Skip to main content

Brodhead: Advocating for the Humanities

President Richard H. Brodhead discusses the future of the humanities Monday at the National Humanities Alliance. Photo by Landy Elliott
President Richard H. Brodhead discusses the future of the humanities Monday at the National Humanities Alliance. Photo by Landy Elliott

This is not a trivia question. What do Martin Dempsey, Harold Varmus and Steve Jobs have in common?

One answer is, each is a national leader in an area of fundamental need. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is the highest-ranking officer in the United States military. He highlights our need for national security, protection from external menace and attack.

Harold Varmus, current director of the National Cancer Institute and former director of the National Institutes of Health, won the Nobel Prize for discoveries in the genetic mechanism of cancer. He exemplifies our need for physical well-being, protection of the body's life and health.

Steve Jobs created an array of technology devices that have revolutionized daily life around the globe. He corresponds to our need for economic innovation and competitiveness: Apple is now the world's most valuable company, with market capitalization north of $500 billion.

What else do Martin Dempsey, Harold Varmus and Steve Jobs have in common? Each studied the humanities on his way to another career.

After attending West Point, Martin Dempsey got a M.A. in English at Duke, where he worked on Conrad and Yeats. Asked how his humanities experience translated into his subsequent military career, Dempsey said in a recent talk: "It opened my mind to seek, not just to accept, but seek other ways of thinking about things. When I got to West Point, a teacher held up a dictionary and the Complete Works of Shakespeare and said, pointing to each in turn: 'This will tell you the definition of words, and this will tell you what they mean.'" We might guess that his favorite authors taught him something about the nature of anarchism, as well.

Harold Varmus majored in English at Amherst and did a masters in English with a focus on Anglo-Saxon literature on his way to his career in medicine. As with Dempsey, this training left its mark. In his Nobel acceptance speech in Stockholm, Varmus evoked the thousand-year-old poem Beowulf to image "those bold in battle with dreaded monsters" in modern times. "Unlike Beowulf at the hall of Hrothgar, we have not slain our enemy, the cancer cell. In our adventures, we have only seen our monster more clearly, and described his fangs and scales in new ways -- ways that reveal cancer to be, like Grendel, a distorted version of our normal selves."

Steve Jobs is a famous dropout, but the college he chose, Reed, was a bastion of the humanities, and the course he singled out for its lasting influence was Calligraphy -- a revelation of the power of simple, elegant design. The photos Jobs chose for Apple's iconic Think Different campaign intermixed artists with scientists to image the genius of innovation: Einstein, Dylan, Picasso, Edison, Chaplin, Martha Graham, Maria Callas, Frank Lloyd Wright. In the launch of the iPad2 in 2010, Jobs posed under street signs marking the intersection of Technology and the Liberal Arts.

There is a lesson in these three careers. Our society is more anxious than ever about our ability to meet our needs for health, prosperity and security. There is a bipartisan consensus that education today is the only possible road to success on these fronts tomorrow. There is also bipartisan agreement on the urgent national need to promote training in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The President won applause on both sides of the aisle in last year's State of the Union Address when he promised to send 100,000 more STEM teachers into American classrooms in the next ten years.

We absolutely need to strengthen STEM capacities. But no thoughtful person ever maintained that STEM contains the whole of valuable knowledge. The kind of intelligence that has brought the broadest benefits to our society is an active, integrative mind awakened to multiple forms of knowledge and able to combine them into new ways. As Steve Jobs said, creativity takes place at intersections, not along any single road. It would be as strategic to develop a single range of mental skills as it would to develop a single muscle group in a physical fitness regime. 

Humanities has a crucial part to play in the drama of human empowerment. The founders of this country were trained humanists and could not have written our founding documents without their training in the classics, ethics, history, law, and political philosophy. The vision of higher education this country embraced at the outset of the Cold War, the vision realized in the modern research university, where the United States still decisively leads the pack, understood that the sciences, social sciences and the humanities were equally crucial to building national strength.

