Spring 2023 Bulletin

On the Tenth Anniversary of The Heart of the Matter

Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences
A detail from a photograph of an American flag.
Photo by iStock.com/nico_blue.

On March 30–31, 2023, the Academy gathered humanities scholars and leaders at the House of the Academy in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to mark the tenth anniversary of the release of The Heart of the Matter, the final report of the Academy’s Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences. The goal of the meeting was to reflect on what has happened to the humanities over the past decade and to consider future directions for the field. To provide context for the conversation, Richard H. Brodhead (who cochaired the Commission with the late John Rowe) offered the following reflections, describing what shaped their thinking a decade ago and what has changed in the years since.

Richard H. Brodhead  

A headshot of Richard H. Brodhead wearing a commencement gown for graduating doctoral students. Brodhead has pale skin, blue eyes, and white hair, and he smiles at the viewer.
Courtesy of Richard H. Brodhead.

Richard H. Brodhead was the President of Duke University from 2004 to 2017 and served as the William Preston Few Professor of English. He previously served as the Dean of Yale College from 1993 to 2004 and as the A. Bartlett Giamatti Professor of English at Yale University. A scholar of American literature and culture, he was elected to the American Academy in 2004 and served as cochair of the Academy’s Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences.

I led the American Academy’s Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences (true confession: it was never about the social sciences) and coauthored its report, The Heart of the Matter. This was absorbing work, but I have seldom looked back on it, and would never have realized we had reached the report’s tenth anniversary had Rob Townsend not brought it to my attention. At Rob’s invitation, I reflect here on what we thought we were doing and how that work looks ten years on.

If in the future anyone should look back at The Heart of the Matter through a historical lens, it will be clear at once that an ur-text provoked and informs this report. In 2005, the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering and the Institute (now, National Academy) of Medicine (NASEM) convened a Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy of the 21st Century. The committee, chaired by Norm Augustine, CEO of Lockheed Martin, included twenty-five leading figures from science, business, and the academy. After two years of deliberation, they issued a report entitled Rising Above the Gathering Storm.

This report did not invent the idea of STEM. That term, an improvement on the non-starter early acronym SMET, was apparently coined by a National Science Foundation program officer in 2001. But the Gathering Storm report did put the STEM idea in mass circulation and pushed it high up on the national agenda. Its argument was that thanks to large investments made in generations since World War II, America now took for granted an unprecedent state of health and economic prosperity. But there was a long lead time between these investments and their payoff in daily life: educating a student into a worker capable of making fundamental discoveries in science or technology was the project of decades; it took a similar amount of time for a biomedical research discovery to be tested and approved for real-world application. The fact that the United States had for some years been reducing such investment meant, the report warned, that we were stumbling blindly toward an abyss. To avoid a precipitous decline in economic dynamism and in quality of life in the future, the nation needed to start investing now in all the elements that sustain a science-based culture of innovation. Recommendations followed for strengthening STEM in K-12 education; for higher education; for R&D operations in the academy, industry, and national labs; and for improvements in the policy environment.

I and many other university leaders applauded this report and lobbied for it vigorously, while noting that the nation’s cultural and economic health did not depend on STEM alone. In the United States, the dynamism of a culture of innovation has come in large part from our distinctive liberal arts tradition, in which students are exposed to many different forms of knowledge and analysis, laying down a mental reservoir that can be drawn on in ever-changing ways to deal with the unforeseeable new challenges. Humanities have played as rich a role in this process as the sciences. Steve Jobs said the most memorable course he took at Reed before he dropped out was a class in calligraphy, introducing him to the aesthetics that are as crucial to the appeal of Apple products as any technical features.

I spoke about the state of the humanities and the need to advance them in complement with STEM in a 2010 talk at the National Humanities Center. Leslie Berlowitz, president and chief executive officer of the American Academy at the time, was in the audience. When the Academy decided to launch the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences, Leslie invited me to chair it together with Exelon CEO John Rowe.

The NASEM committee’s imprint is obvious at every turn. As with that committee, the American Academy solicited letters from a bipartisan group of senators and congressmen inviting this work and proclaiming its importance to the nation’s agenda. (In our case, the senators were Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Mark Warner, D-Va., and the congressmen were David Price, D-N.C., and Tom Petri, R-Wisc.) We too then proceeded to the gathering of notables – in our case, fifty or more, including a dozen university and college presidents but also an architect (Billie Tsien), a recent governor (Phil Bredesen), a filmmaker (George Lucas), a judge (Diane Wood), a journalist (David Brooks), a general (Karl Eikenberry), and more. Only one invitee declined to join the Commission. Attendance remained high every time we met.

