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Defending the Liberal Arts

Jim Leach, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

American Council of Learned Societies
633 Third Avenue
Washington, DC 10017
United States

May 6, 2011

Perspective is always difficult to apply to events and circumstances of the day. But there is more than a small chance that historians will come to characterize the years just preceding and following the turn of the millennium as a period of public and private sector imprudence exacerbated by ethical lapses.

Americans are now confronted with a job-short economy and the consequences of the dual decisions to proceed to war with a country that did not attack us and advance tax cuts, causing costs to be passed on to later generations. Management of debt at the family, the city, the state, and the federal levels is now the dominant issue of the day and must be dealt with in the context of growing demographic burdens, inadequately funded entitlements, and a new global competitive framework less favorable to American commerce and, perhaps, our geo-political leadership.

In this context, it is quite understandable that public angst is high and that a skeptical reappraisal is occurring of major institutions in our society.

What is less understandable are some of the ramifications of this angst which range from increasing polarization and lack of civility in our politics to a Supreme Court that in a seminal decision (Citizens United) has moved the political system in a corporatist direction.

How does all of this relate to the liberal arts?

There appears to be a gathering sentiment, symbolized by a recent Governor’s report, that higher education should move away from an emphasis on the liberal arts (aka, the humanities) and toward teaching job skills. The assumption that jobs are the number-one issue for most Americans is valid; a conclusion, however, that the liberal arts are not central to job creation is mistaken. Indeed, to short-shrift the humanities undercuts American competiveness and defies the national interest.

One of the myths of our times is that the liberal arts are impractical, unrelated to a subsequent work environment. Actually, they are not only practical but central to long-term American competitiveness.

It is true that many jobs such as in the building trades are skill-centric, but job creation itself requires perspective, an understanding of community and the world. Change and its acceleration characterize the times. With each passing year, jobs evolve, become more sophisticated. Training for one skill set may be of little assistance for another. On the other hand, studies that stimulate the imagination and nourish capacities to analyze and think outside the box suit well the challenges of change. They make coping with the unprecedented a manageable endeavor.

What is needed in a world in flux is a new understanding and emphasis on the basics in education. Traditionally, the basics are about the three “R’s,” which in my state of Iowa are sometimes defined as ‘readin’, ‘ritin’, and ‘restlin.’ However defined, they are critical. Nonetheless, they are insufficient. What are also needed are the studies that provide perspective on our times and allow citizens to understand their own communities, other cultures, and the creative process.

To understand and compete in the world we need a fourth “R,” what for lack of a precise moniker might be described as “reality” – which includes not only relevant knowledge of the world near and far but the imaginative capacity to put oneself in the shoes of others and creatively apply knowledge to discrete endeavors.

Rote thinking is the hallmark of the status quo. Stimulating the imagination is the key to the future. As Einstein once observed, imagination is more important than knowledge, and his life is proof of the imaginative mind trumping skill-set knowledge. In a math-based science, Einstein was never considered a first-rate mathematician. But he was an unparalleled imaginer. In pondering self-initiated thought problems he probed the meaning of the universe.

As individuals trying to make sense of our own odysseys through life, our universe is small in relation not only to the solar system but the communities in which we live. But wherever we might be, we are affected by global events and what has become a global hiring hall. To compete, the basics matter. And what better way is there to apply perspective to our times than to study history of prior times? What better way is there to learn to write well than to read great literature? What better way is there to think critically and understand American traditions than to ponder Locke and Montesquieu and their influence on our Constitutional system?

How can we compete in our own markets if we don’t understand our own culture and its enormous variety of subcultures, or abroad if we don’t understand foreign languages, histories and traditions? How can we understand our own era and the place of our own values if we don’t study the faith systems of others – Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, the Old as well as the New Testaments? And, do not art making and art appreciation instill a sense for the creative process?

The insights provided by humanities disciplines and the judgmental capacity to analyze, correlate and express developed in humanities studies are not dismiss-able options for society; they are essential to revitalizing the American productive engine.

The irony is that as the Chinese have broken out of a Sino-centric mind set, they are putting increased emphasis on the study of foreign cultures, particularly our own. They are not only making a massive commitment to the study of English but have begun to broaden humanities curricula in their universities at the same time we appear to be doubting their importance.

A skeptic once suggested that the humanities are little more than studies of flaws in human nature. Actually they uplift on the one hand and warn on the other. The power of a few to commit acts of societal destruction and the contrasting capacity of a few to precipitate uplifting change has grown exponentially in the last century.

Two contrasting examples provide contemporary illustrations. In the wake of civil unrest several years ago, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared that humanities courses in Iran must be purged to reflect only government-approved dogma. As Azar Nafisi, the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran points out, the humanities strike fear in the heart of despots. They are anathema to tyrants because they liberate the mind.

