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Report Argues U.S. Is Neglecting, Undervaluing Education in the Humanities

June 19, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
A new report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences panel warns that the U.S. could lose its competitive edge in the liberal arts and social sciences. Jeffrey Brown talks with two members of the panel: actor and writer John Lithgow and Richard Brodhead, co-chair of the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now: languages, history, philosophy and more, a call for new commitments to the humanities in higher education.

A report to that effect was issued today by a congressionally-mandated panel of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. It comes at a time when much focus has been on the need for the U.S. to nurture more graduates who specialize in science, technology, math, and engineering. It also comes amid lower funding for research in the humanities and a drop in interest in civics courses.

Two members of the panel join us now, co-chair Richard Brodhead, president of Duke University, and actor and writer John Lithgow.

Thank you and welcome to both of you.

JOHN LITHGOW, Actor: Nice to be here.

RICHARD BRODHEAD, President, Duke University: My pleasure.

JEFFREY BROWN: Richard Brodhead, is there a critique here, implicit or not, at least, that we as a country have gone too far in the direction of the so-called STEM?

RICHARD BRODHEAD: I don’t think it’s so much that we have gone too far, because many could argue we still haven’t gone far enough. The performance of students in our school systems in STEM subjects is not yet the wonder of the world.

It’s that, by focusing on one part of the problem, we have forgotten that actually the problem requires a balanced solution. We have great scientists. We have — the National Academy of Engineering is on our commission. The person who authored the report that the whole concept of STEM came out of, Norm Augustine, was on our commission.

And they say it was never their view that STEM alone made for an educated person, let alone even an educated scientist.

JEFFREY BROWN: One thing I want to — how do you define or measure the problem? Do you put in the personal terms for you?

JOHN LITHGOW: Well, very much so in my case.

I studied humanities all the way through college. At a certain point, I made a misstep and became an actor, although I was never cut out to be an academic. But I have always felt that studying the humanities and the arts at the college level just put me into the habit of learning that’s really defined my life in all sorts of ways.

And it’s extremely difficult to quantify exactly what the humanities does for you.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s one of the problems here, right?

JOHN LITHGOW: It’s certainly problem. And it tends to be neglected.

The study of humanities is not being attacked. It’s not a terrible political football, which is always a great danger, because people have different belief systems. But it is being simply neglected. There is an imbalance. And my feeling has always been that these two sides of the brain have to work together.

JEFFREY BROWN: But I have the experience — and I know you do everyday, and I will bet you do, too — of talking to college students at campus.


JEFFREY BROWN: And you’re — and I also happen to be a parent myself, so I know …


JEFFREY BROWN: … the huge costs of college …


JEFFREY BROWN: … the dim job prospects in this economy, which we report on all the time.

How do you look parents and teachers in the eye and say, you must have someplace for the humanities as well, while there’s a focus on jobs, practical matters?

RICHARD BRODHEAD: Well, I actually think the burden really falls on educators to educate people about the meaning and value of education.

I’m not sure we have done a good enough job making that case as well as we could.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re blaming yourself and others in the …

RICHARD BRODHEAD: I think educators to some extent play a role in it.

We need to remind the world that what makes a person successful are not the things that get you a job the day you graduate. I know almost no one at 40 or 50 who is doing the thing they did the day after they got out of college.

And when people end up being able to lead successful and creative lives, it is typically because they had a very broad range of skills that they were able to use in versatile and opportunistic ways as life unfolded. So you shouldn’t prepare yourself too narrowly. You think you’re being prudent, but it’s like penny-wise and pound-foolish. Better to develop more parts of yourself, more different skills and abilities, to be prepared for the chances of life.

JEFFREY BROWN: But that’s still a hard case to make for many people.

JOHN LITHGOW: Yes, especially in a time of economic hardship.

JEFFREY BROWN: Huge debt that people come out of college with.


All of these things are addressed, incidentally, in the report itself. Sort of super-pragmatism kicks in, and you — it’s easy to lose track of the value of this. And by the same token, people who do study humanities, they need a balanced education, too.

JEFFREY BROWN: When — you use the word invest a number of times in this report.


JEFFREY BROWN: But invest what? Because you don’t put — I don’t think you put dollar amounts on all this. Invest time? Invest money, fiscal …



RICHARD BRODHEAD: Love. Love. I think love is a good investment.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Why not pull dollar amounts on it?

RICHARD BRODHEAD: Oh, there will need to be dollars to accomplish some of what we talk about.

But, first of all, work in the humanities is much more inexpensive than work in many other disciplines, especially scientific research. And, second of all, I don’t think money is the first thing we need. The first thing we need is for people who know and care about the value of literacy, the value of understanding foreign countries, the value of leading the kind of rich spiritual life you can get through the acquaintance with philosophy and literature and things of that sort, we need people to remind the public of the value of those things.

I don’t find this a hard case to make when you speak to people. They just — there — it’s been a while since anybody has tried to wake people up to how much they already do know and care about these things.

JEFFREY BROWN: But when you try to make it concrete — you’re coming to this process from the outside. Is there a specific example that you have found from your talks or that came up in the report that you would say, here’s something we could do specifically to help this?

JOHN LITHGOW: Well, Karl Eikenberry is a member of our commission, former ambassador of Afghanistan.

JEFFREY BROWN: And general.

JOHN LITHGOW: And one of the final segments of the report is all about this global world we live in and how essential it is for us to have a good sense of other cultures, foreign languages. The study of foreign languages has diminished in importance.


JOHN LITHGOW: People simply making the assumption, well, English is a more — is the common denominator language of the world, so why bother? This is very wrong headed.

This is very wrong-headed.

RICHARD BRODHEAD: Our group has been amazing. We all do different things for a living, and we have all taught each other how we understand this issue and we have all learned from each other how they see it.

But the day Karl Eikenberry looked at us and said, if you have been a general, you know that weapons are the least effective weapon in your security arsenal. If you don’t know anything about cultures, if you don’t know anything about histories, foreign languages, you’re going to find yourself in places where all the weapons in the world can’t solve the problems you went there to solve. And that just seems to me a plea for the humanities.

JEFFREY BROWN: What’s your final takeaway from this process, having been part of it?

JOHN LITHGOW: Well, it’s been fascinating for me.

I’m certainly not an academic. I’m a member of a small contingent of this 50-plus commission who are in the performing arts, Yo-Yo Ma, Emmylou Harris, George Lucas, who’s done stuff for us. It’s — I sort of contribute my own experience from the creative side and how my own history of the humanities — I mean, I’m one of those odd actors who studied the humanities straight through before making the decision to become an actor, but how completely it’s just sort of informed the rest of my life.

Acting is a very curious profession. But there are an awful lot of people on the commission who are not humanists, but who were when they went to school.


It’s a point I make to parents, which is, I can rattle off a list of people who were English majors you didn’t know were English majors, Mitt Romney, Hank Paulson. The world is full of people whose original training was not in what they go on to do later on.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, you know what? We are going to continue that part of the discussion online about your own personal experiences.


But, for now, Richard Brodhead and John Lithgow, thank you very much.

JOHN LITHGOW: Great to be here, Jeff.


JEFFREY BROWN: And, also online, you can weigh in. Has a humanities education been useful in your life? Tell us on our NewsHour Facebook page.