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Brodhead on the 'Undersold' Humanities

Duke's president co-chaired a national commission that examined the state of the humanities and social sciences. He discusses that work here

Part of the Humanities Writ Large Series

Brodhead Portrait.jpeg
Duke President Richard Brodhead

As co-chair of the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences, Duke President Richard Brodhead was tasked with bringing order to a 53-member group with myriad opinions and a penchant for conversation.

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Collectively, the group boasted a broad range of backgrounds, from filmmakers Ken Burns and George Lucas to cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed and David Souter, former associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Brodhead was one of a dozen college and university system leaders on the commission, whose report is released today. Here, he discusses the process, findings and challenges the United States faces in improving the public's view of the humanities and social sciences.

This commission held six regional forums and four national meetings to discuss the future of the humanities and social sciences and their role in the life of this nation. As this process went along, did any particular concern or problem become most apparent?

The problem people found was not that the faucet was leaking or the light bulb was broken. The problem we found was that the humanities are undersold. The perception of the values of the humanities has eroded to the point where people think they can just dismiss them.

The humanities is a somewhat academic term. But if I ask you if you enjoy reading, or going to the movies, or listening to music -- everyday life is full of the humanities. If you want students to solve a science problem, they have to understand the words in the problem. The foundation of literacy is the foundation of everything we do in this culture.

The business people on the commission were particularly emphatic about this -- that business skills only take you so far. People need to communicate and synthesize and work well with people with other skills.

What were the commission's conversations like?

Everyone on the committee had two things in common. They knew there was a problem, and they are hyper-articulate. We had very few silent partners on this committee. People talked and people listened. People were interested in one another’s thoughts. In the process of talking through the issues, we found areas that we needed to address.

Did people agree about everything? No. Some are big fans of charter schools, for example. Others felt charter schools are the end of American education. But we hope we found a broad common ground.

The humanities are about, among other things, how we deepen thought by arguing about things. If this committee had to argue its way forward, we were actually exemplifying the humanities in its finest spirit.

Were you all actually arguing?

Everyone would express their point of view, and then you'd watch the same subject be opened up by another point of view. That's the humanities at work.

The commission recommends a heavier emphasis on literacy, more effective K-12 instruction and a closer linking of secondary and higher education and training. How lacking are those things in American education right now, and do you think people understand those things need improvement?

I don't think the general public believes that the state of education in this country is everything it could be. Beyond that, when you get into specifics, people will have different degrees of detail. We're principally talking about a level of literacy that isn't just learning to read in a minimal sense. It's about learning how to use the process of reading to open up the world to you. Literacy becomes the tool for all later learning, rather than something you're done with in the third grade.

What role will universities, and a place like Duke in particular, play in all of this?

Multiple roles. Humanities isn't all research, but the understanding of the past and foreign cultures is based on research. So a great research university has a special mission to be a place of understanding and the transmission of knowledge of the past, knowledge of other cultures, as well as habits of thinking. So we have a research function and a teaching function.

In the summer, when you come to campus, you'll often see a sixth grade class getting off a bus to visit someone's lab. We play a role giving back to K-12 education. But we could play a bigger role. Every college can.

It's never going to work for Duke to educate only students well equipped to come to Duke. We have to play some role in enriching education for others as well.

In particular, could Duke play a key role in what your commission's report terms "Grand Challenges," in which you bring humanists and social scientists together with scholars in the physical and biological sciences to tackle major global problems?

We can be extraordinarily good at that. Humanists have been a part of our genome center, our global health program. The humanities are relevant to every aspect of existence. So you won't get the humanities right if you develop them in isolation.

The recommendations made in this report would require a great deal of investment, both in terms of federal dollars and private philanthropy.  Is that asking a lot given the current economic climate in this country?

The only way to assess the proper value of an investment is to see what you can get for the price. Compared to the budget for scientific research, the requests in this report are quite modest. You can do the humanities quite modestly, but if you don't give them some priority, starting at the beginning and going through people's lives, you end up with impoverished skills and impoverished communities. That's what you have to think about when you think about the size of the investment.

Our recommendations are absolutely not gold-plated. They are also not based on asking the federal government to bear the full price of these things.

What's the best result here?

An example we've kept in mind here is example of the Rising Above the Gathering Storm report that came out from the National Academies in 2007. It really gelled the commitment to STEM education. It was codified in the America COMPETES Act. The interesting thing is that it didn't succeed the day it came out. It succeeded because it started a dialogue in which more and more people realized there’s an economic cost if we don't develop these strengths. Little by little it became an orthodoxy. STEM became a term.

People casually dismiss the value of humanities in everyday conversation. So the idea here is to make people realize there's something at stake. This is something we have a choice about. And everyone from the federal government to your local library branch has a role to play.