senior United States Senator from the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Lamar and I started our day and are ending it with the humanities, but for the mid-part of the afternoon, we and sixteen other members of the Senate met with a group of Nobel Prize winners and members of the National Academy of Sciences to discuss issues related to energy.
As the meeting was breaking up, we mentioned that we were coming back here, and discussion turned to the humanities. There was general acknowledgment that the science and technology fields are connected to the humanities. These areas should not be competing, but complementary parts of a person’s education.
I was in the telecommunications industry before I became involved in public life, and I sometimes think about the cell phone and how we somehow figured out a way to communicate with each other at almost any moment of every day. That’s good, but these days the quality of that communication may not be so good.
The report that this Commission has produced will, I hope, serve as a guidepost in the same way the America COMPETES Act, legislation Lamar Alexander helped pass seven years ago, has been a guidepost for the STEM field. In this way we can perhaps make sure our communications carry a little more value.
One of the things that disappoints me so much about public discourse today is that rather than debating ideas, we too often resort to attacking if we disagree with others’ ideas, their morality, their patriotism, their faith. I am not sure that the Founders who came together with the ideas that animate the Constitution, who worked out the Connecticut Compromise, would be welcome in either political party’s caucus meetings in today’s environment.
If we are going to make the American character shine in the twenty-first century, not only do we need STEM, but we need the values that the humanities bring to the formation of our ideas and our American character.
Getting our nation’s balance sheet right is one of my obsessions, and I would be the first to acknowledge that the responsibility for strengthening the humanities is shared by local communities, the private sector, and each of us individually. But I also believe the federal government has a role to play.
We make choices, ultimately, by where we put our resources. We are now spending more than $7 per person for every individual in this country over age sixty-five and less than $1 for every person under thirty. If we expect a better quality of debate, if we expect our young people to become not just great scientists but to reflect the kind of ideas our Founders had, I would ask you to think about that ratio and its long-term viability for maintaining the America we all took advantage of.
Tom Petri is U.S. Representative for Wisconsin’s 6th congressional district.
No one can live or work in Washington for long without feeling the presence of the many people who with great seriousness laid the foundation of this country. What impresses me more now than ever about the humanities is that it is also about laying a foundation; it is not just a compartmentalized subject you study in school for a couple of years. If you are doing it seriously, it ends up being a lifelong exploration of your environment.
Those of us who signed the letters that helped to trigger this Commission have, every day, the opportunity to meet Americans from every walk of life. This morning, I met with a nurse anesthetist. She asked me what I was doing today, and after I explained she said, “Oh, I just finished the most wonderful course on music and math and how they are related.”
At heart, the humanities are not about institutions and governments. Rather, they are about creating a framework in which people can explore and develop themselves. As they do that, the country and its citizens become more productive and more equipped to preserve our democracy for future generations.
So, my thanks to the Commission members for the seriousness with which they undertook their task, and to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, and others for helping to fund the whole effort. What we have done is a great thing, and I hope it triggers further thought and productive change over the next few years.
David Price is U.S. Representative for North Carolina’s 4th congressional district.
Let me also offer my thanks for the contributions many of you have made to this day and to this report. This has been quite a rollout, quite a day of extolling the report’s recommendations, and resolving to act on the things we have learned and the things we have resolved to promote.
For me, days like this are always occasions for reflecting on the intellectual and cultural debts I owe, and I think that is probably true for every member of the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences. I remember a class in American intellectual history that changed my mind about a lot of things. I remember the great courses and debates over the political thinkers of the past. I remember rediscovering the Hebrew prophets through theologians like Reinhold Neibuhr, who were wrestling with the political dilemmas of the day. I remember my own mother, an English teacher, who made sure every paper I wrote was graded twice.
So, we do have these debts. We need to reflect on this and draw on this background, this rich heritage and tradition that, though particular to each of our experiences, we share. It is important to ask ourselves, what do we really draw on each day as we chart our course, as we do our work, as we put our situation in perspective?
This kind of background, these intellectual riches to which we are heir, is invaluable. And because it is priceless, we simply must make certain that this kind of exposure, this kind of experience, is available to future generations. That is what this commission has reflected upon.
In my experience, it has been an unusual commission in three respects. First, the diversity of its members and the extent of their involvement and engagement have been wonderful.
Second, we heard arguments that need to be heard again and again–arguments about our identity as people, about the basis for informed citizenship. We need to understand how important it is to cultivate informed citizenship in each new generation.