But in recent years, the commitment to the humanities as a cornerstone of education has weakened in this country, with results we all can see. As Norm Augustine, co-author of the key STEM document "Rising Above the Gathering Storm," pointed out in an editorial last fall, the single weakest area of achievement for American K-12 students is history, a humanities subject par excellence. Last winter Congress enforced a 40 percent cut on Title VI programs, a critical support for the study of foreign languages and foreign cultures. To cope with budget cuts, my state's public university system will be phasing out foreign language programs at a number of campuses. When budget cuts hit elementary schools, arts teachers are often the first to go.

Now, either these are prudent adjustments to unpleasant realities, or they are short-sighted choices that will impose long-term costs. If the latter, what is to be done? Hand-wringing and withering denunciation will not be much help. Part of the current problem of the humanities is that those who care most for them have not always seen the importance of making a publicly persuasive case.

To right this situation, last year a bipartisan group of congressmen and senators asked the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to create the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences.  I serve as its co-chair, together with recently retired Exelon CEO John Rowe.  The commission is dedicated to making a strong and effective case for the humanities and social sciences.  Today, on Humanities Advocacy Day, let's remind ourselves what the value proposition for the humanities is.

First, the humanities are the source of personal pleasure and enrichment. Millions for whom the word "humanities" is foreign jargon are addicted to the humanities without knowing it. Reading, listening to music, watching and now even making film, savoring a well-designed object: our most everyday pastimes show our primal need to be imaginatively transported, carried out of ourselves into an enriched experience we could not generate on our own.   

Second, through this process, the humanities broaden and deepen human awareness. By "entering into" the record of other humans' thinking, feeling and imagining, we are able to annex insights struggled toward by others that we would never have reached on our own. (Why else did Varmus cite the Beowulf poet, and why else was the West Point instructor still touting Shakespeare?) This is how we get to see to see the world differently from the way our minds or culture habitually present it, and to recognize that our customary outlook is not the only point of view. This is how we learn that there is more to human history than the present, and that our present is itself a moment in time. Without the aid of the humanities we would be condemned to the harshest of poverties: isolated in our narrow present seeing by our own unaided light.

Third, the humanities give training in language and the power words can wield. Mark Twain said that the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. General Dempsey thanked his humanities training for developing a skill even soldiers deeply need: the ability to find words that clarify, motivate, and supply context. On the Humanities Commission I am co-chairing, business CEOs have been among the most eloquent articulators of the value of broad-based training including the humanities. To a person, they testify that the ability to listen, analyze, synthesize, and communicate is far more important than specific competence in their field.

Fourth, as they deepen our skills in communication, the humanities build the core competences of citizens. The founders of the United States were convinced that unlike authoritarian regimes, a republican form of government needs an educated citizenry, people equipped to grasp the nature of government and of their responsibility for making it work. (Imagine how they would respond to the news that only 13 percent of US twelfth graders ranked "proficient" or "advanced" in US history while 55 percent fell short of "basic.") This knowledge isn't only informational. In our ever more diverse society, "We the People" threatens to become more and more a collection of isolated fragments unless we learn the arts of crossing over into the world of others, learning to appreciate the different way others see, think, and believe, then imagining a common good that serves us all.

Fifth, as every dimension of our work and play becomes more globally connected, the humanities take on an essential role in helping us understand the world we are entangled with beyond our shores. General Petraeus is another humanist: Petraeus took a PhD from Princeton in International Relations. To revise the army's long out-of-date Counterinsurgency field manual, Petraeus drew on a diverse group of military officers, academics, human rights advocates and journalists -- broad-based expertise on a problem that is not military alone. Petraeus wrote of Iraq: "we have to understand the people, their culture, their social structures and how systems to support them are supposed to work -- and how they do work." In short, we have to be better students of the otherness of cultures, the preserve of the humanities.

