Yanked from the Margins

New panel is charged by bipartisan quartet of Congressmen to find 10 ways to strengthen the humanities and social sciences.
February 18, 2011

A new blue-ribbon commission has been assembled in a bid to put the humanities and social sciences on an equal footing on the public agenda with science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“We feel strongly that it’s time to bring all these disciplines into constructive interplay,” Leslie C. Berlowitz, president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, said during a conference call with reporters Thursday morning to announce the formation of the group, which has been dubbed the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences.

“The humanities and social sciences have not been as much on the national agenda. Part of this effort is to show how integrated the two are,” she said, referring to those fields’ connection to the sciences. “You can’t teach math and science to people who can’t read.”

The commission’s 41 members represent a broad range of disciplines and backgrounds, including artists (Emmylou Harris and Chuck Close), college presidents (Drew Gilpin Faust of Harvard University and Donna E. Shalala of the University of Miami), academics (Kwame Anthony Appiah, professor of philosophy at Princeton University, and Gerald Early, professor of modern letters at Washington University in St. Louis), former governors (John Engler of Michigan and Phil Bredesen Jr. of Tennessee), and private sector heavyweights (James McNerney, chairman, president and CEO of Boeing, and John E. Warnock, chairman of Adobe Systems).

The group's work will cost about $1 million, and has been funded, in part, with start-up money from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The panel is meant to parallel a similar effort focused on the sciences, which is being undertaken by the National Academies. The results of that report will be a set of recommendations for how various sectors can support research universities in achieving national goals in health, energy, the environment, and security.

The Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences will meet over the next year to 18 months and eventually recommend what its organizers call concrete and actionable plans for those in government, education and philanthropy to strengthen teaching and research in the humanities and social sciences.

While similar efforts have been attempted before, such as the Association of American Universities' 2004 report, “Reinvigorating the Humanities,” the work of this commission will differ, says the academy, because its focus will go beyond the AAU's emphasis on research universities (though that report did recommend that colleges form partnerships with K-12 schools and cultural organizations) and on the humanities alone. The commission has been given the job of identifying the top 10 actions to support both sets of disciplines that can be taken by universities, K-12 educational institutions, governments, foundations and donors.

The commission came into being as the result of a request from Senators Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.), as well as Representatives Tom Petri (R-Wisc.) and David Price (D-N.C.). The goal of the commission, the public officials wrote, is “to maintain national excellence in humanities and social scientific scholarship and education, and to achieve long-term national goals for our intellectual and economic well-being; for a stronger, more vibrant civil society; and for the success of cultural diplomacy in the 21st century.”

The civic and democratic function of the humanities and social sciences is especially important in American life, said Richard H. Brodhead, president of Duke University, and co-chair of the commission. He described how the Declaration of Independence drew upon humanist thought. "In the most literal sense, the country was founded on ideas," he said during Thursday's call. And although the humanities focus on the past, he said that a deeper awareness of these disciplines is essential to solving tough problems in the present. “I regard humanities as the treasure house of ideas,” he said.

The notion that the humanities and social sciences play an important role in national security has also been articulated before by such figures as David Skorton, Cornell University's president (and a member of the commission). "When I hear military leaders talking about winning the so-called hearts and minds of people in other countries, the way I translate that is all based on humanistic and social science disciplines," he said in a "state of the university" address. "That requires that we understand the language, the culture, the religion, and the values of those societies -- and that is the humanities."

At the same time, the humanities and social sciences will have significant ground to make up if they are to achieve parity with STEM fields, which have received significant public attention and investment. President Obama's proposed budget for 2012 seeks $100 million to train teachers in these fields over the next decade.

The commission's effort to bolster the humanities and social sciences also takes place amid hard times for those disciplines. In recent months, the State University of New York at Albany has called for the closing of three foreign language departments, as well as classics and theater; Howard University will end majors in classics, anthropology and other fields in order to place greater emphasis on STEM training and Africana studies; and members of Congress have sought citizen input on which grants, most of them in the social and behavioral sciences, should be cut from the federal research budget.

In her remarks on Thursday, Berlowitz cited other dire data from the academy's humanities indicators, including a 46 percent decline over the past 30 years in the number of humanities degrees conferred as a proportion of all bachelor’s degrees. In addition, more than half of all students graduating from American high schools in 2006 could not demonstrate basic knowledge of history; over a third lacked basic knowledge of civics, she said.

