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Humanities and Citizenship

Jim Leach, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

National Academy of Education 2011 Annual Meeting, George Washington University
2121 I Street NW
Washington, DC 20052
United States

October 28, 2011

All education has a citizenship dimension. To the degree there is a core curriculum that might be considered citizenship-centric, it should not be narrowly confined to encompass only such subjects as the Electoral College and numbers of members in legislative chambers. Thoughtful democratic governance requires a citizenry that understands its own history and values and has a sense for other societies, their history and values. A background in broad areas of the humanities is vastly more important than a study of the mechanics of politics or issues of the moment.

There appears to be a gathering sentiment, exemplified by a Governor’s report1 issued earlier this year, that higher education should move away from an emphasis on the liberal arts (aka: the humanities) to a greater focus on job skills. The assumption that the jobs question is 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, such a conclusion could too easily lead to policy prescriptions that undercut American competitiveness and the national interest itself.

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 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 are well-suited to 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 of the meaning of 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 foster citizens’ understanding of 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 imaginative, mind-trumping, skill-set knowledge. In a math-based science, Einstein was never considered a first-tier mathematician. But he was an unparalleled “imaginer.” In pondering self-initiated thought problems, he probed the meaning of the universe.

As individuals we all try 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, whether related to the challenges of national security or the global hiring hall. In this insecure geo-political environment, a deeper comprehension of the fourth “R” (reality) has never been more important.

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

What better way is there to apply perspective to our times than to study history? 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 Enlightenment philosophers like Locke and Montesquieu and their influence on our Constitutional system? And, does not art-making and art appreciation instill a sense for the creative process?

The principal rationale for humanities studies is that they enhance the meaning of life. This rationale is so powerful that it too easily obscures the utilitarian case which is also compelling.

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 other faith systems—Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and the relationship of diverse religions to the Old and New Testaments?

How can we contain prejudice and counter forces of hatred if we don’t come to know more about each other?

The insights provided by humanities disciplines and the judgmental capacity to analyze, correlate and express developed in humanities studies are not “dismissible” options for society; they are essential to revitalizing the American productive engine; they help define and inspire citizenship.

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 past century.

Two contrasting examples provide contemporary illustrations. Azar Nafisi, the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, points out that little strikes greater fear in the hearts of despots than the humanities. They are anathema to tyrants because they liberate the mind. It is not surprising that 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.

To watch what appears to be an historic progressive revolution take shape in Cairo’s Tahir Square this past year is to understand why oppressors have such reason to fear the humanities. To them, the danger is self-evident: a free thinking people will be tempted to lead their leaders. One liberated mind, a former student at the American University in Cairo, Gigi Ibrahim, was interviewed on the Daily Show about why she became involved in the protests against the Egyptian government. The answer she gave Jon Stewart was that she was inspired by taking a class about the history of social movements at AUC. Ideas manifested themselves into ideals, and history provided the power of example. Individuals with convictions could stand up to tyranny.

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 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 reviewing, for example, our decision to go to war in Iraq, it is extraordinary to notice how inadequate attention to cultural issues may have cost lives as well as money. Yes, there was an “intelligence” failure related to misjudgments about Iraq’s nuclear capacities. But the greatest “intelligence” failure was our lack of understanding of the region itself. 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 with 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 utilization of force may not fit, and may indeed be counter-productive, in certain strategic settings.

In a remarkable initiative2 under the rubric of the immediate past Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, two military officers this summer 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” advocating the adoption of a realist doctrine 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” warn against approaching the contemporary world with an enemy mindset and relying on an overly militarized foreign policy. Instead, they propose what they term a doctrine 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 economic infrastructure.

For our part, we at NEH are basically striving 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 attempt 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 inter-disciplinary 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 political traumas of the moment are surface issues that can be understood only in relation to underlying cultural bases: the customs, history, literature, philosophy, religion, and sometimes myths of a country or people; 2) the need in a democracy for the public to probe deeply the issues of the day in order to ensure thoughtful debate that accommodates and respects disparate views; 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.

What may seem to be an intangible challenge—the advancing of mutual respect—is central to relations between states and peoples. As an immigrant society with family ties to every country across the globe, we are watched closely. How we speak about others at home and abroad and assimilate elements of our own society affects whether peoples around the world view us as a beacon of hope and opportunity or a wellspring of prejudice.

For these reasons 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 contributions to world culture. 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 1/25,000th 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. Indeed, over the past generation it seems that the word “research” has come increasingly to apply to laboratories rather than libraries.

At 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 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 tapping the known, probing the unknown, and expanding the base of knowledge. 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 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 seven thousand books, eighteen of which have been awarded Pulitzer and twenty 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 in trade. They are a national asset that we short-change at our peril.

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