The Heart of the Matter: Why we need the humanities & social sciences more than ever

Maria Popova argues that the humanities help us become more human, and highlights actor John Lithgow’s quote from the above short film, among others:

Without the humanities, life doesn’t have life – that’s the heart of the matter.

Here is my favorite quote by documentary filmmaker Ken Burns:

The humanities spend a great deal of time embracing our world, and when you embrace your world you see the similarities between people, you also see the differences and you learn how to respect those differences.

Opening ourselves and embracing the world is an excellent metaphor for global education, holistically understood as a process of transformative learning, in which we change not merely cognitively but in how we relate to ourselves, others, and the world. This kind of transformation is exactly what we need if we are to respond effectively to mounting global challenges.

In his commencement address at Brandeis University last month, The New Republic‘s literary editor, Leon Wieseltier, asked:

Has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were cherished less, and has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were needed more?

Jordan Weissman of The Atlantic answers the first question with

Yes. That would be 1985.

Which is true when you only look at the evolution of degrees in the humanities.

Wieseltier’s second question, however, is much more important than the first, and it is the one that Harvard’s Humanities Project, and now the report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Commission on the Humanities & Social Sciences, attempt to address.

While the former recommends changes in the curriculum, internship and advising to make the humanities more cross-disciplinary, collaborative and engaged, and thus provide a better professional orientation and preparation, the latter focuses on goals intended to better prepare Americans for global life and work in the 21st century.

In essence, we need the humanities and social sciences more than ever because the US and the world face unprecedented challenges and those disciplines provide unique and invaluable resources to address those challenges on many levels.

The three main goals and thirteen broad recommendations of the AAAS’ report speak so directly to the urgent need to globalize education, that it is worth summarizing them in their entirety:

1. Educate Americans in the knowledge, skills, and understanding they will need to thrive in a twenty-first century democracy

  • Support literacy as the foundation of all learning
  • Invest in the preparation of citizens
  • Increase access to online resources, including teaching materials
  • Engage the public

2. Foster a society that is innovative, competitive, and strong

  • Increase investment in research and discovery
  • Communicate the importance of research to the public
  • Create cohesive curricula to ensure basic competencies
  • Strengthen support for teachers
  • Encourage all disciplines to address ‘Grand Challenges,’ such as the provision of clean air and water, food, health, energy, and universal education

3. Equip the nation for leadership in an interconnected world

  • Promote language learning
  • Expand education in international affairs & transnational studies
  • Support study abroad and international exchange programs
  • Develop a ‘Culture Corps’
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