Berlowitz argued that the relative decline of the humanities over the past half-century occurred as higher education became more widely available to larger swaths of the population, many of whom wanted to be sure the investment would pay off in the form of a first job. Careerism crept into the vocabulary of academe, and business degrees grew to become the most popular major.

John W. Rowe, chairman and CEO of Exelon Corporation and co-chair of the committee, said that he sees the results of these trends in the work place. Many employees have poor writing skills, and demonstrate an ignorance of history and weak knowledge of geography and foreign cultures. "There usually seems to be money that's findable for the sciences, but the liberal arts are always struggling for resources," he said.

But Rowe was also careful not to place the sciences and humanities -- or, for that matter, a practical and liberal education -- in opposition to each other. "I’d never discourage college students from thinking about how to have productive or remunerative employment," he said. “I don’t think trying to be wise and trying to be useful are in conflict.”

News of the commission's formation met with hearty approval from one advocate for the humanities. Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, found it particularly heartening that the commission was created as a result of a bipartisan request, especially in an environment in which deep cuts have been proposed to the humanities and the arts.

But Feal also wondered whether there will be money to ensure that the commission's recommendations will be adopted. "The question is not whether this commission will succeed -- I have no doubt of that," she wrote in an e-mail. "It's whether the federal funders will do their part to ensure that the vision of the commission becomes a reality."

The panel and its members are:

  • Danielle S. Allen, professor of political science, Institute for Advanced Study
  • Kwame Anthony Appiah, professor of philosophy, Princeton University
  • Norman R. Augustine, chairman and Chief Executive Officer (Retired), Lockheed Martin Corporation
  • Robert M. Berdahl, president, Association of American Universities
  • Phil Bredesen Jr., former governor of Tennessee
  • Richard H. Brodhead, president, Duke University (co-chair)
  • Louise H. Bryson, chair emerita, J. Paul Getty Trust
  • Ken Burns, Director and Producer, Florentine Films
  • Tom Campbell, professor of business, University of California at Berkeley; former member of Congress
  • G. Wayne Clough, secretary, Smithsonian Institution
  • James Cuno, president and director, Art Institute of Chicago
  • Gerald Early, professor of modern letters; director, Center for the Humanities, Washington University in St. Louis
  • John Engler, former governor of Michigan
  • Drew Gilpin Faust, president, Harvard University
  • Roger W. Ferguson Jr., president and chief executive officer, TIAA-CREF
  • Richard B. Freeman, professor of economics, Harvard University
  • Annette Gordon-Reed, professor of law and of history, Harvard University
  • Anthony Grafton, professor of history, Princeton University
  • Amy Gutmann, president, University of Pennsylvania
  • Emmylou Harris, Musician/Songwriter
  • Robert M. Hauser, professor of sociology; director, Center for Demography of Health and Aging, University of Wisconsin at Madison
  • F. Warren Hellman, co-founder, Hellman & Friedman LLC
  • John L. Hennessy, president, Stanford University
  • Kathleen Hall Jamieson, professor of communications; director, Annenberg Public Policy Center, University of Pennsylvania
  • The Rev. John I. Jenkins, president, University of Notre Dame
  • John Lithgow, actor
  • George Lucas, Producer, screenwriter; director; founder and chairman, Lucasfilm Ltd.
  • Carolyn (Biddy) Martin, chancellor, University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • James McNerney, chairman, president and chief executive officer, Boeing Company
  • Carl H. Pforzheimer III, managing partner, Carl H. Pforzheimer and Co.
  • John W. Rowe, chairman and chief executive officer, Exelon Corporation (co-chair)
  • John Sexton, president, New York University
  • Donna E. Shalala, president, University of Miami
  • David J. Skorton, president, Cornell University
  • David Souter, former associate justice, Supreme Court of the United States
  • Eric Sundquist, professor of English, Johns Hopkins University
  • Billie Tsien, architect, Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects
  • Charles M. Vest, president, National Academy of Engineering
  • John E. Warnock, chairman of the board, Adobe Systems, Inc.
  • Diane P. Wood, federal judge, United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit
  • Pauline Yu, president, American Council of Learned Societies


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