“The Heart of the Matter”

Returning to issues of arts advocacy, today the Commission on the Humanities is delivering their report, The Heart of the Matter, on Capitol Hill.

As I mentioned in my entry on June 15, 2013, the Obama administration’s increasing emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering & mathematics) subjects, as well as a larger cultural paradigm shift in this direction, has left advocates of humanities and the arts with the task of asserting their relevance.

In a discussion with an employee at Americans for the Arts, I learned that arts advocacy is in large part anecdotal. This is a strength and a weakness. Leaders who have had a significant emotional experience relating to the arts are very likely to support them because they understand their impact and value. However, such experiences cannot be easily explained and therefore it is more difficult to find support among leaders who have not been personally touched by the arts.

The challenge is then to find quantitative data to support that which is fundamentally qualitative. The group Animating Democracy (an offshoot of Americans for the Arts) is doing exciting work in this direction, equipping arts organizations engaged in social justice work with a means to measure their impact. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, right? Go get lost in the wormhole of their website. There are some great case studies as well as strategies for defining and measuring impact. You could spend hours.

The primary goal of education should be to equip its students to live fulfilling lives in which they can contribute to society. Which translates in most cases to living independently, getting a job, and participating in civic life. A liberal arts education is much more difficult to directly link to employable skills than one that is overtly vocational. The desire for a direct and tangible payoff from one’s education is especially acute given the absolutely shocking and insane cost of tuition. In light of these costs a liberal arts education can seem an elite privilege with little grounding the real world. In an article in yesterday’s New York Times Jennifer Schuessler writes that at this time “the humanities and social sciences are themselves often accused of being frivolous at best, fraudulent at worst.”

The Heart of the Matter attempts to address these issues. If you have a moment, take a look at the complete report, but I wanted to pull out a few sections for you here.

The report identifies three overarching 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. These goals cannot be achieved by science alone.

It goes on to say:

As we strive to create a more civil public discourse, a more adaptable and creative workforce, and a more secure nation, the humanities and social sciences are the heart of the matter, the keeper of the republic—a source of national memory and civic vigor, cultural understanding and communication, individual fulfillment and the ideals we hold in common.

And:

The humanities remind us where we have been and help us envision where we are going. Emphasizing critical perspective and imaginative response, the humanities- including the study of languages, literature, history, film, civics, philosophy, religion, and the arts—foster creativity, appreciation of our commonalities and our differences, and knowledge of all kinds. The social sciences reveal patterns in our lives, over time and in the present moment. Employing the observational and experimental methods of the natural sciences, the social sciences—including anthropology, economics, political science and government, sociology, and psychology—examine and predict behavior and organizational processes. Together, they help us understand what it means to be human and connect us with our global community.

And:

We live in a world characterized by change—and therefore a world dependent on the humanities and social sciences. How do we understand and manage change if we have no notion of the past? How do we understand ourselves if we have no notion of a society, culture, or wold different from the one in which we live? 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 times as well as in times of prosperity. They are critical to our pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness, as described by our nations founders. They are The Heart of the Matter.

I’ll leave you with those well put sentiments.

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