In this era of standardization and utilitarianism, it is
heartening to hear a government-appointed committee come to the
conclusion that our educational system should be placing more
emphasis on the arts and humanities, particularly language.
"The Heart of the Matter," a report on the state of the
humanities and social sciences in the U.S. by the Commission on the
Humanities and Social Sciences, a panel formed by the American
Academy of Arts and Sciences at the request of Sen. Lamar Alexander
(R-TN), Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA), Reps. Thomas E. Petri (R-WI),
and David E. Price (D-NC), makes the compelling argument that our
current neglect of the humanities will not only diminish our
quality of life but it may result in the dehumanization of future
generations and, possibly, jeopardize our very existence.
Over the last few years, a weak economy and poor job prospects
for graduates have led to increased emphasis on STEM (science,
technology, engineering, and math) education at the expense of the
humanities. However, this report finds that "at the very moment
when China and some European nations are seeking to replicate our
model of broad education in the humanities, social sciences, and
natural sciences as a stimulus to invention, the U.S. is instead
narrowing our focus and abandoning our sense of what education has
been and should continue to be - our sense of what makes America
Even the most qualified experts cannot predict what the economy
will look like in a few months' time, let alone what will happen in
a few years. So our education system needs to produce people
capable of critical thinking that can react and adapt to
Key to adaptability in our global age of communications are
languages and international understanding, "How do we actually come
to understand each other if we don't share languages and the
ability to speak across the boundaries of difference that language
and nationality can sometimes present?" asks Earl Lewis, president
of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which helped fund the
The study recommends that state and local school districts
should establish programs to increase language learning, including
immersion programs for second languages. Programs might include
blended learning technologies to facilitate language learning in
schools that lack funding or infrastructure for additional classes.
Colleges should build on and expand these competencies.
The report also recognizes the importance of study abroad
programs, although federal funding for international training and
education has been cut by 41% in the last four years. Every
undergraduate should be encouraged to have a significant
international experience. Not only do government agencies and the
military require the kinds of expertise that students can acquire
only through advanced study and immersion in other cultures,
business also needs the perspective and insight that only such
in-depth knowledge can produce.
Thankfully, the report states the obvious: "The creation of
innovative programs for teaching languages and cultures as well as
the expansion of study abroad programs will require new sources of
funding, and could be attractive options for public-private
Blended learning is the key to a well-rounded education, so we
should not be pitting the arts against the sciences. We need to
find a balance between them so graduates know not only how to do
things, but why we should do them.
Perhaps we should look to the example of France, where the study
of philosophy has a core role in secondary education. In terminale
- the last year of high school - it is a compulsory subject for all
students. Those studying humanities do eight hours of philosophy a
week, while pupils studying science and technology do just two
hours. Curriculum should aim at producing "enlightened citizens"
capable of intelligent criticism.
Even though this report was commissioned by influential members
of Congress, it is unclear what its real purpose is apart from
provoking some thoughtful discussion. Maybe it could be the
springboard from which we start basing educational policy on
research. All too often the education of our children relies on the
whims of politicians with little concept of human endeavor.
Daniel Ward is editor of Language Magazine, in Los Angeles.