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STEM and the Humanities: a False Dichotomy

2013 Graduate College Distinguished Lecture

University of Illinois

Jim Leach, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

University of Illinois Graduate College Address Urbana, IL
United States

April 17, 2013

Accordingly, I would suggest that policy makers in government and administrators in the academy might consider the relevance of the following:

  1. In the wake of Sputnik the Eisenhower Administration pressed not only for new support for STEM research but for enhanced foreign language training and support for international studies programs.  The question of whether the time is appropriate to press new, expanded legislation modeled after  elements of the National  Defense Education Act of 1958 is worthy of review.  Sputnik underscored the importance of paying enhanced attention to threats emanating from the Soviet Union. Today very different challenges symbolized by 9/11 are evident. They spring from different regions of the world and require responses that must be informed by complex cultural understanding.  Public policy options might be enhanced by STEM advances but they will be insufficiently thought through without humanities input.
  2. It is critical that every American generation have a steady infusion of talented individuals prepared for public service.  A number of universities have spawned public policy schools that are leadership oriented. Universities without such schools might look at models like Syracuse's Maxwell School, Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School, the Harvard Kennedy School, Johns Hopkins SAIS, the Tufts School of Public Policy, Georgetown's School of Foreign Service, the Dole Institute at Kansas, the LBJ School at Texas, the Ford School at Michigan, the Evans School at Washington, the Goldman School at California Berkeley, and the Graham Center for Public Service at Florida.  Whether called a School of Public and International Affairs or an Institute for Principled Leadership in Public Service as at Bradley University, where undergraduates are offered the option to minor in Leadership, universities are imaginatively experimenting with cross­disciplinary studies that have relevance for business, non-profit, and journalism careers as well as government. Public policy schools are especially important today because of our globalized economy and the tangible nature of the links between the humanities and national security.  In today's geo-political circumstance, governance requires high quality, broadly educated public servants and an enlightened citizenry.
  3. All academic approaches are affected by university and college decision making on courses required and majors offered.  Universities might find it helpful to review whether to energize the academy with more cross-disciplinary majors, perhaps modeling on Oxford's Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) program. Harvard, for instance, has a similar option but stamped the major with an un-compelling name (Social Studies); Northern Arizona University, on the other hand, calls a new program Philosophy, Politics and Law.  The university administration was surprised with the enthusiasm of the student body when the new major was unrolled a year ago.   Many more signed up than expected.  Other approaches might involve other combinations of studies in the humanities, social and natural sciences. A major titled History, Literature and Philosophy, for instance, would in affect be a modern version of what Classics majors studied  about eras  that go back several  millenia; One titled Art History, Comparative Religion and the Classics might be considered an inspired doubling down on the humanities; combining Psychology and Literature might lead future clinical professionals to discuss with their  patients lessons from literary works; and a major in Science, Ethics and Politics could further conjoin humanities and social science courses with STEM education.  Many other academic combinations could be considered, perhaps with optional student input.  But for disciplines that have not changed as much as the times, the case for experimenting with cross-disciplinary "oomph" would seem compelling. Multi-disciplinary approaches appear to be desirable for students and reflect trends that are increasingly evident in scholarly research. Departments don't have to shutter. They would simply have to coordinate and engage more fully with other academic disciplines.
  4. Consideration should be given to requiring all undergraduates and perhaps students in graduate business schools to take a full year multi­disciplinary course in World Cultures. Such a course could be envisioned to be history-centric but multi-disciplinary. It might begin, for instance, with an astronomer discussing the 8 billion year history of our universe and then quickly proceed to review the ancient civilizations of the Middle East, China, India, Greece and Rome, and then go through the Middle Ages and the Dark  Ages when Muslim scholarship shined, and then the Enlightenment. A second semester could begin with the Western migration to America and end with modern regional geo­ politics. The history,  politics, literature, philosophy,  religion, sociology, archaeology, classics, economics, engineering and science faculties (speaking especially to the history  of science and technology) could all be involved. I would be surprised if giving students a sampling of humanities approaches wouldn't open many eyes to the prospect of a humanities major and cause most to find this survey approach the most memorable course they take in their undergraduate years. A World Cultures course of this nature might also be encouraged at community colleges where an increasing number of students are seeking a broader liberal arts background that can be the basis for a transfer after a year or two to other colleges and universities.
  5. With the Internet, access to knowledge has been democratized across the planet.  Moocs are suddenly and rightly in vogue. Yet colleges and universities are the center of American higher education, indeed of American culture. There remains no better teaching method than tutored interchanges of ideas, what used to be described as sitting on a log with a mentor. Old-fashioned, labor-intensive teaching matters.  There is a thirst in every corner of America for quality cultural programming. This is true in the creative arts; it is also true in the broader humanities. Everybody in the academy has a role to play. Whether it be with a state humanities council, Osher programming, Clemente courses, or lectures and academic outreach offered at night and on weekends by individual institutions, it is important that America be brought together with shared exchanges of ideas. There is no more effective antidote to uncivil behavior in society than citizen engagement involving models of civil discourse that feature a wide expression of opinions. Such engagement is the daily grist of the academy. Centuries past, the enhancement of citizenship was considered a prime responsibility of the academy.  It is even more important today. The academy has to be more than about itself.
  6. Finally, with institutional pride let me note that over the past half­ century the infrastructure model established by the NEH has made an impressive educational mark despite limited  resources. This small federal  agency has played an instrumental role in spurring humanities research, from bridging cultures studies to enduring issues in philosophy to the new field of digital  humanities; it has advanced public programs including  thousands of cultural exhibitions and hundreds of world-class documentaries; it has propelled  archaeological studies and preservation initiatives; it has supported academic fellowships, conducted summer workshops for teachers, and developed peer reviewed curricula for k-12 humanities studies; it has given impetus to the establishment of a national  digital library and to the development of encyclopedias dedicated to regions of the world and individual states within our borders; it has assisted in the collation and digitization of the papers of Presidents from Washington to Eisenhower, and transformative figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., Jane Addams, Albert Einstein, and Mark Twain; and it has coordinated and helped finance state humanities councils and the thousands of life-long learning programs they put on each year. The NEH is particularly proud of the inter-disciplinary projects it has spurred.  In recognition that the humanities have no borders and no single sources of inspiration, the agency has co-sponsored initiatives with other governments, other agencies of our own government, and non-profit institutions. Unfortunately, despite thoughtful support from the administration and a group of stalwart humanities advocates in Congress, the NEH is stretched thin, operating with approximately a third of the resources it had in 1979 inflation adjusted dollars. In this era of splintered politics and globalized economic competition, the question for policy makers is thus straight-forward: should attention to the humanities be upgraded or should American leadership in the realm of ideas and of the spirit be considered less relevant?