A Dangerous Assault

February 8, 2013

This week, in what was billed as a major policy address, Virginian Eric Cantor, the Republican House majority leader, called for eliminating the research "funds currently spent by the government on social science — including on politics of all things...."

It is jarring indeed when a ranking national leader in a House of Representatives initially created to reflect the political will of the people proposes to do away with (or redirect, to be accurate) all research support for disciplines — including political science — that are patently basic to the fortunes of democracy and to Americans’ capacity for global leadership.

The only thing more chilling than the actual substance of such a policy proposal is the growing frequency with which similar pronouncements now appear. The fact is that the liberal arts and sciences are under sustained assault from policy leaders at both the federal and state levels. The liberal arts tradition, combined with the can-do strengths of the professions, has provided this country’s competitive advantage from the founding to the present. But indifferent to history, policy leaders seem bent on a voluntary undoing of American strength in studies that are fundamental both to democracy and to the global economy. Thomas Jefferson, the Virginian who helped articulate the integral connections between the liberal arts and democratic freedom, would surely be appalled.

Of course, the assault on the liberal arts tradition does not really extend to science and mathematics fields, even though these fields are an integral part of that tradition. Rather, it is the humanities and several of the social sciences that many public leaders have come to see as irrelevant (or worse) to America’s future. Notwithstanding the dizzying pace of change in the economy, policy leaders seem to imagine that a tighter focus on patently job-related fields of study now in short supply — STEM and selected "career fields" -- can somehow build the full range of skills and knowledge American society will need, as a whole, in the era of global interconnection we’ve already entered.

It used to be said that college needs to prepare graduates for "appointments not yet made" and the complex challenges that lie ahead. But no longer. In March 2011, the National Governors Association called for greater investment in college studies more directly tied to labor market demand, noting that, to do this, the United States might need to cut back on its traditional embrace of the liberal arts. In Florida, there is a proposal to charge less for STEM majors and more for others, including other liberal arts, while the governor has spoken out publicly against anthropology as a worthwhile major. In North Carolina, the new governor, egged on by conservative pundit William Bennett (who holds a Ph.D in philosophy), shared his view that public funds should not be spent to subsidize useless majors,  with a particular nod to gender studies. A majority of the 2010-12 class of the US House of Representatives has gone on record with its judgment that political science should no longer be eligible for funding from the National Science Foundation.

There is no need, of course, to defund the humanities: federal support has long ago shriveled to a tiny trickle for the entire range of humanities enterprise, history, philosophy, religion, global and cultural studies, languages, literature and more. Yet the global challenges Americans now face make the humanities and social sciences more central than ever before, not less, to our competitive future — as an economy and as a democracy.

How can we possibly imagine that the U.S. can continue to lead in a globally interdependent world when most Americans already know far too little about global histories, cultures, religions, values, or social and political systems — the very subjects that humanities and social sciences scholarship can help us explore? How will Americans usefully contribute to the freedom and well-being of women, children and families around the globe if leaders decide, going forward, that scholarship related to women is a waste of time and money?

In a series of national surveys, employers themselves — the supposed beneficiaries of the intended educational narrowing -- have called for more focus on global knowledge, a goal impossible to achieve if the social sciences and humanities are set aside. Illustrating the shortfalls they already see, employers who were asked to grade recent hires on various desired learning outcomes gave those graduates a failing grade on their global knowledge and understanding.

This nation’s signature tradition of grounding students’ college studies — whatever their major --  in a strong core of liberal arts and sciences inquiry has helped form generations of citizen innovators who, in turn, have made the United States a powerhouse of economic dynamism and creativity. This is the reason Steve Jobs observed so frequently that the "marriage of liberal arts and technology" was a key to Apple’s worldwide success. But strong learning depends on scholarly vitality. If scholarly work in specific fields withers away, there is no way that graduates’ and citizens’ accomplishments in these same areas can flourish.

Ironically, as our leaders work proactively to dismantle the liberal arts tradition in America, leaders of our chief competitors in Asia are embracing it. In Hong Kong, for example, the educational system is being reformed to add “liberal studies” -- meaning the humanities and social sciences — and general education in the arts and sciences at all levels, in the schools and across a university curriculum now expanded from three years to four. Asian policy leaders, it seems, see the value of the liberal arts tradition far more clearly than American policy leaders.

It is time for American leaders — educators and employers alike -- to say plainly and in concert that the current policy assault on the liberal arts is dangerous — dangerous not only to the quality of higher education, but dangerous also for America’s global leadership, for our democracy, and for our economy.

"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free," Thomas Jefferson observed in 1816, "it expects what never was and never will be.” Two years later, in a report of the commissioners for the University of Virginia, Jefferson offered his masterful — and still startlingly relevant in the current context — summary of the goals of education:

To give to every citizen the information he needs for the transaction of his own business; To enable him to calculate for himself, and to express and preserve his ideas … in writing; To improve by reading, his morals and faculties; To understand his duties to his neighbors and country, and to discharge with competence the functions confided to him by either; To know his rights; to exercise with order and justice those he retains; … to observe with intelligence and faithfulness all the social relations under which he shall be placed. To instruct the mass of our citizens in these, their rights, interests and duties … are the objects of education.

If we read this statement carefully, it becomes plain that these goals can only be achieved by an education that centrally includes learning in the social sciences and humanities, including, most certainly, the study of political life and democratic principles.

The notion that our democracy will survive, much less thrive, if we deliberately disinvest in research and learning in core disciplines that are essential both to democratic and to global capacity is a sobering folly indeed.

Bio

Carol Geary Schneider is president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

 

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