The writer is executive director of Humanities Nebraska.
When Socrates stated that “the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being” more than 2,000 years ago, the global population was somewhere around 150 million people.
In today’s chaotic, technology-driven world of 7 billion people and climbing, where we have the capacity to destroy ourselves slowly or quickly and in multiple ways, Socrates’ contemplation of who we are as individuals or a species seems essential rather than a luxury.
The complex challenges of our time should demand that we embrace the humanities — the study of history, literature, culture, philosophy, religion, language and so on — in order to grapple with those challenges from many angles and to envision the best path forward.
However, “The Heart of the Matter,” a national report just released by the Commission on Humanities and Social Sciences, finds an alarming trend of simultaneous increasing needs and decreasing funding of the humanities, with “grave, long-term consequences for the nation.”
The American Academy of Arts and Sciences assembled a commission of 54 highly visible citizens from a cross-section of American public life to foster national dialogue on the importance of the humanities and social sciences to the future of our country.
In this report, the commission identified three important goals for advancing the humanities in America as “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.”
First, because the humanities provide critical context for understanding and thriving in a rapidly changing world, we need to equip Americans with the knowledge, skills and understanding they will need to flourish in a 21st-century democracy. And we need to make that available through public-private partnerships and strong networks of schools, libraries, museums and other cultural institutions.
J.B. Milliken, president of the University of Nebraska, remarked to me recently that he is “convinced that we need to be thinking less about the relative value of STEM [science, technology, engineering, math] versus humanities and more about a well-rounded education that includes humanities, social sciences, art, engineering, science and math. English and art majors should have an understanding of science and technology, and engineers should experience great art and literature.”
Second, the report states that we need to foster a society that is innovative, competitive and strong. This requires adaptability, investment in humanities-related research, strengthening curriculum guidelines and support of humanities-related teachers.
Third, we need to equip the nation for leadership in an interconnected world. We will better compete in a global economy by using the humanities to nurture understanding of different cultures and sensitivity to different perspectives. This includes language learning, education in international affairs, study-abroad programs and development of a “culture corps” for communities and states to work with cultural institutions to transmit humanities expertise from one generation to the next.
In her recent Time magazine essay on “The Heart of the Matter,” commission member and historian Annette Gordon-Reed (who will speak in Omaha on Oct. 30 for the Governor’s Lecture in the Humanities) quoted a letter from patriot John Adams to his wife Abigail. In the letter, he explains that he needed to study politics and war so that his sons could study philosophy, commerce, history and agriculture, and that his sons needed to study those subjects so that his grandchildren could study poetry, music, architecture and other arts.
“What Adams was really expressing,” Gordon-Reed noted, was “the truth that a country must have a sufficient level of wealth, stability and security before large numbers of its citizens can engage in pursuits broader than the basic struggle for survival that war and politics — the substitute for war — address.”
As the evening concluded during the Humanities Nebraska Chautauqua in Papillion recently, one of the audience members asked the scholars portraying Mark Twain and Laura Ingalls Wilder, “Do you ever feel like you were born in the wrong century?” The scholar who had just presented Ms. Wilder aptly stated, “I enjoy studying the past, but I am hopeful for the future.”
To meet that hope, we need the humanities now, more than ever.