An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Winter 2009

The power of the humanities & a challenge to humanists

Richard James Franke
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Richard J. Franke, a Fellow of the American Academy since 1996, is chairman and chief executive officer emeritus of the John Nuveen Company. He was a recipient of the 1997 National Humanities Medal and the Modern Language Association's 2007 Phyllis Franklin Award for Public Advocacy of the Humanities. He is the author of “Cut from Whole Cloth: An Immigrant Experience” (2005).

The humanities protect and give life to our most enduring values. The very DNA of civilization is encoded in the poet’s song, the painter’s brushstroke, and the vibrant dialogue about ideas. Although the study of the humanities cultivates the critical thought necessary for a civil society, it has suffered neglect over the last few decades, both in terms of financial support and in the national debate on education.

Among our great universities, Harvard, Chicago, Yale, and Columbia have recently redefined their general education curricula. While all four institutions affirm that the purpose of a liberal education is to pursue knowledge without explicit concern for vocational utility, Harvard’s Report of the Task Force on General Education emphasizes how education should relate to students’ personal, social, and eventual professional lives. Specifically, the report declares, “The ambition of the program of general education . . . is to enable undergraduates to put all the learning they are doing at Harvard . . . in the context of the people they will be and the lives they will lead after college.”1

General education curricula include the humanities and the sciences, both of which are considered necessary for a complete education. Yet federal funding for the humanities and the sciences has diverged significantly over the last thirty years. For example, in 1979 the dollar value of National Science Foundation (NSF) grants was five times greater than grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). By 1997, NSF grants were thirty-three times greater than NEH grants.2  According to the NSF’s 2005 annual Survey of Research and Development Expenditures at Universities and Colleges, total spending for science and engineering research and development was almost $46 billion.3  Even given the most generous estimate, humanities research and development expenditures did not exceed $1 billion in 2005. . . .

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  • 1Task Force on General Education, Report of the Task Force on General Education (President and Fellows of Harvard College, 2007), preface.
  • 2John Hammer, On Federal Support for the Humanities in Comparison with the Sciences (American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2007).
  • 3WebCASPAR, Integrated Science and Engineering Resources Data System, (accessed October 15, 2007).