Panel Launched to Study Humanities and Social Sciences

Commission Seeks an Antidote to Slipping Status of Those Fields

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The American Academy of Arts and Sciences last week announced the creation of a commission tasked with determining the top 10 actions the nation should take to promote and improve teaching and research in the humanities and social sciences in K-12 and in higher education.

“Humanities come from the past, but they are essential to help solve complicated problems,” said Richard H. Brodhead, a co-chairman of the new commission and the president of Duke University in North Carolina. He is one of several prominent citizens named to the commission. Other notable members include David Souter, the former U.S. Supreme Court associate justice; George Lucas, the film director and screenwriter of “Star Wars” and the screenwriter of “Indiana Jones”; documentary producer Ken Burns; and National Medal of Arts-winning photorealist Chuck Close.

Fulfilling a bipartisan congressional request, the commission’s charge is, in part, to safeguard the place of the humanities and the social sciences at a time when national policymakers are emphasizing ramping up the so-called “hard sciences,” such as engineering and biology, as a way to enhance the nation’s global competitiveness and guarantee the growth of the workforce.

Some critics say there has been too much emphasis on getting students to study science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and that students have been discouraged from studying fields like philosophy because of the notion that they won’t be able to find jobs.

“If we want to strengthen one, we have to strengthen the other,” Mr. Brodhead said. “Many of the greatest scientists had gone to liberal arts colleges.”

Waning Interest

The number of college students receiving humanities degrees, as a proportion of all bachelor’s degrees, declined by 46 percent over the past 30 years, according to Indicators, a statistical project launched by the Cambridge, Mass.-based academy. It also found that the majority of high school graduates failed to demonstrate basic knowledge of history, civics, and economic principles on 2006 National Assessment of Educational Progress tests in those subjects.

Data from Indicators also reveal that in 2003-2004, 28.2 percent of high school students were taught history by someone without certification or a postsecondary degree in history, a greater percentage than for any other measured subject area.

Math, science, and technology are important, but students won’t understand the nation’s global partners and competitors without understanding their languages, cultures, and history, Mr. Brodhead said.

In their charge to the commission, Democratic and Republican members of the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives from Tennessee, Virginia, Wisconsin, and North Carolina also asked the panel to come up with long-term goals for the nation’s “intellectual and economic well-being,” cultural diplomacy, and for a “stronger, more vibrant civil society.”

The group’s findings will accompany a forthcoming report of the National Academies, a quasi-governmental group that advises the federal government on science matters, about the future of the research university, and methods that can be used to strengthen the American scientific enterprise.

As more Americans began to enroll in colleges in the last part of the 20th century, there was an increased focus on careers, and, in that process, some institutions “lost some of the conviction of broad learning,” said Leslie Berlowitz, the president of the academy.

As a result, said John W. Rowe, a co-chairman of the commission and chairman and chief executive officer of Exelon, a corporate energy provider based in Chicago, liberal arts departments in colleges nationwide often struggle for resources.

Ms. Berlowitz said the commission will hold meetings across the country to give the public opportunities to provide recommendations. It’s set to complete its work in 18 to 24 months.

Vol. 30, Issue 21, Page 15

Published in Print: February 23, 2011, as Panel Launched to Study Humanities and Social Sciences
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An earlier version of this story incorrectly described George Lucas’s contribution to the “Indiana Jones” films. He was a screenwriter for those films.

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