There would be no America if Thomas Jefferson cared more about beans and viticulture than the truth that all men are created equal, if John Adams cared more about the legality of contracts for debt than liberty, if Benjamin Franklin cared more about inventing and marketing new technologies than the pursuit of happiness. America arose on a foundation of ideas, dialogue, values, and aspirations that still stand today at the heart of a strong liberal — and liberating -- education.
America is an idea, not just a land or an institution. America is not based, as many countries are, on territory, language, religious sectarianism, class, ethnic history, tribal dominance, blood, or culture. Our founders read carefully and thought deeply about ideas of freedom, equality, justice, and democracy. And so should all Americans, through studies in the humanities and arts.
Yet many Americans seem not to be thinking at all about the need for dedicated liberal education in order to preserve, protect, and advance America’s courageous experiment. Too many leaders — on all parts of the political spectrum — think technical training and job skills are the way to prosperity and security. They are dismissive of the potential power of engaging diverse ideas and thinking through deep immersion in the arts and humanities. Their theory seems to be that we can be successful in the pursuit of happiness, economic justice, and entrepreneurial prosperity without the necessity of thinking and imagining — that we no longer need to examine ideas and values, but only economic results and graduates' financial "return on investment."
And so we see everywhere the present relentless dismissal and marginalization of the humanities and arts -- fundamental fields of study that, by any thoughtful reckoning, provide indispensable resources for enduring prosperity and strong, democratic republics.
These developments are crippling. As Thomas Jefferson warned, "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be." He knew — and we need to recognize — that studies in the arts and humanities, across both school and college, help secure the future of freedom by fostering capacities essential to self-governance.
Read The Federalist Papers, and you will understand that politics is the resolution of legitimate conflicting interests, and that the goal of governing is to mitigate the violence of factions formed against the common good and the rights of individuals. Questions about these topics abound in our society (and every society). The leaking of the National Security Agency’s glut of information about Americans invites a deep discussion of liberty and security in a democratic republic that knows itself at risk from enemies. The fevered questions surrounding the death of Trayvon Martin and the prosecution of George Zimmerman take us back to core questions of justice, liberty, and community. Yet when we lack the preparation to talk about serious problems and events as our founders could, the deliberations necessary to self-governance too readily devolve into rants and factions.
A new proposal to further deplete the humanities and arts has arrived with fresh and startling evidence that studies our founders saw as fundamental now are considered expendable. The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations recommends that federal funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities be reduced by 49 percent in fiscal year 2014. The committee recommends a comparable slashing for the National Endowment for the Arts. In its report to accompany the budget resolution for fiscal year 2014, the House Committee on the Budget states that federal subsidies for NEH and NEA (and other public programs) "can no longer be justified" because "the activities and content they fund are generally enjoyed by people of higher income levels, making them a wealth transfer from poorer to wealthier citizens."
This conclusion that the arts and humanities are luxuries for those with disposable income misunderstands fundamentally the life of a democratic republic that derives its strength from ideas and values more powerful than factions based on differences in wealth and class. Democracy requires the muscle of ideas and values that we learn to flex in grappling with core texts in the humanities and arts -- our greatest ally in the pursuit of economic and social justice. A liberal education rich in such studies empowers citizens to lead change and solve problems collaboratively and imaginatively with people whose perspectives, histories, and world views may be very different from their own. Democracy and a creative economy depend on these capabilities and falter when they are lacking.
The contemporary dismissal of the humanities and arts weakens America domestically and also undermines brave people globally seeking to build effective self-governing republics based on the consent of the people. Those serious about these goals understand that the ideas of democracy and liberty are stronger than militaries or disbursals of cash. Free societies will not be achieved by technocratic means without a foundation in ideas and values. The humanities and arts are disciplines "basic to democracy" because, while all learning is important to civic inquiry and vitality, the humanities and arts play a distinctive role in developing knowledge and a temper of mind and heart that are indispensable to a free society.
Through the study of history we come to understand the roots, contexts, and complexities of issues we face as citizens. Studies in our democratic heritage confront us directly with fundamental questions about justice, freedom, obligation, equality, and democracy itself. Through philosophy and religion, we explore questions of meaning and value and come to understand the sources of our own and other peoples’ most profound commitments and concerns. Through literature, we develop empathy, imagination, and insight about the varieties of human experience and about shared hopes and frailties.
