The Heart of the Matter

Executive Summary

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Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences

As we strive to create a more civil public discourse, a more adaptable and creative workforce, and a more secure nation, the humanities and social sciences are the heart of the matter, the keeper of the republic—a source of national memory and civic vigor, cultural understanding and communication, individual fulfillment and the ideals we hold in common.

The humanities remind us where we have been and help us envision where we are going. Emphasizing critical perspective and imaginative response, the humanities— including the study of languages, literature, history, film, civics, philosophy, religion, and the arts—foster creativity, appreciation of our commonalities and our differences, and knowledge of all kinds. The social sciences reveal patterns in our lives, over time and in the present moment. Employing the observational and experimental methods of the natural sciences, the social sciences—including anthropology, economics, political science and government, sociology, and psychology—examine and predict behavioral and organizational processes. Together, they help us understand what it means to be human and connect us with our global community.

Scientific advances have been critical to the extraordinary achievements of the past century, and we must continue to invest in basic and applied research in the biological and physical sciences. But we also must invest more time, energy, and resources in research and education in the humanities and social sciences. We must recognize that all disciplines are essential for the inventiveness, competitiveness, security, and personal fulfillment of the American public.

Evidence of the particular needs of the humanities and social sciences now reaches us from every sector. Parents are not reading to their children as frequently as they once did. Humanities teachers, particularly in K-12 history, are even less well-trained than teachers of STEM subjects. And funding to support international education has been cut by 41 percent in four years. Each of these pieces of evidence suggests a problem; together, they suggest a pattern that will have grave, long-term consequences for the nation.

At the very moment when China and some European nations are seeking to replicate our model of broad education in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences—as a stimulus to innovation and a source of social cohesion—we are instead narrowing our focus and abandoning our sense of what education has been and should continue to be—our sense of what makes America great.

This report advances three goals:

Goal 1

Educate Americans in the knowledge, skills, and understanding they will need to thrive in a twenty-first-century democracy.

The humanities and social sciences provide an intellectual framework and context for understanding and thriving in a changing world. When we study these subjects, we learn not only what but how and why.

  • Support full literacy as the foundation for all learning. The nation depends on a fully literate populace—on citizens whose reading, writing, speaking, and analytical skills improve over a lifetime. These are among the principal skills that the humanities and social sciences teach, and they must be nurtured at every level of education.
  • Invest in the preparation of citizens. Democratic decision-making is based on a shared knowledge of history, civics, and social studies. A thorough grounding in these subjects allows citizens to participate meaningfully in the democratic process—as voters, informed consumers, and productive workers.
  • Increase access to online resources, including teaching materials. Foundations, private donors, libraries, and museums should partner with federal, state, and local education leaders—as well as with individual scholars—to help ensure that quality materials reach all students, especially those in economically disadvantaged K-12 schools.
  • Engage the public. Through public-private partnerships, support a strong network of schools, museums, cultural institutions, and libraries that engage the public in humanities and social science activities.

Goal 2

Foster a society that is innovative, competitive, and strong.

The ability to adapt and thrive in a changing world is based not only on instruction for specific jobs of today but also on the development of professional flexibility and long-term qualities of mind: inquisitiveness, perceptiveness, the ability to put a received idea to a new purpose, and the capacity to share and build ideas with others.

  • Increase investment in research and discovery. To ensure the vibrancy of humanities and social science programs at all levels, the federal government should significantly increase funding designated for these purposes through the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Science Foundation, and other relevant agencies. Because state and federal budgets are currently stretched to fund more programs with fewer dollars, a wider community of philanthropic individuals and foundations should also join the effort.
  • Create cohesive curricula to ensure basic competencies. To ensure that graduates of k-12 education, as well as two-year and four-year colleges, are prepared for a satisfying and productive adult life, scholars and teachers should begin to reverse the trend toward an ever-more fragmented curriculum. Educators should focus new attention on the “qualities of mind”—problem-solving, critical analysis, and communication skills—that are embedded in all disciplines.
  • Strengthen support for teachers. The Commission encourages the creation of a Humanities Master Teacher Corps to complement the STEM Master Teacher Corps recently proposed by the White House. In addition, enhanced partnerships between elementary and secondary schools and higher education institutions, including continuing education opportunities for K-12 teachers and loan-forgiveness programs to encourage the entry of advanced-degree holders into K-12 classrooms, can help enrich teaching at every level.
  • Encourage all disciplines to address “Grand Challenges.” The Commission joins the National Academies’ National Research Council, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health in recommending that foundations, universities, research centers, and government agencies draw in humanists and social scientists together with physical and biological scientists to address major global challenges. Humanists and social scientists are critical in providing cultural, historical, and ethical expertise and empirical analysis to efforts that address issues such as the provision of clean air and water, food, health, energy, and universal education.
  • Communicate the importance of research to the public. Scholars and the public will both benefit if scholars project the broader implications of their research and writing, and if they articulate these implications for a wider audience. Scholars in all disciplines should embrace the chance to connect with the larger community.

Goal 3

Equip the nation for leadership in an interconnected world.

The humanities and social sciences teach us about ourselves and others. They enable us to participate in a global economy that requires understanding of diverse cultures and sensitivity to different perspectives. And they make it possible for people around the world to work together to address issues such as environmental sustainability and global health challenges.

  • Promote language learning. State and local school districts should establish programs to increase language learning, including immersion programs for second languages. Programs might include blended learning technologies to facilitate language learning in schools that lack funding or infrastructure for additional classes. Colleges should build on and expand these competencies.
  • Expand education in international affairs and transnational studies. The Commission recommends the creation of a new “National Competitiveness Act”—which, like the original National Defense Education Act, would include funding for education in international affairs and transnational studies. In addition to stable support for existing study-abroad programs, this act would help revive endangered disciplines and prepare citizens for a global economy.
  • Support study abroad and international exchange programs. Every undergraduate should be encouraged to have a significant international experience. Because government agencies including the Departments of State, Defense, and Commerce as well as the U.S. military require the kinds of expertise that students can acquire only through advanced study and immersion in other cultures, the federal government should increase support for the Fulbright Program and the Department of Education’s Title VI international and language programs, among others.
  • Develop a “Culture Corps.” Encourage cities and states, libraries, and other organizations like the Corporation for National & Community Service to develop a “Culture Corps.” The corps would match interested adults (retirees, veterans, artists, library, and museum personnel) with schools, community centers, and other organizations to transmit humanistic and social scientific expertise from one generation to the next.

These goals invite all stakeholders, public and private alike, to embrace a new commitment to collaboration, and a new sense of mutual obligation to the role of the humanities and social sciences for a vibrant democracy.

We live in a world characterized by change—and therefore a world dependent on the humanities and social sciences. How do we understand and manage change if we have no notion of the past? How do we understand ourselves if we have no notion of a society, culture, or world different from the one in which we live? A fully balanced curriculum—including the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences—provides opportunities for integrative thinking and imagination, for creativity and discovery, and for good citizenship. The humanities and social sciences are not merely elective, nor are they elite or elitist. They go beyond the immediate and instrumental to help us understand the past and the future. They are necessary and they require our support in challenging times as well as in times of prosperity. They are critical to our pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness, as described by our nation’s founders. They are The Heart of the Matter.