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'The Heart of the Matter'

National commission warns of serious consequences if the humanities and social sciences decline

Part of the Humanities Writ Large Series
Plus: Brodhead Discusses the Report
Duke President Richard Brodhead, left, talks during a meeting of the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences as commission member David Brooks, a columnist for the New York Times, looks on. Photo courtesy of Eric Craig Studios, Inc.

Calling the humanities and social sciences essential for American education, security and competitiveness, a Congressionally requested national commission of cultural, business, military and other leaders co-chaired by Duke President Richard H. Brodhead said Wednesday there is an urgent need to re-focus the country on maintaining national excellence in the disciplines.

"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," said the report prepared by the 53-member commission of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. The group warns of serious consequences to U.S. security and prosperity if Congress and others do not act decisively to strengthen the humanities and social sciences.

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Led by Brodhead and John Rowe, retired chairman and chief executive officer of Exelon Corp., the Commission on the Humanities & Social Sciences presented its findings on Capitol Hill to Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn) and Mark Warner (D-Va) and Reps. Tom Petri (R-Wisc) and David Price (D-NC), who requested the report in 2011.

"Today's leaders in business, government, the military and diplomacy must be able to analyze, interpret, communicate, and understand other cultures," said Brodhead.   "This report will remind Americans that a broad-based and balanced education, integrating the sciences, the humanities and the social sciences, is the best way to equip our citizens to approach the complex problems of our rapidly changing world."

[Brodhead discussed the study in greater detail in a Duke Today interview.]

Called "The Heart of the Matter," the report tackles five areas of concern: K-12 education, higher education, research, cultural institutions and international security and competitiveness. It makes recommendations to achieve three broad goals.

The first is to educate Americans in the knowledge, skills, and understanding needed to thrive in a 21st century democracy. The report calls for investments in the preparation of citizens with a thorough grounding in history, civics, and social studies. It also recommends increased access to online resources, including teaching materials.

national commission

Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry and filmmaker George Lucas participate in a meeting of the American Academy Commission on the Humanities & Social Sciences. Photo by Eric Craig Studios Inc.

The second goal is to foster an innovative, competitive and strong society. To ensure the vibrancy of humanities and social science programs at all levels, the report says, philanthropists, states and the federal government should significantly increase funding designated for these purposes. Another proposal is to create a Humanities Master Teacher Corps to complement the STEM Master Teacher Corps recently proposed by the White House.

The third goal is to equip the nation for leadership in an interconnected world. The report calls for the development of a "Culture Corps" that would match retirees, veterans, artists, library and museum personnel and other interested adults with schools, community centers and other organizations to transmit humanistic and social scientific expertise from one generation to the next. It also urges expanded education in international affairs and transnational studies.

The report was presented to Sens. Alexander and Warner and Reps. Petri and Price Wednesday morning at the Reserve Officers Association.  The report and its executive summary, in English and in Spanish, are available at, along with the companion film.

"We hope today's events and the report's release will launch a national conversation about the importance of the humanities and social sciences to America's future," Rowe said. "This is a challenge that reaches far beyond history or language classrooms to affect corporations, the military and almost every other sector of our American society. We cannot prosper in an increasingly global society without Americans having a strong foundation in these disciplines."

A short companion film, The Heart of the Matter, produced by Emmy Award-winning filmmakers Ewers Brothers productions also was released Wednesday. Appearing in the film are producer, screenwriter and director George Lucas, actor John Lithgow, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, all of whom served on the commission. 

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation was the primary funder for the study, which also received important funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.