The combined study of history, literature, arts, and languages empowers us to engage cultures and communities different from our own, while regional and comparative studies hone the dialogue of democracy and economic opportunity at home and abroad. The study of the creative, visual, and performing arts brings us into direct contact with powerful expressions of the human spirit and develops our capacities for creativity, communication, and self-expression.
Together, the humanities and arts take us beyond the known to the realms of the possible. The night Martin Luther King was assassinated, Robert Kennedy quoted Aeschylus to an angry crowd gathered in Indianapolis. He respected the mostly poor and black Americans who came to hear him with a text and ideas revealing the human condition in ways that the House committee does not understand. Although 200 cities erupted into flames that night, Indianapolis did not. Arts and humanities inspire us to dream of things that never were, and ask: Why not? They cultivate, in sum, the kinds of imagination, creativity and inventiveness that give life and hope to a vigorous, flourishing entrepreneurial economy and a vibrant democracy.
The capacity of all Americans to thrive and succeed should be a national and patriotic priority. Far better to expand all students' engagement with the humanities and arts than to deceive less advantaged students with overwrought and shortsighted promises that narrow vocational training is their best choice in a fast-changing economy and all they really need.
But it is not enough just to ensure equitable access to study the arts and humanities. We also need to think deeply about how students engage these disciplines and especially about pedagogies that will most effectively develop their strengths for economic foresight, political empowerment, and the security of our country.
In recent months, there have been intense media and academic controversies over contested textbooks, both the Texas history text and Howard Zinn’s history of the American people. We believe that these debates help focus the question of whether ANY single text or textbook, whatever its merits, ought to serve as the dominant or exclusive lens through which students explore humanistic questions and topics. For democratic communities, no single story can ever be adequate. Our ability to say "we" legitimately comes only when we explore the many in the one, whether domestically or globally. E pluribus unum.
Students reap the full benefits of study in the arts and humanities only when they move beyond repeating a single voice or limiting their ideas to a single text or textbook. Students gain when they courageously engage with multiple voices and artifacts, classic and contemporary, Western and global. When the humanities and arts are studied in this way — exploring significant questions, both contemporary and enduring, through respectful engagement with differing insights, perspectives, and creative works — they build capacities that enable us to secure and enlarge the future of freedom and increase the wealth of America and the world.
Over several decades, our two organizations have enacted together the value of studying diverse primary texts and contested questions. Every summer, the Wye Seminars, co-sponsored by the Aspen Institute and by Association of American Colleges and Universities, provide rich opportunities for faculty and other academic leaders to explore fundamental questions about liberty, justice, equity, prosperity, and effective citizenship through a collaborative study of often conflicting texts, classic and contemporary. Both organizations have made this commitment to support faculty and academic leaders’ dialogue about citizens’ responsibilities in the American and global polity because we believe that democracy requires deep, thoughtful, and respectful engagement with legitimate difference. Faculty who have experienced this kind of liberal learning re-enact it with their students, to democracy’s benefit.
Our founders gave us a self-governing republic and challenged us to nurture and sustain it. It will be impossible meet this responsibility if the humanities and arts continue to be marginalized in our society or if these essential forms of learning are taught reductively, through the lens of a single text, a single view, or a single faction. These methods diminish the power of ideas and dialogue.
To abandon this common, foundational wisdom is to weaken America and democratic republics across the globe. Leaders who undervalue ideas, arts, and humanities open the door to plutocrats, despots, factions, violence and chaos — all of the ancient enemies of prosperity, freedom, and democracy.
Carol Geary Schneider is president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. David Townsend is senior advisor for seminars of the Aspen Institute, and director of Wye Seminars on Citizenship in the American and Global Polity. The views offered in this essay are the authors' own.
Imagine a bright sunny day at a major league baseball park. It’s the middle innings of a good, but not notable, game. The lead-off batter hits a long ball down the third base side that arcs foul and heads for the seats. Just as it’s about to land in the bleachers, a gloved hand seems to appear from nowhere and snags a souvenir. The crowd goes wild and the recipient waves his trophy for all to see.
But what’s the big commotion really all about. The ball itself is only worth a few dollars. If that same person found something much more valuable, like a $20 bill, on the sidewalk, people might congratulate him, but no one, let alone thousands, would stand and cheer. The cheering has little to do with the value of the ball, but rather the process of receiving it. Some in the stands will say to their friends “Nice catch, huh?” Others may remark on the preparation needed for someone to bring a glove to the ballpark and stay alert enough through the entire game to be ready for just that moment. Everyone will appreciate that few get the chance to make such a "big catch." But few will say, "Wow, he got a great baseball out of that!"