From these discussions, we arrived at a report with two aims: to articulate the value of the humanities in a way that would resonate with multiple publics, and to advocate a continuum of support reaching across an individual’s lifespan and a broad institutional landscape. Similar to the Gathering Storm report, The Heart of the Matter made recommendations for K-12 education, since the humanities require a strong foundation of elemental literacy; for colleges and universities; for the archipelago of institutions – museums, libraries, local historical societies, and many more – that sustain the humanities experience across the life course; and for support of global learning.

But if Rising Above the Gathering Storm loaned our report its structure, a different, later historical development shaped its message. The earlier report came out of the long period of prosperity stretching from the early 1990s, with only one brief interruption in 2001, to the year of its appearance in 2007. Our work had a very different context: namely, the financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath, the Great Downturn. These years were marked by a painfully slow economic recovery; a stranglehold on discretionary federal spending thanks to the policy labeled sequestration; growing public doubt that good times would ever return – and, in their wake, the emergence of an embittered, harshly narrowed view of the value of higher education.

Anti-intellectualism, of course, has a long history in the United States, but these years saw something new: a truculent assertion that higher education just wasn’t worth it, or was only worth it when something learned on Day 1 could be put to use in a good-paying job on Day 2. This short-term utilitarian thinking was so ardently proclaimed by leading thought journals as to take on the status of a “general truth,” such that one could hear these views parroted even by well-educated people whose experience could have taught a different tale. It was especially warmly embraced by state legislators – like the group who required each state college to publish a table showing the first-year-out salary of every graduate broken down by college major. The savage hacking of public university budgets post-2008 was soon to follow.

The work of the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences took place against the background of this sudden erosion of public faith in a broad education of which humanities forms an integral part. In consequence, our report is not fundamentally addressed to academics, nor is it organized around the cartography of disciplines, departments, and subfields that structures the humanities in academic understanding. The report aims to reach beyond the choir of the converted to carry this forgotten truth to the public at large.

Several strategic decisions followed from this aim. First, we agreed that we needed to make a positive case in a positive tone. Whether or not the humanities “are” in crisis, we did not regard the rhetoric of crisis or “nobody loves us” as likely to win the public’s heart.

Second, we were mindful that many key words that are deeply meaningful to humanities converts – even the word “humanities” itself – are alien and even alienating to those outside the pale. As advocates, we strove to name these virtues in their most fundamental and familiar forms, not by the terms of the trade. Donna Shalala proposed that we speak not of liberal arts but of “broad education,” the sort advanced by the Morrill Act in the mid-nineteenth century or the GI Bill in the mid-twentieth.

Third, the Commission agreed that the intrinsic versus instrumental debate so familiar to academics is a false dichotomy sterile in its yield. The report’s language strives to make clear that the humanities promote personal enrichment, pleasure, appreciation, and reflection – key ingredients for human flourishing. But it does not follow that the humanities have no useful role in the social world. The knowledge and skills the humanities promote are essential in any number of real-world contexts, and saying so was crucial to our case. Commission member Jim McNerney, CEO of Boeing, told us that to work at a high level in his company, one would of course need engineering training – but that people would never advance beyond a certain level unless they also had well-developed skills in communication and cross-cultural understanding, humanities products par excellence. Commission member Karl Eikenberry, who has commanded troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan and served as U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan shortly before our hearings, told us that weapons alone could never accomplish a military objective overseas. Without the knowledge of foreign languages, histories, cultural value systems, and religious beliefs, a war conducted at the level of force alone was doomed to be counter-productive.

Fourth, all of our recommendations aim to press humanists to connect outside their familiar spheres: speaking to other publics, inserting ourselves in other communities, reminding people of the things that depend on humanistic input where that is not named or apparent. So, one recommendation for higher education leaders was to speak out clearly and boldly for the value of a broadly empowering version of education, rather than mimicking the narrow utilitarianism so vocal around them. In graduate training, we embraced the “No More Plan B” idea advanced by James Grossman and Commission member Tony Grafton: a move to prepare graduate students to find fulfillment in a range of careers beyond those of their academic mentors. We similarly advocated for humanists to join in, and voice the importance of the humanities for, the “grand challenge” issues of our time: connecting to work on climate and the environment (environmentalism had its first birth among humanists), health care, and the rest.

Our hope, in short, was to change the national conversation: to project a positive, aspirational discourse over against an impoverished, narrow view of education passing itself off as shrewd and profound.