Third, some of the things we heard, we have not necessarily heard very often; for example, the relationship of language training and analytic ability to our national security. Or the importance of creative, innovative thinking to business enterprise. The Commission explored all of these issues and packaged them in an understandable way that we really can talk about.
From the beginning, the Commission was determined not just to produce a report that sits on the shelf. The report makes specific recommendations, but more than that, the members of the Commission are determined to speak out, to persuade, to be advocates for the humanities and social sciences.
Thank you to everyone who has had a part in this. Please count me as part of the team to make certain that the report is disseminated widely and acted upon.
David Brooks is a Journalist at The New York Times. He is a member of the American Academy’s Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2010.
I went to the University of Chicago, which, as some of you know, is a Baptist school where atheist professors teach Jewish students St. Thomas Aquinas. And I had, especially in the first two years, a born-again experience reading the humanities. Those were the two most important years of my life. And, to the extent that I am anything, they made me what I am.
If I were smarter, I would have realized the humanities are important at that age because they help you decide who to marry. I always tell college presidents that the most important decision their students are going to make is who to marry. Therefore, every course should be about how to make that marriage decision. We should teach the literature of marriage, the music of marriage, the neuroscience of marriage, the psychology of marriage. Nobody takes me up on that.
The real reason we were inspired in those courses was not because they would help us get a job and not because they would help make us better citizens. We were earnest eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds, and we wanted to be better people. We wanted to have better cores. We wanted to have the sorts of qualities that get talked about at a eulogy, which is not about your career but about who you are. We were fired by the sense that these books and these pieces of art we studied were about that. That is what attracted us to the humanities.
Now, I happen to think the humanities commit suicide when they lose touch with that internal story and try to be active in the external world. When those in the humanities become active in politics, become activist social reformers, get into the race, class, and gender business, they lose track of the core selling point of the humanities: internal improvement and internal education. What is nice about this report and the Commission’s work is that we see a return to that core mission.
Christian Smith is a sociologist at Notre Dame who goes around to college campuses and asks students, “Can you name the last moral dilemma you faced?” Two-thirds of the students cannot name a moral dilemma. They say, “Oh, I pulled into a parking space, but I didn’t have a quarter.” And he says, “Well, that’s a problem, but it’s not really a moral dilemma.” It is not that the students are bad people; they just do not have the vocabulary. They have not been given the vocabulary to think about moral dilemmas, to think about the things that are most important to their core.
My hope from this Commission is that the humanities will get back to the business of what it is really about. It is not about external progress, it is not about jobs, it is not about the things outside of ourselves. It is about the things inside ourselves, and that is what is going to attract people back to the humanities.
Pauline Yu is President of the American Council of Learned Societies. She is a member of the American Academy’s Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences and was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1998.
As we present our report today in the Congressional Visitors Center, we are surrounded by buildings that provide concrete evidence of why the inspiration of the humanities and social sciences is so essential to a democracy. The visitor’s gallery above the chamber of the House of Representatives is lined with plaques of great lawgivers from around the world and down through the ages. They include Hammurabi, Moses, Lycurgus of Sparta, Edward I of England, Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent of the Ottoman Empire, Sir William Blackstone, and Thomas Jefferson.
The architects of the Capitol knew that humanistic learning from many places and times conveys and shapes the values of justice and democracy. More important, the architects of our Constitution drew on their extensive readings of history, literature, law, political theory, psychology, and philosophy to enact the values of a bold new experiment of a democratic republic.
This republic has flourished when it follows their example. On July 2, 1862, President Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, which provided public lands to several states on the condition that the proceeds from the sale of those lands be devoted to establishing colleges and universities for “The liberal and practical education of the industrial classes, in the several pursuits of and professions in life.” While the act specified that these new institutions should give scope to the agricultural and mechanical arts, it also explicitly required that the institutions offer instruction in the classics and other fields.
So we have, from the 37th Congress, acting more than 150 years ago, an affirmation that higher education is a public good and that such an education should include and embrace the panoply of knowledge.
I think the premise of our report is simple. A broad education in the liberal arts and sciences, learning that liberates the imagination and creativity and fosters the relentless pursuit of inquiry, is as necessary today as it was at our nation’s founding and in the darkest hours of a bloody civil war. We offer this report to our fellow citizens and to our elected leaders as an important contribution to meeting the challenge of maintaining a vibrant democracy in a changing and increasingly interconnected world.
John Lithgow is a forty-year veteran of film, television, and theater. He is a member of the American Academy’s Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences and was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2010.