What's at stake goes far beyond the military. Hard to believe we'll be in full control of business or diplomacy in China if we assume they should know our language, and no American needs to know theirs. That makes for a comfortable feeling of superiority, but also for gaps of understanding that cannot be to our advantage -- and to really "get" who is on the other side of the table, we need some grasp of much more than language: also Chinese history, philosophy, and cultural anthropology, to name no more.

Pleasure, enriched awareness, command of words, the citizen's disposition toward others, equipment to navigate a multi-cultural global environment: humanities training is at the core of every one of these, and of at least one thing more. For the humanities are a key enabler of creativity. To create a new thing, you have to envision a possibility where none is apparent, and this is a skill that improves with practice. As Steve Jobs knew, this has been the work of engineers and entrepreneurs, but it's equally the work of artists. When we give kids the chance to be a maker (as artists were once properly called), we train the imagination that can transcend the status quo.

Ambassadors or even apostles, you are about to go preach the cause of the humanities. To rev you up, I've recited some key tenets of our creed. But before we set out, let's think how this persuasion can be most effective. In my experience, it will not go far if we seem to care only about modest budget increments to established programs. I want those too, but if I were not already sold on the humanities proposition, I would not likely be moved by that small-gauge approach.

To make someone want to invest in the humanities, we first have to remind them what the humanities are and why they matter. This case has to be made boldly, positively -- no whining pleas of "give me some money or I'll die before your eyes." It has to advance a broad, big-picture concept of the humanities that people can readily see their stake in. We need to remind people, with examples they will feel the force of where abstractions fail, that the humanities are a core competence of being human and a key measure of social strength -- something it's relatively cheap to provide for yet costly to put at risk.

We also need to make clear that in promoting the humanities, we are not deriding the sciences or encouraging trade-offs between the two. For the health of our society, we need to train minds that have learned plural disciplines and can move freely among them.  Our colleagues in China and Singapore are trying to figure out the mysterious secret of liberal arts education, the broad-based, integrative training spanning the arts and sciences which they see as producing America's adaptive, inventive kind of leader. (Steve Jobs knew the advantage of hanging out in that neighborhood.) It will be ironic if we fail to nourish and protect this asset just when others are recognizing its value.

To develop fully, skills in language, the arts and social inquiry must start being built at early ages, then broadened and deepened in further stages of schooling.  Too often, the segments of this educational pathway are quite detached from each other, with fragmenting results at best. Elementary school is typically one world with one institutional focus; high school is another; so is college; so are the graduate programs where expertise is trained.  Each has its role, but there is commonly little communication among these sectors, little sense of common purpose or cooperating toward a common goal. The very best support for the humanities will support the specific needs and opportunities at each stage of development but also help link them, so what's planted at one stage is not left to wither at the next.

But we must also look beyond the classroom, beyond the years of formal education.  The humanities at their best are a lifelong form of learning, and humanistic skills need to continue to be exercised through lifelong habits of reading, entertainment, and exchange.  To support the long arc of humanistic development, we must connect all the pieces of the continuum and strengthen our cultural institutions and community humanities resources:  the museums, libraries, and state humanities councils that introduce Americans to their own history and connect them to its meaning and insights.  My colleagues, you are the engines of our shared project, and all of us on the Commission are grateful for your work that transforms the abstract notion of the humanities into an engaging experience for many people every day. 

Are the humanities really a lost cause? I refuse to believe it. Think of the crowds that flock to museums (the Museum of Modern Art's Twitter feed has nearly a million followers). Think of the works of serious history and biography that regularly become bestsellers. Think of Oprah's book club reading Faulkner and Toni Morrison and Anna Karenina. The recent exhibit on Rembrandt at the North Carolina Museum of Art attracted visitors from all 100 counties in North Carolina, all 50 states, and 42 countries.  These indicators tell us that love of humanities is strong where they have been made accessible. In significant measure, the failure is not of the public to care for the humanities but of the lovers of the humanities to make a strong case to the public.

There are souls to save out there -- or at the least, lives that will be grateful for enrichment. Let's get to work.