Making the Case

Advocates for the humanities search for the arguments to win federal support, and to stop having their disciplines treated "like a piñata."

March 19, 2013

WASHINGTON -- Each year, the scholarly and other groups that make up the National Humanities Alliance come to Washington to try to win federal support. This year, with many politicians uninterested in anything academic that doesn't have the acronym STEM in it, advocates said they welcomed the chance to make the case for the future of their disciplines.

The American Academy Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences will this June deliver a report to Congress on what steps lawmakers, institutions and individuals can take to protect the future of the academic disciplines.

“Even as we here today discuss the critical and inescapable need for funding support for the humanities, we should never forget the role of inspiring and exciting the next generation so the torch can be passed,” Karl W. Eikenberry, former United States Ambassador to Afghanistan and a member of the commission, told attendees gathered at George Washington University.

Eikenberry, along with Brown University President Christina H. Paxson, opened the first full day of the National Humanities Alliance's annual meeting by arguing supporters of the humanities must clearly communicate the benefits of their academic fields or risk losing the war of words on how higher education funding should be appropriated.

"It has become fashionable to attack government for being out of touch, bloated and elitist," with investments in the humanities seen as "an especially muddled form of higher education spending," Paxson said. "We need to engage in our conversation using all the humanistic tools at our disposal," or else, she added, "The humanities are in danger of becoming something like a piñata."

Although lawmakers are calling for colleges and universities to produce more science, technology, engineering and math graduates, Eikenberry said the challenges posed by the rise of Asian and South American countries means instructors in the humanities “can rest assured the previously announced end of history has been postponed.”

Paxson outlined major points that the roughly 180 scholars present at the conference should present not only to their lawmakers, but also to institutions feeling the pressure of budget cuts. In addition to arguing why a foundation in history can benefit college students, Paxson admitted that a case for the humanities includes some concessions.

"We need to defend that we don't always know the future benefits of what we study," Paxson said. "Therefore we should not reject one form of research as being less deserving than others. Random discoveries can be more important than the ones we think we're looking for."

Paxson mentioned how the demand for Arabic scholars spiked after the 9/11 attacks as an example that justifies the need for continued investments in the humanities. Such research cannot be invented overnight, she added, which means eliminating funding for what seems like an obscure academic area today could have dire consequences tomorrow. "The pace of learning is moving so quickly that it is all the more important that we maintain funding for the humanities precisely so that we remain grounded in our values," Paxson said.

Eikenberry, whose academic background includes master’s degrees from Harvard University and Stanford University in East Asian studies and political science, respectively, shared personal anecdotes from his time representing the U.S. abroad to illustrate the importance a grounding in the humanities has on his career -- much of which has revolved around projecting American values abroad. In Afghanistan, he said programs to renovate and restore museums and monuments have given Afghans a glimpse into their country’s history, while also helping to create an image of the U.S. that he said has, quite literally, too often been “shrouded by the fog of war.”

Instructors should not to allow their students to drop humanities studies without a fight, Eikenberry said. He recalled how he intended to drop Mandarin Chinese after his sophomore year at West Point to focus on engineering and science courses, but was persuaded by a civilian professor who insisted he join an immersion trip to Taiwan the summer before his junior year. The experience led Eikenberry to sign up for two more years of Chinese. He is now fluent in the language.

“Those who master foreign languages are more sensitive to the importance of clarity and verbal communications when working through an interpreter in a language they don’t understand,” Eikenberry said. “If I spoke no Chinese at all, I’d be a window shopper.... Only the humanities and the social sciences give one access and entrée into the store.”

Eikenberry said his anecdotes about the humanities serve as examples of how the U.S. exerts its influence abroad without wielding its military might.

“It was about deploying soft power,” Eikenberry said. A retired Army lieutenant general, he joked, “You might say that I have a very rich experience with working with America's hard power alliances.”

Audience members pressed Eikenberry and Paxson to further expand on how to sell higher education -- let alone majoring in the humanities -- to high school students and parents suspicious of the growing price of a bachelor’s degree. While neither speaker suggested radical changes to how the humanities should be taught, Eikenberry said instructors could immediately raise awareness about their importance by letting students debate the merits of applying historical evidence to challenges the U.S. currently faces.

“An appreciation of the humanities is cultivated through long practice and study, but a demonstration of humanities’ current value can serve as a powerful catalyst,” Eikenberry said.

Paxson, whose background is in economics, said she rejected the idea that public universities should focus on job training, while a liberal arts education should be reserved for those who can afford it at private institution.Institutions should allow students to pursue what they love rather than simply offer job training -- even if that means making them aware of the fact that they may not get a job in their field of study immediately after graduation, she said.

"There's a difference between training and education," Paxson said. "Training is something people have to expect to do over the course of their entire lives. Education gives you the capacity to change, to think."


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