The thoughtful, judicious cochairs of our Commission have acted with uncharacteristic recklessness. They have chosen an actor to speak the last words of the evening. They, no doubt, hoped that I could end things with a certain theatrical flourish. Our assignment, after all, has been to generate a report on the present and future state of the humanities and social sciences in our nation. Grave and weighty subjects, indeed. And they may have figured that we should wrap it up tonight with just a touch of showbiz. Well, I will do my best.
I won’t sing, and I won’t dance, but I will offer some high drama. I will tear a few pages out of the screenplay of some current dystopian disaster movie and ask you to imagine America as a dark futuristic society in cosmic jeopardy, a world in need of a movie-star savior.
Imagine an America where nobody teaches and nobody learns our literature. Where Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Willa Cather, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Baldwin are gradually being forgotten.
Where nobody teaches and nobody hears our music. Where Stephen Foster, Charles Ives, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and Bob Dylan are gradually being forgotten.
Where nobody teaches and nobody sees our art. Where Winslow Homer, Mary Cassatt, Edward Hopper, Jacob Lawrence, and Andy Warhol are gradually being forgotten.
Where nobody teaches and nobody learns our economic history. Where the brutal lessons of slavery, the Civil War, the Great Depression, even the financial collapse of 2008 are gradually being forgotten.
Where nobody teaches and nobody learns the history of our women, where the stories of Harriet Tubman, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Eleanor Roosevelt, Phyllis Schlafly, and Betty Friedan are gradually being forgotten.
Where nobody teaches and nobody learns about other peoples. Where we conduct high-stakes diplomacy and fight misbegotten wars in countries where none of us speaks the language and none of us understands the culture.
Where nobody teaches and nobody learns about our inventors, legislators, innovators, humorists, satirists, journalists, philosophers, filmmakers, playwrights, and, dare I say, actors.
Imagine, in other words, an America where nobody teaches and nobody learns the humanities and social sciences. If we lived in such a nation, we would have to change its name, because it would no longer be America.
Have I overstated the case? Of course I have; it’s a disaster movie, it’s not real. We would never allow things to reach such a sorry state. But consider the recent data on the humanities and social sciences. Though we may complacently assure ourselves that we will never descend to such a cultural dystopia, things certainly appear to be trending in that direction.
Of course, I am an optimist. All of us Commissioners are. And if our report is frank, tough-minded, and realistic, it is optimistic too. We have plenty of grounds for optimism, starting with the genesis of the Commission itself. It was created at the behest of two congressmen and two senators, one each from our two political parties. These four individuals have revealed themselves to be extraordinarily knowledgeable about our subject and committed to action. Best of all, they have stirred a fresh breeze of bipartisanship. Anyone who heard them today and did not know their party affiliations would have found it impossible to peg them.
Let me address myself to these four gentlemen and, by extension, to all of the legislators now sitting in Congress. You have commissioned our report, and we have delivered it. We do not consider our work done by any means, but we have now passed the ball to you. We beg you to think creatively and pragmatically about what can be done to convert the words in our report into congressional action. Because, despite all of the unrelated issues pressing down on you these days, action on behalf of the humanities and social sciences is very definitely what is now required.
And let me make one modest suggestion, immodest in its colossal presumption. Of the thousands of men and women who have served on Capitol Hill over the last sixty years or so, one of them has left what is arguably the most indelible mark. By chance, his legacy is in the area of the humanities and the social sciences. Through an act of Congress, this man created government grants for advanced study, sending our students abroad and bringing foreign students to our shores. Over the years, these grants have changed the lives of tens of thousands of scholars, myself among them. In the face of debilitating cutbacks in these harsh economic times, the grants continue to deliver an incalculable return on government investment. They have solidified this gentleman’s place in history, making his name a household word and, not so incidentally, a common noun. This man, of course, is J. William Fulbright, senator from Arkansas.
Such single-minded leadership is called for again. The humanities and social sciences need a champion in Congress, a movie-star savior, if you will. The role is available, and we have with us tonight four major contenders. Tomorrow, to again borrow the language of Hollywood, a hero will rise!
© 2013 by John W. Rowe, Richard H. Brodhead, Lamar Alexander, Mark R. Warner, Tom Petri, David Price, David Brooks, Pauline Yu, and John Lithgow, respectively
Note: Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry delivered a keynote address on March 18, 2013, at the 2013 Annual Meeting of the National Humanities Alliance. See "The Humanities and Global Engagement" for his presentation.