Invest in the Humanities Now

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

Countries actively crushing free speech are introducing Western-style liberal arts education in their universities. Ironic, yes! More importantly, however, we should ask ourselves why we think the humanities are irrelevant when others are so interested.

The humanities are all around us. And, while they're known in academic circles as the core of the liberal arts, they are anything but liberal -- or conservative, for that matter. They're the indispensable exploration of who we are, why we exist and how we should seek to live.

A couple of weeks ago marked the release of "The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive, and Secure Nation by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences" by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The report was requested by a bipartisan congressional group to begin the conversation about the discipline's importance to our nation's future.

Take a look at a short film associated with the report to get a sense of the report's core message:

Although it might be surprising to some, at the most basic level, a solid economic argument for the humanities can be made. Learning about our history creates a foundation upon which to plan for the future. Rigorous philosophical discussions teach us to develop and defend positions. Reading and writing programs build strong communicators. All these qualities are fundamental requirements for a growing majority of jobs in the modern economy. However, relying solely on economics misses a more important truth.

America's status as a global superpower owes less to the strength of our economy or the dominance of our military than we might expect. Before we had the world's largest economy or most formidable army, it was our soft power that caused others to take notice. The resilience and integrity of American social institutions, our openness to new ideas and ways of life, and the appeal of our culture, from Hollywood to Woodstock, have earned us more goodwill and brought more benefit than the sale of any weapons system.

Twenty-five years ago, many Americans believed Japan was poised to dominate the world. The Japanese were educating engineers more efficiently than we were, and exporting electronic appliances both cheaper and more functional than ours. Today, the high-tech sector is more important than it was then, yet it's largely American companies that dominate.

This is not because our engineers and computer scientists are superior to others, but because our companies realized that design, vision and innovation are as critical as coding. Without the humanities and social sciences, we can never understand how our inventions interact with and enhance our lifestyles, preventing them from reaching their full potential. Indeed, it's this ethos that attracts the most promising engineers from around the world to study at our universities and seek employment with our companies.

Likewise, we cannot hope to perpetuate our soft power without a profound and nuanced understanding of the cultures with which we interact. The recently released report points out that our lack of language training and education in the history of the Middle East has cost us deeply over the past decade, and in many countries in the region, America may never again be viewed as favorably as it once was.

As the report stresses, one is never too young to start a meaningful education in the humanities, nor too old. In Humanities Washington's family reading programs, grade-school children discuss moral and ethical issues presented in children's literature. In this forum they discuss such topics as perseverance, greed, honesty and personal responsibility. On the other end of the spectrum, Humanities Washington's speakers engage adults of all ages and backgrounds in conversations about our culture and our community.

Similarly, our colleges and universities are critical gathering places for minds young and old. The Washington Consortium for the Liberal Arts (WaCLA) is a new organization designed to promote the full breadth of the liberal arts. In the winning entry of WaCLA's first annual liberal arts essay contest, Whitworth University student Rebecca Korf, writes, "Specialized education is certainly effective for developing isolated skills sets, but our economy and society ask for citizens with varied and dynamic abilities." Her liberal arts education will prepare her for a career, and so much more.

Funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities, and for public colleges and universities, has fallen precipitously. Meanwhile, China and Russia are investing in their universities, and their new leaders come largely from backgrounds in the humanities and social sciences. While technical skills are certainly important, the humanities are an indispensable part of our country's success. Will we be able to keep up? Will we even understand the need to try?


A shorter, modified version of this essay was originally published by the Seattle Times on 11 July 2013. Joining me in authoring this piece were Julie Ziegler, executive director of Humanities Washington, and Alex Zimmerman, study abroad coordinator at the University of New Mexico.