The release of the report "The Heart of the Matter" by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences has renewed the debate about the role of the humanities and their relevance in contemporary society. Following a 2010 bipartisan request from Congress, the 41-member committee examined the crisis confronting humanities education — the academic disciplines of languages, literature, history, civics, philosophy, ethics, religion and the arts — and set out an agenda for the future.
The humanities "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 ideas we hold in common," the commission wrote in its report. The American Council of Learned Societies writes that the humanities help us "understand what distinguishes us as human beings as well as what unites us." They tell us where we've been and where we are going.
National commissions are not established, especially at the request of Congress, unless a crisis exists. Fifty years ago, 14 percent of college degrees were in the humanities. Today, that number is 7 percent. In 1954, 36 percent of degrees were in the humanities at the elite liberal arts university, Harvard. Today, it is 20 percent. Federal and state support for the humanities has fallen drastically.
There is no general agreement as to why interest and support for the humanities has diminished, but let me offer three explanations.
First, is the economy.
Many argue that STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) majors get jobs; humanities majors get unemployment compensation. There is no doubt that degree holders in math and the sciences are more likely to get jobs, and good-paying jobs, than one could find with a humanities degree. As the cost of a university education escalates, there is greater pressure from parents and students to focus on fields where jobs are available and pay is substantial.
While the above is true, it does distort the value of a humanities education. In a survey done for the recent national report, 51 percent of employers endorsed a liberal arts education and 74 percent said they recommended that their children pursue liberal arts degrees.
There is also the misperception that the high-tech, computer-oriented companies only want and hire those with STEM degrees. A 2008 study by Wadhwa, Freeman and Rissing examined 652 U.S.-born Silicon Valley CEOs. Of this number, 37 percent had degrees in computer science and engineering, only 2 percent had math degrees, and the majority came from liberal arts/humanities backgrounds.
One of the giants of modern technology, Steve Jobs of Apple, did not have a college degree. Should we argue for no college if you want to be the next Steve Jobs? Jobs told 2005 graduates of Stanford that, even though he lacked a degree, one of the experiences that most influenced him at Reed College was his exposure to calligraphy. He discovered the relationship between discipline and creativity.
A second reason for the demise of the humanities degree is political.
A "liberal arts" degree is seen by many as a degree in how to be a liberal. Many of the public comments responding to a recent National Public Radio story about the report related to what individuals saw as the liberal agenda of the humanities. One wrote that "Pet programs that liberals love that are useless are not going to be funded anymore. Bye, Bye Big Bird." Another tied together both the economic and political issue in one sentence: "17 trillion in debt and liberals are worried about arts and sciences."
Since I served as a political science professor for 35 years and have served on the board of the Florida Humanities Council for more than five years, I am sure many readers assume I am also a liberal. Sorry. I have been a lifelong Republican, although, recently, some in my party are making it difficult. Not only am I a Republican, I have served as a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, America's leading conservative "think tank." A liberal arts education has nothing to do with political ideology.
A final problem for the humanities has been self-inflicted wounds.
As columnist David Brooks wrote in a recent op-ed, the humanities lost their way over the past 30 years. Instead of focusing on big issues of truth, beauty and goodness, the humanities shifted to political issues of race, class and gender, and then became very moralistic about politics and less judgmental about private morality so as not to offend anyone.
"The Heart of the Matter" offers three goals to strengthen and advance the humanities:
• Educate Americans in the knowledge, skills and understanding they will need to thrive in a 21st-century democracy.
• Foster a society that is innovative, competitive and strong.
• Equip the nation for leadership in an interconnected world.
Putting all of our resources in the STEM disciplines does not serve the best interests of students or the nation. We need both a strong STEM curriculum as well as a strong humanities core. Glenn Seaborg, former head of the Atomic Energy Commission, told a Senate committee that "we cannot afford to drift physically, morally or esthetically in a world in which the current moves so rapidly perhaps towards an abyss." Science and technology are providing us with the means to travel swiftly. But what course do we take? This is the question that no computer can answer.
The humanities and national security are also intertwined. After 9/11, the nation was not prepared to deal with the threat of terrorism. We had so few speakers of Arabic that thousands upon thousands of emails, reports and documents could not be translated.
As Karl Eikenberry, U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and retired Army lieutenant general noted, "Anybody who wants to be an area specialist wants to know a lot about a certain part of the world: its customs, culture and language. … So the study of the humanities and social sciences is absolutely critical, not only as it applies to foreign studies, but also to knowing something about ourselves." Science may develop weapons, but the humanities help us to decide when, and if, to use them.
Political leaders often criticize the lack of civic knowledge of citizens, but civic education is virtually nonexistent. As former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor noted in an interview with the Washington Post, "In over half the states in the union, civics education is not required. … If we don't take every generation of young people and make sure they understand that they are an essential part of government, we won't survive." History courses are being dropped as part of the curriculum, and fewer than 30 percent of public high school students are taught by a history teacher with a degree and certification in history."
Florida is blessed to have the Florida Humanities Council (floridahumanities.org) to help our schools bring the humanities to our state. Since 1971, its public programs, educational seminars, statewide magazine, cultural tours, and many other offerings have brought Florida's history and cultural heritage to thousands of Florida schools, communities, and families. In addition, over the past 40 years the humanities council has distributed more than $8 million in federal funds to support humanities projects and programs in small towns and large cities across Florida.
The choice we face is not choosing whether to support the STEM disciplines or the humanities. We need them both. It is not an either/or choice. Each needs the other to function effectively. Attacking the humanities is not in the best interest of the STEM disciplines and it is not in the best interest of the nation. We can do both STEM programs and the humanities. In fact, we must support both.
Darryl Paulson, board member of the Florida Humanities Council, is professor emeritus of government at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.