Satyagraha

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On the AAAS Report on the Humanities and Social Sciences, ‘The Heart of the Matter’

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A few months ago, in June 2013, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences released a report ‘The Heart of the Matter‘ addressing the state of the humanities and social sciences in the United States today.  Its conclusions were expressed as three main goals: (1) to “educate Americans in the knowledge, skills, and understanding they will need to thrive in a twenty-first-century democracy;” (2) to “foster a society that is innovative, competitive, and strong;” and (3) to “equip the nation for leadership in an interconnected world.”

The first recommendation made in connection with Goal 1 was to support “full literacy,” meaning by that an advancement of not just reading ability, but also of the critical thinking and communication skills required of citizens in a thriving democracy.  That this is an excellent suggestion no one would dispute.  The first recommendation associated with Goal 3 was to promote foreign language education, to enable Americans to enlarge their cultural perspective.  Again this is an excellent and welcome suggestion.

But here we have exhausted the list of the high points. The remainder of the report is filled with such dubious assumptions and faulty reasoning that even the hungriest humanities teacher, clutching at the report as a sign of hope against the increasingly narrow emphasis on science and technology in our education system, ought to be circumspect in heralding it as a great stride forward.

The Cart Before the Horse

The fundamental problem with the report, as I see it, is that it has reversed the traditional ends and means of the humanities (and, by extension, of the social sciences, to the extent that both have similar goals; I shall herein, however, mainly address myself to the humanities).  The principle feature of the humanities is, almost by definition (that is, to the extent that ‘humanities’ mean the same thing as ‘Humanism’), that, in the best meaning of the phrase, the proper concern of man is man: that what we are really aiming at is human happiness and self-actualization; to empower man, to achieve the telos latent in his potentialities; to obtain what the ancients simply called the good life or beata vita.  Now as to what constitutes this good life, of course, there is some disagreement; but there is also considerable agreement: we seek a life where human beings are healthy, have ample leisure time, opportunities for education, where they enjoy the arts, study and practice philosophy, and so on.

In the modern era it has become an unquestioned assumption that we should also advance technology at a brisk pace, and, partly as a means of doing this, that our commercial economies should be robust and growing as well.  I tend to agree with this view, personally.  Yet where I evidently part company with the authors of the AAAS report is that I see the latter of these two goals – technological and economic advancement – as subordinate to the primary goal of obtaining ‘the good life’.  That is, to the extent that technological and economic growth gives us anti-malaria vaccines, freedom from hunger, computers, solar energy, digital classical music, open access online libraries, and so on, it is good. But when it means pollution, constant stress and anxiety, urban sprawl, perpetual war, corporation-run government, and a long commute to and from a mindless job pushing papers in a cubicle all day long merely to earn enough money to continue on the treadmill, then I think we have ample grounds for doubt, and to consider forging for ourselves a new vision of society.  May we put wage slavery and mass consumerism on the table as negotiable, and consider organizing our society for the 21st century and beyond in some more favorable way?

The gaping hole in the report’s logic is that it presents, apparently without the authors’ having any cognizance of its absurdity, if not outright danger, that we should improve the humanities in order to improve our economies, when it ought to be the other way around.  We are told that we should increase spending on the humanities and social sciences so that we may have “an adaptable and creative workforce”, and that, presumably to counter the economic threat posed by China or other developing nations, we need “a new ‘National Competitiveness Act'”, which is somehow supposed to be “like the original National Defense Education Act.”

That the authors would so deftly and unhesitatingly leap from “competitiveness” to “national defense” – and all in a report addressing the humanities and social sciences – ought by itself to alert us that something is not quite right.  But lest there be any doubt, we need only consult the flag-draped cover to learn that we need the humanities and social sciences “for a vibrant, competitive, and secure nation.” [underscore added] There you have it: we need the humanities and social sciences for national security.  Do your duty:  Uncle Sam wants you to read Shakespeare!  How else can we defeat the infidel third-world hordes greedily eyeing our huge piece of the global economic pie?  The world economy belongs to America, and our ticket to continued hegemony is the Humanities!

On page 59 we are treated to a photo of a US soldier in full combat gear who looks like he might be instructing his comrades in the finer nuances of Afghan culture and how to persuade the locals to rat-out the Taliban. Yes, definitely expand our Mid-Asian Studies programs, so that our future military occupations might be more effective than they have been of late.  Or maybe the idea is that by studying foreign cultures better, we’ll have more success in instigating, funding, and arming  rebel insurgencies to displace regimes antithetical to our economic interests.

Materialism vs. Idealism

The tragedy of the report is that it seeks to promote the humanities without the vaguest idea of what Humanism is, or even an awareness that this is something people have made some serious effort to define over previous decades, centuries, and millennia.  Now, to my mind  – and I’m scarcely alone in this opinion – Humanism of necessity implies some sort of transcendent orientation.  What makes human beings distinct and unique in the order of creation is that they are not only material, biological organisms, but contain something divine.  This is the classical, the Renaissance, and the religious basis of Humanism.  Not all humanists would agree, and I respect that.  But at least could we agree to acknowledge that the effort to define Humanism is something that ought to occupy our attention?  Is it asking too much to cite at least a single book, report, or article on the topic in a report that presents itself to be expert and authoritative?  I would rather see Matthew Arnold, Cardinal Newman, or Plato in the bibliography than Emmy-Lou Harris, George Lucas, and John Lithgow in the panel of experts whom the report consulted.

We are told, for example, nothing of the 1984 National Endowment for the Humanities report (‘To Reclaim a Legacy: A Report on the Humanities in Higher Education’) authored by William J. Bennett.  That report, while not as lavishly produced as the present one, nonetheless had a little more intellectual heft, at least insofar as it connected itself with traditional principles of Humanism, classics, and liberal education.  A natural question to ask is whether the effort to renew the humanities initiated by the 1984 report worked.  Apparently not too well, or we wouldn’t need a new initiative.  But unless we look at that earlier report and examine what happened since, how can we understand what went wrong (or right), or know whether the present plan will fare better?

Despite a bit of lip service paid to ethics and morals, the values of the report are materialistic and mercenary.  Small wonder, then, that the solution proposed is to throw more money at the problem. We’ll buy back the heart and soul of America.  But did it ever occur to the authors that we already have the raw materials for a new cultural renaissance, and that what is wrong is not lack of money but wrong values?  Instead of throwing money at the problem, couldn’t we simply persuade people to start reading Great Books?  And without a prior shift in fundamental values, how can simply funding interdisciplinary research centers or developing a “Culture Corps” (yes, they seriously proposed that) accomplish anything?

A more minor point, but one nevertheless worth making, is how suavely the report dismisses the tuition and student loan crisis in the country today.  Not a crisis, we’re informed; more like an inconvenience.  The point the authors miss is the effect that placing college students deeply in debt has on their educational goals.   One’s not likely to pay off a $75,000 student loan any time soon by majoring in American literature or ancient history.  And the debt-burdened graduate isn’t likely to wander around Europe or Asia for the sheer pleasure of broadening ones cultural horizons.  Better to major in accounting and hope to land a job with Bank of America.

Ironically, the report succeeds, after a fashion, in its failure.  Its deficiencies themselves speak volumes about the decline of the humanities in the American university system.  The report is the product of a higher education industry that has systemically neglected liberal education for at least 100 years. That we need to address this problem is abundantly clear.  But to give more money to an education system not wise enough to understand what the humanities are and mean scarcely seems like the answer.

The report is all window dressing and the only real message is “give us money.” But the heart is not bought.

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Written by John Uebersax

November 5, 2013 at 12:08 am