To watch what appears to be an historic liberal revolution take shape in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in recent months is to understand why oppressors object to the teaching of the humanities. Sometimes people lead their leaders. A former student at the American University in Cairo, whose distinguished president Lisa Anderson is here this afternoon, evidences the reasons for Ahmadinejad’s apprehensions. Interviewed on the Daily Show, Gigi Ibrahim was asked by Jon Stewart why she became involved in the protests against the Egyptian government. Her answer was that she was inspired by taking a class about the history of social movements at AUC. Stewart then queried how could it be that she could take a class on resisting authoritarian regimes in a country governed by one? Her response – “well, it was an American university in Cairo. ”

Liberal arts are about all aspects of life, not the least of which is citizenship.

History, literature, philosophy and related disciplines — from comparative religion to anthropology — are studies that provide reference points. They give context and ethical perspective to problems in the communities in which we live and life on the planet.

The most meaningful discovery in a liberal arts education is that everything is related to everything else, although we may not know it at the time. Wisdom involves the tying together of threads of learning. The challenge is to discover and then correlate discoveries, the most important of which relate to perspective: values, methods of thinking and doing, rather than facts.

Values can be taught but never fully understood as abstract concoctions. Their meaning takes on a deeper character with the study of peoples, leaders, and events–and, closer up, by watching how parents, siblings, teachers, co-workers, friends and occasional foes make decisions that affect other people’s lives. It is this combination of theoretical learning and life observations that prepares us for making value-based judgments for ourselves, our immediate community, and our relationship with the world.

The challenges are unprecedented. Civilization is on trial from two extremes: the looming prospect that proliferating weapons of mass destruction could be unleashed, and the reality that the more advanced and open a society, the more vulnerable it is to terrorism.

Seldom therefore in the course of human events has it been more important for individuals in public life to appeal to the better angels rather than the baser instincts of the body politic. Whether the issues are social or economic, domestic or international, the temptation to appeal to the darker side of human nature must be avoided. The stakes are too high. The duty of public officials is to inspire hope rather than to manipulate fear. The health of nations is directly related to the temperance of statecraft.

It is also related to the depth of knowledge applied to decision-making. In policy development that I had the privilege to watch unfold up close over the past decade, it is remarkable in retrospect how inadequate attention to cultural issues may have cost lives as well as money. For instance, despite having gone to war in the Persian Gulf a decade earlier, Congress and Executive branch policy makers understood little of the Sunni/Shi’a divide when 9/11 hit. Likewise, despite the French experience in Algeria and the British and Russian in Afghanistan, we had little comprehension of the depth of Islamic antipathy to foreign intervention. Nor, despite the tactics of a Daniel Boone-style patriot named Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, who attacked British garrisons at night during the Revolutionary War and then vanished in South Carolina swamps during the day, we had little sense for the effectiveness of asymmetric warfare.

It is a fundamental misconception to assume that realism is principally about might. Actually, realism is about the human condition. Military power may be essential for a country to develop and maintain, but it is the human condition that must be improved if national security is truly to be secured. Impoverished nations whose people are subject to despotic governance are breeding grounds for radicalism. Where there is no hope, there is nothing to lose. When life, as Hobbes once described, becomes nasty, brutish and short in a jungle of hopelessness and humiliation, it becomes easily expendable, sometimes by martyred self-choice.

The strength of American foreign policy has generally been the conjunction of can-do idealism with Yankee practicality. A policy lacking either of these two characteristics is a policy which doesn’t conform to the American heritage.

Lord Acton’s maxim that power corrupts and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely has a strategic corollary: military power tempts and excessive power tempts excessively. While it is imperative for America to maintain unrivaled military strength at this stage in history, we must also recognize that its utilization may not fit, and may indeed be counter-productive, in certain strategic settings.

In a remarkable initiative under the presumed tolerance if not rubric of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, two military officers have recently set forth a call for a new national strategic “narrative” – a masked term for “policy. ”  The implication of the proposal, though nowhere stated, is that a doctrine of active interventionism may be a less attractive option than might be assumed by those who hold that security is exclusively a function of military doctrine.

As everyone in this room knows, in the wake of World War II and the rise of the Soviet challenge, the great scholar-diplomat George Kennan wrote an article under the pseudonym “X” outlining a realpolitik policy of “containment. ” Kennan’s approach basically held sway for half a century and ultimately culminated in the demise of the Soviet Union. Signing their approach “Mr. Y,” the Navy Captain and Marine Colonel who called for a new “narrative” have implicitly embraced the assumption that we should be careful of approaching the contemporary world with an enemy mindset and should therefore rely less on a militarized foreign policy, replacing the doctrine of “containment” with one of “sustainability. ”   

“Sustainability” assumes policies should be adopted that advance mutual advantage with an emphasis on rebuilding American economic competitiveness by, among other initiatives, making investments in America’s intellectual capital and infrastructure of education, health and social services.

