Never let a (humanities) crisis go to waste

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Flower featured in the film The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive, and Secure Nation. Photo credit: American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Flower featured in the film The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive, and Secure Nation. Photo credit: American Academy of Arts and Sciences

Last August, fans of the Colbert Report saw Duke University President Richard Brodhead encourage study in the humanities as essential to a balanced education. The interview segment can be seen here. Brodhead’s appearance was part of a marketing campaign engineered by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) that was designed to advance support for the humanities in much the same way that the National Academy of Sciences had promoted Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) with its 2007 report Rising above the Gathering Storm. Brodhead’s appearance may have been unusual for taking the case for humanities education to such a popular audience, but it reflected the AAAS’s conviction that a national dialogue on the importance of the humanities was necessary to its future.

The campaign’s cornerstone was the report The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive, and Secure Nation, authored by a blue-ribbon commission of scholars, university presidents, and business leaders. Star power included George Lucas, John Lithgow, David Brooks, Ken Burns, and Yo-Yo Ma. Faced with countless reports of a “crisis in the humanities,” it is not surprising that the promotional effort had a hint of desperation, most apparent in a protracted flower metaphor advanced in the promotional eight-minute video. (“The stem of the flower is in fact STEM–science, technology, engineering, and math. But the blossom of the flower is the humanities. Without the blossom, the stem is completely useless. It’s just a stem,” explains Lithgow.)

In contrast to the video, the report eschews rhetorical devices and promises the fulfillment of hard-boiled, national needs—cultivate an “adaptable and creative workforce,” build a “more secure nation,” address “Grand Challenges,” “participate in a global economy,” exercise “civil political discourse,” and “lead our foreign service and military through complex global conflicts.” The humanities might be the heart of the matter, but in the language of the report, they aren’t just pretty flowers.

The 2014 National Council on Public History (NCPH) annual meeting saw the creation of another blue-ribbon group. This one, inspired by the Heart of the Matter report, questions whether the humanities is truly in crisis, and if so, how it should be addressed. As scholars primarily working in the public humanities, we were particularly concerned by the scant attention to public and popular forms of humanities engagement given by the 88-page AAAS report. Was the crisis of the academy the same as what was being experienced by state humanities councils, historical societies, and museums? How did public humanists perceive their audience’s appetite for history, literature, and related subjects? We also wanted to examine the history of the justifications that have been made for federal investment in the humanities. Crisis narratives and global politics have a long tradition in humanities advocacy, playing a prominent role in the 1965 legislation which established the National Endowment for the Humanities and National Endowment for the Arts. Indeed, just as STEM investment prompted today’s advocacy efforts, Sputnik-era science and Cold War tensions produced the conviction that the United States should be a world-class intellectual leader and needed federal funds to do it.

In the coming weeks, History@Work will feature a series of posts coming out of our NCPH panel discussion. Mary Rizzo, Public Historian in Residence at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities and co-editor of The Public Historian, compares the current emphasis on “civic engagement” as a justification for the public humanities with earlier attempts to engage public policy. Nancy Conner describes a unique project of the Indiana Humanities Council to map the humanities “ecosystem” in her state, while Ralph Lewin and Jamil Zainaldin write from the perspective of executive directors of thriving state humanities councils about the relationship between the public and academic humanities. We also encourage you to look at the blog of Assistant Professor of History at Northeastern University, Ben Schmidt, who contributed to the panel and showed us that declines in university humanities enrollments are not nearly what they are cracked up to be.

For my own part, I left our annual meeting panel concerned about the narrative of crisis and attempts to assuage it. In many ways, I had embraced the “crisis,” sure that it would rally the troops. But I came to see that crisis could be a self-fulfilling prophecy and the assumption that no one cares about humanistic learning or exploration a replacement for the truth. People will always care about the humanities because the humanities are about being human. That doesn’t mean that people will always care about Shakespeare or Proust, which is fine. Each generation will find its own path to self-exploration. Human beings’ desire to understand themselves is so ingrained that they will struggle to do so whether or not the NEH is fully funded or whether state humanities councils are there to provide support. But that doesn’t mean support for the humanities is not important. What is most at stake is access and diversity of participation—with rising student debt, declining income, and shrinking leisure time, we run the risk of the humanities becoming a luxury furthering the divides that mar our society.

In many ways, we are in a new culture war, as fraught as anything in the 1990s. While the old culture war attacked the humanities for its multiculturalism and adoption of critical theory, the new questions its utility. Austerity-oriented education policymakers assume that learning is really about job training and economic growth and that we are too poor a nation to invest in the joy of self-discovery, appreciation of our cultural traditions, or understanding those who are different from us. I recognize all of those things that people say the humanities do – and I know them to be true. The humanities will build a stronger nation, allow us to participate in a global economy, improve our foreign policy, and build a more capable workforce. But it would be wrong to reduce the humanities to only utilitarian ends. Dollar-wise, support for the humanities is cheap. We can and should invest in both bread and roses.

~ Briann Greenfield is executive director of the New Jersey Council for the Humanities

5 thoughts on “Never let a (humanities) crisis go to waste

  1. Looking forward to seeing this series unfold! It’s great that you’re questioning the so-called “crisis” and situating it within the context of other “austerity”-driven projects and alarms.

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