The LEAP Challenge Blog

Liberal Education and the Humanities: A Major Gift Renews Hope for the Future

The humanities are both central and necessary to a liberal—and liberating—education.  The humanities help us make sense of the complexity of the world we inherit—including our histories, values, and cultural traditions.  They help us explore competing visions of the past and future and probe what it means to be human.  All these themes are vitally important both to individuals and to our society.  One of the academy's most fundamental responsibilities is to explore and teach about global issues and democratic aspirations and realities at home and abroad.  These explorations and the root commitments to equality, liberty, and the expansion of justice all depend fundamentally on the humanities’ heartbeat.

While there are other important dimensions to liberal education as AAC&U has made clear in its Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) articulation of "Essential Learning Outcomes," it is absolutely impossible to provide students with the benefits of liberal learning absent a strong grounding in humanities questions, disciplines, and perspectives.  The humanities are necessary to any institution that claims to provide a high quality college education.

Yet most of the discussion about higher learning today—especially in policy circles—ignores the humanities completely—a neglect that will ultimately prove not just costly but disastrous to our nation’s future.  If one looks, for example, at the majority of the for-profit institutions that now occupy so much of policy attention (pro and con), the great majority of them have no capacity to teach the humanities at any level of acceptable quality. (THAT is the scandal we should be investigating.)

Yet, as Dan Edelstein noted in a special issue of our journal, Liberal Education, on the humanities last year, “By providing students with the best opportunities for learning how to innovate, the humanities play a determining role in producing the entrepreneurs, engineers, and designers that make the American economy so productive.”  Indeed, whatever the professional role, the humanities challenge graduates to raise larger questions about the wisdom and implications of their choices.  And, as one faculty member pointed out to me, when life comes knocking at our door, the humanities help us ensure that a full human being will be ready to respond.

In that spirit, I am mightily encouraged by the gift that the Andrew Mellon Foundation has just given to the University of Wisconsin-Madison in support of the humanities.  As Chancellor Biddy Martin put it when announcing the grant, "Philosophy and history are at the core of the cultural legacy that makes us, in part, who we are.”  Martin noted further that, "The funding will allow [the University] to strengthen fields that are essential to the education of our students and to the body of scholarship that preserves and reinvents culture."

I applaud both UW-Madison and the Mellon Foundation for their determination to provide new leadership and visibility for the humanities at a moment when our society desperately needs an educational wake-up call. The entire University of Wisconsin system was the very first state system to partner with AAC&U’s LEAP initiative.

UW-Madison has been an active and creative leader within the LEAP effort.   Through this partnership, educators throughout Wisconsin have worked together to explain to the public why a liberal education is so important for every college student and to ensure that all their students gain the benefits of an engaged liberal education.  The Mellon gift and the wider commitment of the entire University of Wisconsin system will play a crucial role in fulfilling the promise of LEAP for Wisconsin students today—and for years to come.  Wisconsin has been a valiant leader for liberal education, and it is both heartening and significant that its flagship campus is now stepping forward to return the humanities to their rightful place.