There are many dimensions to the concept of national security. The authors of the new “sustainability” approach conclude their nine-page paper with a proposal for a “National Prosperity and Security Act” to be modeled after the National Security Act of 1947, which resulted six decades ago in a realignment of the security agencies.

Another model from the past, it seems to me, could be even more relevant. The first president to use aggressively concern for security to build domestic infrastructure was Dwight David Eisenhower. Ike championed the need to expand our interstate highway system and successfully pressed legislation labeled the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act. He also championed an education initiative which resulted in the National Defense Education Act. I am not in a position to put forth without OMB approval statutory initiatives but someday, perhaps in more bullish economic times, consideration might be given to a new National Defense Education Act with a significant liberal arts component to strengthen America’s intellectual capital.

In the meantime, we at the NEH are basically fighting in the current budget cycle to preserve a federal role in spurring knowledge development and dissemination. We recognize that we will have little choice except to strive to do more with less. This may include, depending on resources available, issuing an RFP to design a model course for colleges and universities, including community colleges, in world history and cultures. Such a course would be expected to include a heavy emphasis on interdisciplinary instruction. At the risk of presumption, because there is nothing more zealously guarded than curricula, I would encourage the academic community to consider making such a course a requirement for graduation.

Connections between the humanities and national security can be looked at from several perspectives: 1) the need for policy makers to recognize that surface issues – i.e. , political traumas of the moment – can only be understood in relation to underlying cultural bases: the customs, history, literature, philosophy, religion, and sometimes myths of the region or group from which parties to conflict or potential conflict belong;  2) the need in a democracy for the public to probe deeply the issues of the day in order to ensure thoughtful debate and protect against misguided pressure being brought on the political establishment; and 3) the need to be aware that national security approaches related to many foreign conundrums begin at home, not only in relation to the making of policy judgments but with regard to the respect or lack thereof accorded diverse American cultural groups.

For these reasons the NEH has recently advanced under a “Bridging Cultures” rubric support for two groups of projects, one on the theme of civility at home and the other on Muslim cultural contributions at home and abroad. In addition, we have supported research on such assorted international subjects as the cultures of Berber North Africa, genealogies of the Afghan Jihad before the Taliban, Arab Shi’a political thought, and the Encyclopaedia Iranica.

Unfortunately, a crisis is looming for humanities research. State support for higher education is decreasing, and with annual spending that is 1/21,000th of the federal budget, barely more per capita than the cost of a postage stamp, the National Endowment for the Humanities is the “forgotten” research institution in Washington. Since the mid-1990s, federal research dollars in the sciences have tripled while investigations in the humanities have been reduced. Today the research budget of the NEH is less than 1% of that for the sciences and less than one tenth of 1% of the federal R&D budget.

At the NEH we respect and strongly support the sciences. Nevertheless, we are obligated to underscore the wise concerns that Congress expressed almost half a century ago. As the NEH’s founding legislation affirms, “The world leadership which has come to the United States cannot rest solely upon superior power, wealth, and technology, but must be solidly founded upon worldwide respect and admiration for the Nation’s high qualities as a leader in the realm of ideas and of the spirit. ”

Americans are understandably concerned for the high unemployment rate. Jobs in our multifaceted economy come in many kinds. While there may be no heavy physical lifting, professors are workers no more or less than carpenters and machinists. And just as we need an infrastructure of roads and bridges, we need an infrastructure of ideas.

Education is about probing and expanding knowledge, but it is also a business. In trade terms, the purchase of an education by a foreign student – the tuition paid to a school, the meals bought in a community – helps our balance of payments just as does the sale abroad of a widget made by American labor.

Our grandparents recognized that artists and historians needed jobs, too. During our most traumatic economic moment – the Great Depression – significant federal resources were pumped into the arts and humanities. And since its inception in 1965, few agencies have made more impact at less cost than the NEH.

NEH-supported books, documentaries, and programs reach out to tens of millions of citizens every year. The research we have facilitated has resulted in over 7,000 books, 18 of which have been awarded Pulitzer Prizes and 20 Bancroft prizes. And last year alone, our affiliated humanities councils in the fifty states and six territories put on over 55,000 programs and conferences touching every corner of the country.

The humanities are America’s stock and trade. They are a national asset that we short-change at our peril.


*A former 15-term Congressman, Leach is Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.