At the close of academic years and throughout the summer months, I spend a considerable amount of time reflecting and studying. Recently I’ve been thinking about organizations that form the foundation of American society – government, courts, a free press, education, houses of worship, communities, families and many more. As I participate and observe in many of these societal activities I find myself asking questions for which I can find no ready answers. Why do I feel as if our social fabric is gradually fraying? Is there a reason our discourse has become less civil? Why have our questions narrowed to only yield short-term and simplistic answers to what are inherently long-term and complex issues? Is our vision for what is possible and our ambition for what is achievable dimming to reflect ideas far less lofty than previous periods in our history?
The American Academy of Arts and Sciences recently released an important report entitled, “The Heart of the Matter: Report of the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences.” I would encourage everyone to read this report carefully. Here is an excerpt from the opening pages that outlines the essential message:
As we strive to create a more civil public discourse, a more adaptable and creative workforce, and a more secure nation, the humanities and social sciences are the heart of the matter, 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.
The humanities remind us where we have been and help us envision where we are going. Emphasizing critical perspective and imaginative response, the humanities— including the study of languages, literature, history, film, civics, philosophy, religion, and the arts—foster creativity, appreciation of our commonalities and our differences, and knowledge of all kinds. The social sciences reveal patterns in our lives, over time and in the present moment. Employing the observational and experimental methods of the natural sciences, the social sciences—including anthropology, economics, political science and government, sociology, and psychology—examine and predict behavioral and organizational processes. Together, they help us understand what it means to be human and connect us with our global community.
Scientific advances have been critical to the extraordinary achievements of the past century, and we must continue to invest in basic and applied research in the biological and physical sciences. But we also must invest more time, energy, and resources in research and education in the humanities and social sciences. We must recognize that all disciplines are essential for the inventiveness, competitiveness, security, and personal fulfillment of the American public.
The full report and film can be found on the American Academy of Arts and Sciences website, www.amacad.org.
Sometimes I wonder if even our most important thinkers and societal leaders could produce the lofty ideas articulated in our nation’s founding documents and most memorable speeches. Could we, in 2013, articulate the deep philosophical notions embedded in the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and the Bill of Rights? Would it be possible for a national leader to step forward in a time of great grief and tragedy and craft the mournful and yet healing words for the Gettysburg Address? Would there be sufficient depth of understanding about literature, history and culture for an activist to expand our vision of the future through an “I Have a Dream” speech?
The answers to me are affirmative but not without planning and taking an intentional, strategic course. I have hope for the future because I believe a day of renewal is coming. It will be a day when we begin to trade passing trivial distractions for substantive contributions that are enduring. It will be a day when we begin to preserve spiritual understanding and conserve intellectual resources. It will be a day when we begin to find nourishment at a rich cultural feast, instead of consuming some of the world’s worst toxins.
It will begin when we reflect on some of the most important questions the humanities and social sciences can offer, and rediscover in our search for answers, the delicate threads that have been woven together in a social fabric that has made America a land of ideas and opportunities.
Who will lead and participate? Will you?
About the Author
I'm the lucky individual who carries the title, 21st president of Central College in Pella, Iowa. My wife Tammy and I have two beautiful daughters, Emma and Greta. Passionate about higher education and the issues facing it and the world today, I hope to invoke an engaging conversation with all who are ready to dig in, make a difference and build for the future. Share your thoughts. I'm listening and interested.