Humanities commission co-chaired by Brodhead releases report

Jun. 19, 2013 @ 06:52 PM

U.S. lawmakers and educators should strengthen their focus on humanities and social sciences for the advancement of U.S. elementary, secondary and higher education, global competitiveness and employable skills, the national Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences said Wednesday.

The commission, co-chaired by Duke University President Richard Brodhead, presented their report to a group of Democratic and Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hil. The group includeed U.S. Rep. David Price of Chapel Hill, who represents North Carolina’s 4th District, according to the commission.

The commission was created in 2010 as part of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, an independent policy research center that studies emerging problems, encourages public engagement and mentors a new generation of scholars, according to its website. The humanities commission’s 53 members include former associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court David Souter, as well as musician Yo-Yo Ma and film director George Lucas.

The report, titled “The Heart of the Matter,” pinpoints the humanities, which include the study of languages, literature, history, film, civics, philosophy, religion and the arts, as well as social sciences, which include anthropology, economics, political science and government, sociology and psychology.

The commission held six regional forums and four national meetings to discuss the future of humanities and social sciences learning. One forum was in Durham last October.

“We must recognize that all disciplines are essential for the inventiveness, competitiveness, security and personal fulfillment of the American public,” the report states.

Brodhead, in a question and answer session with Duke Today on Duke’s website, discussed the worrisome trend of humanities and social sciences slowly losing nationwide support.

“The problem people found was not that the faucet was leaking or the light bulb was broken,” Brodhead said. “The problem we found was that the humanities are undersold. The perception of the values of the humanities has eroded to the point where people think they can just dismiss them.”

According to the report, the U.S. has shifted its focus to the importance of STEM disciplines, or science, technology, engineering and mathematics. In July 2012, President Barack Obama proposed the creation of a STEM Master Teacher Corps to recognize STEM educators, incentivize STEM teaching and encourage teacher cooperation to improve STEM education.

A similar program is needed to gain attention for humanities and social sciences education, according to the report.

The report also highlighted the need for K-12 and higher education to increase support of study-abroad programs and language immersion programs.

“At the very moment when China and some European nations are seeking to replicate the U.S. model of broad education— as a stimulus to innovation and a source of social cohesion — we are instead narrowing our focus and abandoning our sense of what education has been and should continue to be — our sense of what makes America great,” the report states.

Other recommendations made by the report include more training for humanities teachers, more federal funding for international training and education and more collaboration between K-12 schools and colleges and universities.

Brodhead shared with Duke Today that the university is a great fit to advance such initiatives.

“Humanities isn't all research, but the understanding of the past and foreign cultures is based on research,” Brodhead said. “So a great research university has a special mission to be a place of understanding and the transmission of knowledge of the past, knowledge of other cultures, as well as habits of thinking. So we have a research function and a teaching function.

“In the summer, when you come to campus, you'll often see a sixth-grade class getting off a bus to visit someone's lab,” he said. “We play a role giving back to K-12 education. But we could play a bigger role. Every college can.”

In terms of a humanities education affecting job prospects, 51 percent of employers endorse the concept of a humanities and social sciences education as very important, according to an online survey conducted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities that was cited in the report. Three in four employers would recommend such an education to their own child or a young person they know.

International competiveness also is affected by a nation’s waning or growing focus on humanities and social sciences, according to the report.

“Whatever one’s politics, we can agree that the wars of the past decade have underlined the difficulty of fighting abroad without a subtle understanding of foreign histories, social constructs, belief systems, languages and cultures,” the report stated.