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A Note from the Director

by Rosetta Marantz Cohen

Rosetta Marantz Cohen, Director, Kahn Liberal Arts Institute
Photo by Jon Crispin

This past summer, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences issued a report entitled "The Heart of the Matter," a defense of the liberal arts and their crucial place in American culture and society. The report, which was introduced with great fanfare by a bipartisan commission of authors, seeks to accomplish in the 21st century what "A Nation at Risk" accomplished at the end of the 20th: to mobilize policy-makers, corporate funders, and academic institutions to address a major problem in American education—the shrinking concern with non-STEM subject matter across all levels of schooling.

In June, I attended the "launch" of this new report at a large press conference and reception in Washington, D.C. It was interesting to witness such an eclectic assembly of liberal arts advocates. The Commission itself was co-chaired by Richard Broadhead, Professor of English and President of Duke University, along with John Rowe, the retired Chair of the Exelon Corporation, best known for his advocacy of the cap and trade plan for carbon emission control. Other odd pairings included Lamar Alexander (Republican Senator from Tennessee) and Donna Shalala (former Clinton appointee and President of Hunter College); and David Souter (former Justice of the Supreme Court) and John Lithgow (former Third Rock from the Sun star). There were also many whose work resided outside the humanities: the CEO of Lockheed Martin, for example, and the president of the National Academy of Engineering.

The report tells us what we at Smith already know: that federal funding for humanities research is shrinking dramatically, with the burden of funding now falling primarily on academic institutions; that employment opportunities for Humanities PhDs are almost non-existent; that the press for standards-based evidence of achievement in K-12 education has caused massive cuts in arts and humanities programming. The report also points out some odd contradictions: While three out of four employers would recommend a liberal arts education for their own children, the same percentage did not support increased federal funding for the liberal arts. While most Americans bemoan the solipsism and disengagement of young people, over half the states do not require any kind of civics education. And while our lives are increasingly "global," our support for the study of other cultures and their languages is decreasing across the board—in both pre- and post-secondary institutions.

Throughout the report there is, as you can imagine, much emotional language defending the critical importance of the liberal arts. But some of the concrete recommendations seem especially interesting and valuable. They are divided into three basic areas: First, the report calls for a more robust commitment to the liberal arts in K-12 education, reinstating dropped coursework in history, civics and social sciences while supporting museums, cultural institutions and public libraries. Second, increasing investment in humanities research, and communicating its importance to the public. And third, promoting international education, study abroad and foreign language learning. Some good, specific recommendations include the formation of a "Culture Corps," like the Peace Corps, designed to allow short-term residencies for writers, artists, philosophers, and economists to work with school children in underserved areas. Another interesting proposal was the creation of a Humanities Master Teacher Corps (like the present STEM Master Teacher Corps) which would provide loan-forgiveness to advanced degree holders who go into K-12 education. Finally, the report calls for the creation of a new "National Competitiveness Act," modeled on the National Defense Education Act of the Cold War era, but with a focus on mandatory programming in the arts and humanities. The report also calls for new legislation to help fund the study of international cultures and languages—funding that has been cut by more than 40% in the last four years alone.

We who live "the liberal arts" every day, who champion its principles and understand the grave consequences of its neglect, often feel like we are swimming against the tide.  "The Heart of the Matter" may yet prove to be only another exercise in hollow Washington rhetoric, but for the time being, the concreteness of the suggestions and the bipartisan support they have generated seem to offer a bit of hope. Let’s see if the federal government can put its money where its mouth is.



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