This scene provides a lesson to those of us in academe: While the knowledge we create has value, it’s the process of creating that knowledge that generates passion and excitement. This lesson probably seems trivial to many of us who have spent our entire careers pursuing our passions in the lab or the library, but unfortunately, too few of those outside of the academy appreciate this basic reality, and this lack of appreciation is in large part our own fault. More than 1 million students earned bachelor’s degrees last year in the United States and more than 600,000 others received associate degrees. That’s 1.6 million people who voluntarily signed on to serve as academic apprentices to us. We had the chance to show them how to make the great catch, but too often we simply gave them the baseballs.
Think of an undergraduate history course, for example. If you ask most undergraduate students to tell you about what they learned in their history courses they will talk about dates, or major social-political upheavals, or great battles and their consequences. But surprisingly few can talk about how that history was written, the scarcity of contemporary records for some events, the difficulties of verifying first-person accounts, the recasting of events over time to be consistent with changing political perspectives.In other words, they have received the baseball, examined it, and come to understand it; but we failed to share with them the excitement of how it came to be. Similarly, too many students come away from our natural science courses thinking that science is knowledge consisting of equations, principles, and specific laboratory techniques, like titration.
I am of course generalizing in many ways. Chemistry majors understand that science is about discovery and history majors have wrestled with trying to reconcile contradictory sources, but most students in history classes are not going to become historians; for many this may be the only history course they take from a real historian. How unfortunate that those students didn’t come to appreciate what historians are and what they do. And the same holds true for most students in our introductory science courses.
How the world would be different, if each year more than a million people left our institutions understanding what we, as faculty, do with all of that time that we’re not in the classroom, what excitement there is in discovering something no one else has ever known, and the value that these discoveries bring to society. Those million-plus people become voters and taxpayers and some of them become corporate leaders and politicians. The world could be a very different place if they better understood faculty work and why universities are important.
This is not simply another call to include undergraduates in research. That is important, but not sufficient. Clearly, students who spend several years, or even a semester or summer, working closely with a faculty mentor in research are likely to come to understand the importance of knowledge creation and the impact such work has on faculty, students, and society. But, given the pace of expanding national enrollments versus the pace of expanding the faculty, we will not be able to offer that kind of experience to the majority of our students any time in the foreseeable future.
Instead, we must reshape our courses to reflect our passions for discovery as well as the ideas and facts that those passions have generated. The current emphasis on team-centered learning and “flipped” classrooms provides an opportunity to rethink not only how we teach, but what we teach. Much of the work to date, however, has been on the incorporation of student skills (participation in a team, student-led learning, etc.) into existing courses. We must also use this opportunity to create course objectives that are defined not simply by content and student skills, but also by creating an understanding of the nature of the discipline(s) upon which a course or curriculum is built. In the future, our courses must be designed to help students appreciate the processes of discovery that define our disciplines, and they should make evident to our students the rewards and the excitement that comes from creating knowledge using those processes.
Just as few of us will have the chance to snag a foul ball at a major league baseball game, so too will few of us succeed in making that really big discovery that redefines a discipline. But, all of us can appreciate the excitement of such a discovery and feel envious that it wasn’t us who made it. Those emotions are what drive us as faculty members and our students deserve the opportunity to see and understand that passion, as well. It will make them better students and better future citizens.
Kim A. Wilcox has just finished his tenure as provost at Michigan State University, and is returning to the faculty.
I’m conferencing with students
On their first drafts
And this one has taken the course
Twice before and failed
And he brings me only two pages
Of the six I assigned
And he says he’s having trouble
With the summaries
And also should he put the thesis
In the introduction
Or just where do I want it to go
And I say it depends
On if you want to start with a question
And then examine
How others have responded to it
And then your answer
Would be your thesis in your conclusion
But then I realize oops
He’s standing before a vending machine
And I won’t take his dollar.
Laurence Musgrove is professor and chair of English and modern languages at Angelo State University.
Lawyers and a disability rights advocate stressed that faculty members must be proactive rather than reactive in making sure their online courses and materials are accessible for students with disabilities.