Teaching the humanities bolsters ingenuity

  • By Julie Ziegler, Alex Zimmerman and Michael Zimmerman
  • Monday, July 29, 2013 7:09pm
  • OpinionCommentary

Think the humanities are irrelevant or dead? The Chinese and Russians don’t.

At a time when support for the humanities is in decline in the United States, countries with a reputation for crushing free speech are introducing Western-style, liberal-arts education to their universities. Ironic? Yes. But their reasons for doing so are clear: The humanities and social sciences offer a clear competitive advantage in our increasingly interconnected world. This shift in priorities begs serious consideration about the role the humanities play in our national security and well-being.

Last week, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences published such an assessment: The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive, and Secure Nation. Requested by a bipartisan congressional group, this report reaffirmed the importance of a broadly educated citizenry to our nation’s future.

Heart of the Matter supports a powerful economic argument for the humanities. Historical knowledge creates a foundation upon which we build the future. Rigorous philosophical discussions teach us to develop and defend positions. Reading and writing programs make us strong communicators. These qualities are all prerequisites for jobs in a modern economy.

“Specialized education is certainly effective for developing isolated skills sets,” wrote Whitworth University student Rebecca Korf, winner of the Washington Consortium for the Liberal Arts essay contest. “But our economy and society ask for citizens with varied and dynamic abilities.”

Twenty-five years ago, many Americans believed the Japanese were poised to economically dominate the world. They were educating engineers more efficiently and exporting superior and cheaper products. But today, with the tech sector more important than ever, it is American companies — including many located in Washington — that drive innovation and dominate markets.

Our companies, well served by previous investments in the humanities, knew that creativity and vision were every bit as crucial as coding. A better understanding of the human experience empowered them to innovate — and to bring to market products well suited for increasingly complex lives. In fact, our national commitment to the humanities and social sciences attracted the most promising engineers from around the world to study at our universities and seek employment with our companies. Given such great success, why would we willingly cede that competitive advantage?

Of course, defending the humanities and social sciences solely on economic grounds only hints at their overall importance to our national well-being.

For a long time, America’s status as a global superpower owed less to a strong economy or dominant military than to our social and cultural ingenuity. Before we had the world’s largest economy or most formidable army, our quieter “soft” powers commanded attention. The resilience, integrity and transformative presence of American social institutions, our openness to new ideas and ways of life, and the appeal of our popular culture earned us goodwill and positioned us as an international leader.

We cannot hope to sustain such soft power without a profound and nuanced understanding of other cultures. The Heart of the Matter notes the high cost of our lack of language training and education about the Middle East. Such deficits can best be met with the knowledge of social and cultural differences gained in humanities and social-science classrooms.

The report also stresses the importance of the lifelong learning and the role of the public humanities in providing access to such. For example, Humanities Washington’s Family Reading program sees grade-schoolers wrestling with the moral and ethical issues in children’s literature, while its conversation-based programs bring educational opportunities to a wide range of ages and backgrounds. Such programs spark cultural conversations and build stronger communities.

In recent years, funding for the humanities and social sciences has dropped precipitously – putting our country at risk. We must meet the challenge presented by The Heart of the Matter report. Investment in the humanities offers clear economic return, but also much more: a healthy nation positioned to maintain its leadership role in an increasingly interconnected world.

Julie Ziegler is executive director of Humanities Washington, the state’s flagship nonprofit for the humanities. Alex Zimmerman is the study abroad coordinator at the University of New Mexico. Michael Zimmerman, vice president for academic affairs at The Evergreen State College, helped found the Washington Consortium for the Liberal Arts.

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