So how did we fare? In June 2013, The Heart of the Matter report was launched in Washington, D.C. A range of impressive speakers, including our senatorial and congressional sponsors, were eloquent in the cause. The Academy reckoned that the report was soon downloaded over forty thousand times before they stopped counting. Ken Burns’s exquisite short film in support of the Commission’s work was viewed by a far larger audience. Commission members fanned out across the country, preaching the cause in various settings and leading discussions in town meetings. I talked up the report to two thousand college counselors, key influencers when education decisions are being made, at the annual meeting of the College Board. Carnegie Mellon University, powerhouse of computer science, adopted The Heart of the Matter as its required freshman reading. John Lithgow and I were interviewed about the report on PBS NewsHour. And, the high-water mark perhaps in the whole history of the humanities, I got to discuss our work on air with Stephen Colbert, who held up a copy of the report to his audience of multiple millions.

In short, The Heart of the Matter had about as big a public “play” as a blue-ribbon commission report is likely to achieve. That said, there were limits to what such a publication could accomplish. Looking back, two facts stand out for me.

First, when the Gathering Storm report generated a sense of existential peril about STEM underinvestment (its cover art is virtually apocalyptic), the answer to “what must I do to be saved?” was simple and direct. There was a known resource for fixing the STEM ecosystem: federal funding. There were known channels for distributing such funds: federal agencies like the NSF, NIH, and DOE. And there were known means for releasing funds to flow through these channels: aggressive lobbying on Capitol Hill. A year after the report was published, the America COMPETES Act codifying many of the report’s recommendations was voted through Congress with bipartisan support.

None of these things, however, were true for the humanities. The humanities are not predominantly federal in their form of support. When seven members of our Commission dined with seven senators in January 2014, they were interested and supportive, but it was unclear to them or us what “big ask” we could make to transform the humanities situation nationally. (One idea was Title VI funding for foreign language instruction – but this is a minuscule part of the national humanities challenge.) Unlike the sciences, the humanities are by their nature decentralized and diffuse, both in their public life and the funding that sustains them. Their support requires lots of different kinds of effort in lots of different places beyond our government agency, the NEH, itself funded at a minuscule level compared to the science foundations: town government, state legislature, patrons, parents, national and family foundations, and more.

Second, while the report was responding to cultural and economic fallout from the post-2008 financial crisis, other changes were emerging that defined the humanities challenge in new ways.

For one, the Commission had lived through enough of the information revolution to see how technology could assist the humanities cause. The report is mindful that the wunderkind of that day, MOOCs, supplied a way to reach an unexpectedly huge audience hungry for humanities learning outside institutional settings. We also saw the potential of digital archives to make the humanistic heritage available to larger, more varied publics. But we did not recognize how differently minds would be shaped and trained in the world where iPhones (introduced in 2007) mediated the mind’s activities from an early age.

In the new age of continuous partial attention, people can pop in and out of any momentarily attractive content, but knowledge that requires slow, coherent accretion and sustained, focused attention has become more endangered. In a recent article by Nathan Heller in The New Yorker, James Shapiro, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, says that teaching Middlemarch to an undergraduate class now is like trying to land a 747 on a rural airstrip. Amanda Claybaugh, Dean of Undergraduate Education at Harvard and my fellow Americanist, says that reading The Scarlet Letter is hard in a new way for students now: they can’t figure out how the parts of speech relate within sentences (though Hawthorne is not a verbally difficult author), and besides, “the 19th century is a long time ago.”

On another front, every member of the Commission was committed to the inclusion of underrepresented minorities into institutions and fields of knowledge, indeed many had made this key to their life’s work. But we also knew how slow progress continued to be in changing the personnel of faculties, museums, and the rest. In 2013, we did not see how a diversity, equity, and inclusion agenda would be promoted from an impor­tant value among others to the predominant place it has assumed in educational and cultural institutions now.

Through their complex conjunction, the tech revolution in modern communications and the justice-ization of cultural and educational agendas have contributed to another new fact the Commission did not foresee: hyper-partisanship has been driven far deeper down in the cultural domain. The Culture Wars, of course, have been with us for decades: I remember learning the phrase when Lynne Cheney headed the NEH in the 1980s. But even so, there were many things people agreed to apart from some flagrant exceptions. I was in the audience for the last presidential debate in October 2008, where, with no one knowing for sure if there would still be a functioning economy in January 2009, candidates Obama and McCain mentioned areas of agreement and demonstrated palpable mutual respect. The participation of two Republican and two Democratic elected officials at our report’s launch in 2013 was cut from the same cloth.

In 2013, we never foresaw how spheres of common agreement would be invaded and captured by, then reorganized within the polarizing logic of, partisan cultural divides. Vaccines for children are an obvious example. Once embraced nearly unanimously as a wise prevention against avoidable diseases, they are now embraced or abhorred, according to how one feels about a host of unrelated issues.

