The Path to Protecting Humanities and Social Sciences

By Catherine Gewertz — June 19, 2013 3 min read
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A new report recommends that the nation take 12 key steps to ensure that humanities and social sciences maintain an important place in American classrooms.

“The Heart of the Matter,” issued today by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, grew from a congressional request for guidance on how to protect the central role of those disciplines during an era that has ramped up the focus on the state-tested subjects of English/language arts and math, and on the hard sciences.

In 2011, the Cambridge, Mass.-based academy announced the creation of a commission to make recommendations in answer to that question. In its final report, it outlines 12 steps its members consider crucial to preserving a central role for the study of social sciences and humanities.

It groups three under the banner of “educating Americans in the knowledge, skills, and understanding they will need to thrive in a 21st-century democracy:"

• Supporting full literacy as a foundation for all learning, not just in school, but over a lifetime.
• Investing in the preparation of citizens in a democracy, by ensuring a “thorough grounding” in history, civics, and social studies.
• Increasing access to online resources, so all students—especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds—can use quality materials.

Five steps are aimed at “fostering a society that is innovative, competitive, and strong":

• “Significantly” increasing the federal government’s investment in research into social sciences and the humanities.
• Creating “cohesive curricula” to ensure “basic competency” in humanities and social sciences. This includes focusing on key “qualities of mind,” such as critical analysis, problem-solving, and communication.
• Creating a humanities “master teacher corps,” akin to the STEM Master Teacher Corps recently proposed by the White House. Loan-forgiveness programs designed to encourage advanced-degree holders into K-12 classrooms, and partnerships between higher education and K-12 schools could bring more expertise into precollegiate classrooms as well.
• Encouraging universities, foundations, research centers, and government agencies to bring representatives of all disciplines together to solve the world’s “grand challenges.”
• Communicating the broad implications of research to the public.

Four steps are intended to “equip the nation for leadership in an interconnected world":

• Promoting language learning. Schools can take advantage of blended learning approaches to streamline costs.
• Expanding education in international affairs and transnational studies. It recommends adoption of a new “national competitiveness act,” which would fund education in these areas.
• Supporting study abroad and international exchange programs for undergraduates.
• Developing a “culture corps” that matches adults with schools, community centers, and other groups to “transmit humanistic and social-scientific expertise from one generation to the next.”

In a world characterized by change, the study says, humanities and social sciences play a critical role in helping citizens understand where they came from and where they are headed.

“A fully balanced curriculum—including the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences—provides opportunities for integrative thinking and imagination, for creativity and discovery, and for good citizenship.

“The humanities and social sciences are not merely elective, nor are they elite or elitist. They go beyond the immediate and instrumental to help us understand the past and the future. They are necessary and they require our support in challenging time as well as in times of prosperity. They are critical to our pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness, as described by our nation’s founders. They are The Heart of the Matter.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.