A Meager Defense of the Humanities

Please send money.

Sadly, that is the message of “The Heart of the Matter,” the 2013 paper published by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences in defense of the humanities and social sciences. I read the report recently because it will be the subject of a public discussion at North Carolina State University in March.

Since the commission created to write this paper was packed with dignitaries and presidents of top universities, including Duke University’s Richard Brodhead and New York University’s John Sexton, I expected it to be substantive and elevated in thought and tone. But, possibly because it was packed with higher education luminaries, it turned out to be a plea for money rather than a discussion of the value of humanities and the social sciences.

I should have been suspicious after learning of a scandal surrounding the sponsor, the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. The academy is a private honor society in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that goes back to the days of the American Revolution and has an illustrious membership. But last July the executive director, Leslie Cohen Berlowitz, resigned under pressure after she improperly stated that she had a Ph.D. from New York University and after it became public that she was earning $598,000 a year—a high salary for a non-profit think tank with several dozen employees.

The motivation for the paper seems to have been envy of the federal government’s funding of STEM disciplines. The report is sprinkled with such phrasing as: “while the NSF [National Science Foundation] also provides much-needed funding for the nation’s top graduate students in science, budget constraints have kept the NEH [National Endowment for the Humanities] from offering similar support for the next generation of humanities scholars.” The paper argues that the humanities and social sciences need help, too.

The formal genesis of the paper came from Congress. In a letter to the academy in 2010, two senators, Lamar Alexander and Mark Warner, and two representatives, David Price and Thomas Petri, requested that the academy create a commission to “assess the state of humanistic and social scientific scholarship and education.”

A proper response, it seems to me, should have been a probe into the drastic decline in interest in the humanities—history, literature, philosophy, the arts. That decline is due in large part to the fact that humanities professors themselves reject the traditional values underlying those disciplines. As for social sciences—economics, political science, sociology—the paper should have looked at whether their scholarship is fostering analytical thinking. It is widely recognized, for example, that overemphasis on the mathematical side of economics has diminished attention to economic principles.

But instead of determining the state of these disciplines or arguing why their study is valuable, this paper promotes financial support on somewhat simplistic grounds. It’s written as if its audience is state legislators or bureaucrats whom the academics view as interested only in jobs. The three stated goals of the report have a utilitarian tone:

  • Educate Americans in the knowledge, skills, and understanding they will need to thrive in a twenty-first-century democracy.
  • Foster a society that is innovative, competitive, and strong.
  • Equip the nation for leadership in an interconnected world.

To accomplish those goals, the commission urges the nation to “strengthen literacy,” “find new ways to support our educators,” ”reconnect our K-12 schools and teachers to the broader scholarly community,” “share best practices,” “address grand challenges,” etc., etc.

In other words, it offers generalizations and sound bites so broad as to be meaningless.

Some phrases do criticize the state of liberal education but skirt around actual deficiencies in higher education. The decimation of general education in our colleges is mentioned, but with the politest of nods. “Courses narrowly tied to academic and research specializations can be extraordinarily valuable to students…. But college and university curricula must also offer the broad-gauged, integrative courses on which liberal education can be grounded….”

In case you think this means some kind of core curriculum, forget it. “We are not arguing for a return to the ’general education’ model of some idealized past,” the report says.

The commission’s argument for supporting liberal arts—which is what this is supposed to be, apparently, rather than a critique—is vanishingly thin. Even the report is thin. Out of its 88 pages, 26 are devoted to back matter, with extensive listing of the qualifications of the commission members. Footnotes take up an additional five pages. Front matter (acknowledgments, more listings of commissioners, and the executive summary) take up 11 pages. Six pages are devoted to full-page color pictures. That leaves 40 pages of big print with lavish quotations and lots of white space. 

And, as I’ve indicated, the 40 pages don’t say much. While the introduction points to the “mounting evidence from every sector, of a troubling pattern of inattention that will have grave consequences for the nation,” it illustrates with only three examples: parents are not reading to their children they way they used to; humanities teachers are not as well-trained as they should be; and federal funding for “international training and education” has been cut. This is a defense of humanities and social science?

Of course, the authors are speechless for good reason. When it comes to a liberal arts education, especially the humanities, a defense simply doesn’t exist in the academy any more. The disciplines have been enfeebled because:

  • You can’t say that we should understand natural rights, because natural rights may come from God and most of the academy doesn’t believe in God.
  • You can’t say that we learn about our human nature through Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, or Flaubert, because they are dead white males.
  • You can’t say that some values are worth dying for, as many did in the American Revolution, for example, because that is militaristic.
  • You can’t say that the thinking spawned by Western civilization lay the foundation for human liberty because you sound like a TeaPartier.

There really isn’t much you can say to defend the humanities as they are now constituted in academia because the humanities faculties themselves have rejected so much of what they once were.

But you can always defend the concept of research. The paper devotes one of its five thematic sections to research, quoting liberally from a report by the National Academy of Sciences that urged more money for research universities.

That section urges scholars to “connect with the public” so that taxpayers will be “more financially supportive.” It urges that “public-private partnerships” create endowed chairs in the humanities and social science. And if there are too few jobs for academy-trained scholars, more should be done to help them find nonacademic jobs. (This is an appalling way to address the current glut of Ph.D.s.)

As far as I’m concerned, this is thin gruel indeed.

The presidents and dignitaries on the commission behind this paper would have done well to consult Heather Mac Donald, who recently defended the humanities in the Wall Street Journal. She described the humanities as “the loving duty we owe those artists and thinkers whose works so transform us,” and as a “constant, sophisticated dialogue between past and present,” a dialogue that goes back centuries and that became “a defining feature of Western civilization, prompting the evolution of such radical ideas as constitutional government and giving birth to arts and architecture of polyphonic complexity.”

Mac Donald has an understanding of what liberal arts ought to be about.

True, university spokesmen—as represented by this report—recognize, if only dimly, that their institutions were once the repository for a dialogue with the past. But the reasons for the dialogue have been lost as the conversation has shifted to the need for, and ways to obtain, financial support. Yet more money won’t help their project unless students and professors really believe in the value of these studies. It’s too bad that this report does so little to justify that belief.