Liberal Education

Liberal Education and the Humanities

Readers of this journal will surely agree that the humanities are necessary and central to a liberal—and liberating—education. As this issue of Liberal Education goes to press, we are all witnessing dramatic demonstrations of the struggles for justice and meaningful democratic inclusion both here in the United States and around the world. As educators committed to justice and greater inclusion—and to the mission of educating informed and globally engaged citizens—we must all raise our voices to ensure that the humanities remain a vital part of our educational systems. While funding for the humanities is under attack, it is encouraging to me to see that there are now some very powerful voices beyond those in the AAC&U community who are helping make the case for the importance of the humanities in higher education and in our society.

Why have members of Congress—both Republicans and Democrats—called for the formation of a new national commission on the arts and humanities? Why has Cornell’s President David Skorton, a physician and scientist by training, publicly decried—in the Washington Post—the proposals to decrease funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities?

These national leaders—along with myself and thousands of dedicated faculty members in many fields and colleges all across the country—understand how important the humanities are to this nation’s future. For too long, however, we have not clearly and loudly articulated why the humanities are so important to our shared futures.

The humanities help us make sense of the complexity of the world we inherit—including our histories, values, and cultural traditions. They help us to explore competing visions of the past and future, and to probe what it means to be human. All these themes are vitally important to individuals and to our society as a whole. 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 the Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative’s 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. As Martha Nell Smith so passionately asserts in this issue, the humanities are not a luxury. They are necessary to any student’s preparation for success in college and to any institution that claims to provide a high-quality college education.

With the exceptions I cite above, however, most of the discussion about higher learning today, especially in policy circles, ignores the humanities completely—a neglect that could prove disastrous to our nation’s future. If one looks, for example, at the majority of the for-profit institutions that now occupy so much policy attention (pro and con), one sees that 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 this journal 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.” This point was recently reinforced by Apple CEO Steve Jobs’s high-profile recognition of the key relationship between the humanities and innovation. Speaking at the March 2nd unveiling of the second-generation iPad, Jobs explained that “it’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough; it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing. And nowhere is that more true than in these post-PC devices.”

Moreover, the humanities challenge graduates—regardless of their profession—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 was 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.”

We are, indeed, in the midst of a radical reinvention of our culture—and of our higher education institutions. Part of that reinvention entails exciting new designs for learning and new ways to integrate technology into our classrooms, including our humanities classrooms. This reinvention is also, however, happening in the midst of profound economic, civic, and educational challenges.

At the heart of meeting these challenges, and of reinvigorating the humanities and reenergizing our society’s commitment to them, is a set of realities sketched out powerfully in this issue of Liberal Education. Tens of thousands of faculty members—full-time and part-time, with and without tenure or the prospect of tenure—have committed their lives to research and teaching in the humanities. Tens of thousands more faculty in many other fields are strongly committed to partnering with their colleagues in the humanities to help students “connect the dots” of their own learning about complex societal issues. The challenges these faculty members face, however, are profound. As a community, we must find a way to ensure a continuing commitment to the humanities as central to educational excellence. Yet, the humanities will not survive unless we also find ways to ensure that the faculty of the future have the support they need to continue to reinvent how they teach the humanities to future generations.

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