The Heart of the Matter

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,

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

Mark Putnam

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.



8 responses to The Heart of the Matter

Jim Zaffiro says:

Thanks, Mark.

How I wish I could share your hope and optimism. I fear our time of cultural, moral, and institutional deterioration has only just begun and that we Americans now live at the threshold of a savage, ugly, and revolutionary day of reckoning.

Brandee Marckmann says:


Thank you for this very enlightened article. I’m majored in English and French at Central (’95), and I’ve been waiting for someone to write something like this.

I’m sure there will be many opinions on this. One of my biggest concerns is the current standardized testing mania – thanks to No Child Left Behind – that has turned many of our wonderful K-12 schools into test prep factories and made it difficult for teachers to focus on teaching the classics, music, art, social sciences – or any discipline that fosters critical thinking skills and community engagement.

I sink into the anxiety of Jim’s comments as I experience the polarization and fear-driven beliefs of our world. I also look for glimmers of hope as young people find their way in our complex world and as social science makes strides in its understanding and treatment of the human mind. There is so much complexity and so much speed and anxiety in our current world that deep understanding of and connection with life is hampered. It also takes power to make intelligent and compassionate decisions that advance everyone’s well-being, and I think that many of us experience a degree of powerlessness. Therefore, it is so crucial that institutions of higher learning train the whole person–mind, body, heart, and soul–to gain empathy, health, critical thinking, self-awareness and regulation, and a spirituality that connects us with the humanity of others and the needs of the earth.

don huffman says:

In esponse to both Lois and Jim, both long-treasured friends and among those who find value in many of the same areas I do: Yes, we have too many signs of diarray and dislocation/deterioration in our society and institutions to be wildly optimistic abut the foreseeable future.
I am enough of a realist to understand that even though the challenges to Central and our society and world at large are monumental, upon looking back over nearly 70 years of toil and turmoil as Central has worked through many monumental problems, the people I’ve encountered here make me optimistic for the long range ability to solve and renew efforts to be a great college despite nearly unbelievable odds; financial, ethical, spiritual, and the lot.
My early educational background in history, and my later years of application of both cultural and genetic evolution, convince me that we have almost unlimited opportunities for progress in our college, community, region, nation and this unsettling world.
I know it’s a bit naive sounding, but given the right mix of people with the best ideas, at the appropriate moments in time we have had a remarkable record of having achieved well beyond the darkest hours for all of these. The problem is, how do we get these together in a learning community of scholars?
For one thing, there are plenty of examples of great, emerging moments found in each of these threads of the fabric of our society and its institutions that have succeeded, and these ideas will continue to arise despite the all too evident temptation to think that our best days are behind us. These all include the ability to see the past strengths in the dross of former struggles.
We cannot discard the whole of our past without recognizing the many achievements – and these are evident to any who search for them. Every historical moment that one examines includes the temptation for discouragement and dismay, but we have and will continue to evolve excellence if wisdom is pernmitted to overpower the weakness of personal foibles and faults of apparently hopeless wandering in the dark.
There are gems to be recognized among the rubble of history for all instutions and societies. If we fail to recognize the distinctions between the two sorts of polarizerd knowledge, the future may indeed be bleak, but if we use the wisdom which we collectively possess, there will certainly be a rebirth of worthwhile achievements.
Let’s vow to do everything possible to assure that Central’s future will be one of which all of us can be proud. To do this we’ll need all the best minds and the best effort in decision making -not just for today or tomorrow, but for the future of those who inherit our achievements.

Ed Ver Hoef '54 says:

After a career of over 30 years in custom software development for several areas of application, (e.g., electric utilities, US Navy, et al) I retired about 10 years ago. During that period, I interviewed a large number of job candidates, most of them having a BS in the engineering sciences from highly respected technical universities. I was was stunned and greatly dismayed by the quality of the candidates I saw. Their knowledge in their technical field was admirable. However, their communicative skills were abysmal, especially when it came to writing. Their schools had done them a great disservice in focussing almost exclusively on their science applications to the exclusion of their communicative skills. I feel strongly that such a narrow focus severely limited their future career path, i.e., they didn’t development good communicative skills, especially writing. It certainly is essential that technical people have deep understanding of their particular science, but without the ability to express their ideas clearly to their audience, they find themselves at a significant disadvantage when it comes to advancing beyond their current status.

Gregory Christiano says:

We live in the Age of Depression, not just economic, but spiritual, moral and above all, educational Depression. The humanities, once the cornerstone of education, is being diluted and is fading. Nowadays it’s specialization instead of a broad, well-rounded education.

I received an excellent liberal arts education at central (Class of ’69, but today, I see, as you do, deterioration of literature, culture, history. There was a time when learning Greek and Latin was as important as studying the sciences. Today?

My son, 24 years old, graduated Rutgers last year with a degree in Philosophy. Apart from a few others in his graduating class, the majority have headed away from traditional education to the cold, exacting fields such as computer science and business management.

I’m afraid, as you have pointed out, this generation is moving away from the humanities toward a sterile, less communicative society. Where will this path lead us? We all know where.

Alyce Verduin Werkema says:

Again, I am gratified to read of Our President Putnam writing about having the heart to acknowledge and to deal with the problems in our country. A few years ago I read Marcus Borg’s “The Heart of Christianity (How We Can be Passionate Believers Today)” and recently seeing and reading Parker J. Palmer’s “Healing the Heart of Democracy” (The Courage to Create a Politics Worth of the Human Spirit”. Sometimes through a congregation, sometimes in Occupy Bellingham I find someone with whom I can share hope. From Palmer quoting thirteenth-century Persian poet Hafiz “Out Of a great need We are holding hands And climbing. Not loving is a letting go, Listen. The terrain around here Is Far too Dangerous For That”. I try to SEE and HEAR a wide variety of people and to seek our common good.

love the poem from Hafiz, Alyce–thanks for sharing!