A broken heart of the matter

The American Academy of Arts & Sciences has released a report, “The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a vibrant, competitive and secure nation.”   The report offers a good call, but it ends up breaking my heart.  At the beginning, the report asks: “Who will lead America into a bright future?” And, then the report answers, “Citizens who are educated in the broadest possible sense, so that they can participate in their own governance and engage with the world. An adaptable and creative workforce. Experts in national security, equipped with the cultural understanding, knowledge of social dynamics, and language proficiency to lead our foreign service and military through complex global conflicts. Elected officials and a broader public who exercise civil political discourse, founded on an appreciation of the ways our differences and commonalities have shaped our rich history.”

At the outset, the report sounds like a call for a political scientist full employment act: Citizenship, governance, national security, elected officials… these all sound like buzz words incident to the study of political science.  What’s not to like about a report that talks about the importance of these topics for college education?  But, the details of the report don’t deal with those issues or problems in any direct sense.

Of particular promise is the section on “Two- and Four-Year Colleges.” It  leads not with a discussion of curriculum or on the centrality of politics and governance but with expression of public concerns about ”the cost of college, the debt burden students can incur, and whether colleges actually provide the skills students need to thrive.”  (p. 32)

Costs, debt and outcomes of college education are important topics, but their discussion is a shift in emphasis.  The report indicates that higher education must “face these challenges squarely” and “colleges must do their part” to contain costs, but then the tenor of the report shifts yet again.  “Colleges,” the report tells us, “have important work to do in explaining what the value of their education consists of, and in assuring that they are living up to this promise.”   It adds, “This case needs to be made to every relevant audience: students, parents, governors and legislators, and the public at large.”

As important as the case for liberal arts is, and as important as making that case to the public is, the concerns about informed citizenry guiding the political life of the nation are hijacked.   The report talks about the importance of liberal arts education to employers (p. 33). In later sections, the report calls for development of a culture corps (pp. 51-52) and greater accessibility to on-line resources (p. 52). It joins calls for greater intercultural competency, promotion of language learning and so on – laudable things all – but quite a different place than its starting place: talk of civic participation and governance.

I do think learning about civic life and governance has a rightful and proper place in education. (A political scientist could hardly think otherwise!) But, I think – as a whole – even on its own terms for promotion of the humanities and social sciences — the report sells the importance of humanities and social sciences short.  I am truly sorry report depicts so limited and small a role for them in human thought and life.  Only citizenship and governance — what a disappointment! The study of politics is great, but other things matter too. I am truly sorry that the report does not make a better case. My heart will heal, but the report has broken it a little.

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