This polarization holds a particular threat for the humanities. It’s not sufficiently noted that the humanities long had a paradoxical status as the home simultaneously of a shared heritage and energetic revisionist critique. Early-twentieth-century culture sustained a dialectic relation between the classic and the disruptive: it was home both for The Odyssey and Ulysses, The Divine Comedy and The Waste Land. For decades after 1970, English departments in the United States hosted both the literary canon and the critique and reopening of the canon, and history departments taught this nation’s aspirational founding while unearthing suppressed histories that shed harsh light on the received tale.

In the new, more partisan world that has emerged in the last six or seven years, such coexistence begins to seem as dated as the respectful conduct of candidates McCain and Obama. For both sides, small traces of the opponent’s thinking can set off alarms announcing the proximity of toxic dangers, and things once looked to as common ground have been converted into places to pick a fight. Books in a public school library? There’s the humanities for you, ready to enlighten anyone and everyone – until the contents of public school libraries become a red-meat political issue, as they are today. (No one seems much troubled by the fact that young people are spending fewer hours reading books of any persuasion.) In American Slavery, American Freedom, Edmund Morgan famously wrote of the co-emergence in colonial Virginia of the ideas that led to America’s peculiar concept of personal freedom and its peculiar structures of chattel slavery. Now it’s your history versus mine: The 1619 Project or The 1776 Project, take your pick.

To put it mildly, objective circumstances have not gotten easier for the humanities since 2013. Should our Commission be faulted for failing to foresee these developments? No: the nature of history is that it is always unfolding in ways that can’t be envisaged in advance. And if our recommendations left American culture in large measure unredeemed, is the point that we should not have bothered? Emphatically no: recent developments make the values we sought to advance more important, not less. Could anyone seriously maintain that knowledge of foreign histories and languages and religious traditions and cultural value systems will be less important in the treacherous new international chapter we are entering now? If at home our culture is more tightly polarized over a greater range of issues, don’t we need the echt-humanistic training now more than ever: learning how to go out of ourselves to occupy the differently composed mental worlds of others, then bring back what they help us see that we had not grasped before, and, even, to discern how things self-evident to us could be made persuasive within the mental frame of another?

Delivering the value of the humanities to the broadest possible public is a mission as or more urgent in 2023 than in 2013. As we now know, there is no magic bullet. The work will still need to be diffuse, decentralized, and continuous. And we must struggle to connect with the actual world coming into being, since one lesson the humanities teach is that there is no going back.

So, what would help in this situation? Another American Academy commission? I have my doubts. The men and women I served alongside were smart, experienced, well connected, and widely respected. For intellectual firepower, that team could not be beat. But in order to have the degree of accomplishment needed to win election to the Academy, we had a few other things in common as well: we were not in our first youth, and the great majority of us had had our minds framed in elite institutions. Neither is ideal equipment for promoting insight or connection into the culture emerging today.

But the American Academy also publishes Dædalus, whose Summer 2022 issue on “The Humanities in American Life: Transforming the Relationship with the Public” offers something more hopeful. In Robert Townsend’s contribution we learn that thousands or even millions of our fellow citizens enjoy humanities content – history documentaries, for instance – without thinking to label them as humanistic. From the work of Alan Liu and his colleagues, we learn that humanities activities are constant presences in everyday life in forms wholly disconnected from academic conceptualizations. From Carin Berkowitz and Matthew Gibson, we learn of the vigorous life of local history projects with citizen participation sponsored by the state humanities councils. Humanistic persuasion nowadays is going to have to do more to involve the people and places where such life is taking shape.

This reminds me that during our Commission meetings, one of the most electrifying speakers was Eduardo Padrón, then President of Miami Dade College. With over 175,000 students, Miami Dade has the largest undergraduate enrollment of any U.S. college or university, more than half of them first-generation college-goers, more than two-thirds from low-wealth backgrounds. This, if anywhere, is where the future American public is being created. Padrón told us that of necessity, most students enrolled at Miami Dade are looking for two-year programs that can help them land a job – but that the humanities content of their study was critical in making large numbers of them want to continue their education later to secure a higher order career. Padrón himself was a late addition to the Commission: no one had thought to invite a community college president to sit in our august group. Maybe the problem is not the decline of the humanities in American life so much as our failure to look for them in places where they are going strong.

It’s always time for new minds to ask how to advance the things that make life richer for individuals and society. The Commission did valuable work in its day. Now it’s time to do the work in a new form for a new age.

© 2023 by Richard H. Brodhead

To access a copy of The Heart of the Matter, visit the Academy’s website.