The New York Times
June 18, 2013
Committee Sounds an Alarm
new national corps of "master teachers" trained in
the humanities and social sciences and increased support for
research in "endangered" liberal arts subjects are
among the recommendations of a major report to be delivered
on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.
The report comes amid concern about low humanities enrollments
and worries that the Obama administration's emphasis on science
education risks diminishing a huge source of the nation's intellectual
strength. Requested by a bipartisan group of legislators and
scheduled to be distributed to every member of Congress, it
is intended as a rallying cry against the entrenched idea that
the humanities and social sciences are luxuries that employment-minded
students can ill afford.
People talk about the humanities and social sciences "as
if they are a waste of time," said Richard H. Brodhead,
the president of Duke University and a co-chairman of the commission
that produced the report. "But this facile negativism forgets
that many of the country's most successful and creative people
had exactly this kind of education."
Those people, Mr. Brodhead pointed out, include both President
Obama (political science major) and Mitt Romney (English), as
well as most of the 54 members of the commission, which includes
distinguished jurists, business leaders, artists, scholars,
university presidents and politicians, many of whom offer stirring
testimonials on the value of their own liberal arts training.
The 61-page report, called "The
Heart of the Matter," which was shepherded by the American
Academy of Arts and Sciences and based on meetings held around
the country over two years, arrives trailing some of its own
controversy, thanks to recent allegations that Leslie C. Berlowitz,
the academy's president, had misrepresented her scholarly credentials.
But, more crucially, it lands at a time when the humanities
and social sciences are themselves often accused of being frivolous
at best, fraudulent at worst.
Last fall a task force organized by Gov. Rick Scott of Florida
caused a national outcry with the recommendation that state
universities charge higher tuition to students in fields - like
anthropology or English - deemed less likely to lead to jobs.
At the same time, Republicans in Congress have repeatedly tried
to eliminate financing for political science research through
the National Science Foundation, except for that deemed to be
essential for national security.
And a report this month by Harvard University, long a bastion
of the liberal arts, drew alarm with statistics showing that
only 20 percent of its undergraduates in 2012 were majoring
in the humanities, a drop from 36 percent in 1954.
Nationwide, a mere 7.6 percent of bachelor's degrees were granted
in the humanities in 2010, a figure several people connected
with the report said reflects understandable but exaggerated
fears about job prospects.
"We are preparing students to be employable," said
Eduardo J. Padrón, a commission member and the president
of Miami-Dade College, a mostly two-year institution, whose
175,000 students include many immigrants and low-income students.
But without the humanities and social sciences, he added, "they
are missing something important."
The commission, whose other co-chairman is John W. Rowe, former
chairman of the energy company Exelon, puts strong emphasis
on the pragmatic value of the humanities. One chart in the report
highlights a survey showing that 51 percent of business leaders
regard liberal education as "very important," while
74 percent unequivocally want it for their own children.
The report touches on some contentious issues, starting with
its clear endorsement of the Common Core, a national standards
initiative that has been embraced by more than 40 states and
the District of Columbia and is aligned with the drive toward
Its recommendations for increased attention to teaching at the
university level may also raise hackles. Russell Berman, a literary
scholar at Stanford University and former president of the Modern
Language Association, who is not a member of the commission
but has seen the report, pointed out its call for scholars to
offer "broad-gauged, integrative courses" rather than
just those "narrowly tied" to their own research.
The report "is trying to turn the dial away from the absolute
primacy of research toward a healthier balance of research and
teaching," he said. "Them's fighting words in parts
of higher education."
Pauline Yu, the president of the American Council of Learned
Societies and a member of the commission, defended the report's
treatment of scholarly research, which it calls the "core"
of the humanities and social sciences at all levels.
"The statement is right there: research is the 'bedrock'
of everything else," Ms. Yu said.
The report, which encourages support for foreign language learning
and international study, also notes that China, Singapore and
some European nations are currently turning to American-style
liberal arts education "as a stimulus to innovation and
a source of social cohesion."
Here, it warns, "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."