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Brodhead: In an Age of Metrics, Liberal Arts Education Still Holds Value

Duke president addresses the future of liberal arts education

President Richard H. Brodhead at the College Board Forum: The humanities report
President Richard H. Brodhead at the College Board Forum: The humanities report "hit a nerve."

I am honored to have a chance to address the College Board Forum.  David, I am especially pleased to speak in the first year of what I trust will be a long and happy reign. To my audience today:  you perform one of the most significant functions in American life, and I salute you. Since the military draft ended 40 years ago, the chief experience that people from different backgrounds go through together as an age cohort is the college admissions process. In this great transition, you are the border patrols and the crossing guards. As secondary school leaders and college guidance counselors, you urge students forward, help them visualize their options, and encourage them to present their accomplishments in a compelling light. Those of you on the college and university side enlighten students and families as to what college is and why it matters, help them make the finances work, and select and shape an admitted class.

Put it all together and the scale of the process is astounding. I'm told that of the 3.2 million young people who graduated from high school in 2012, about 2.1 million, or 66 percent, were enrolled in college in the fall. It matters profoundly how well this transition is managed. It matters to individual students and families, who regard you as holding the keys to life or death; and it also matters to the nation. Our wisdom and productivity in future are directly dependent on whether, in earlier life, the greatest possible number of men and women can get the education that lets them live up to their potential. If quality higher education is richly available, we'll be prepared for any future. If people don't get the full measure of educational enablement, we'll lose their potential and we all will pay a price.

Deployed as you are along the perimeter of higher education, you are uniquely equipped to register the hopes and dreams that drive the quest for college admission -- and, equally, the negative emotions that have strengthened in recent times. Never has college been sought with such desperate eagerness as the route to fulfillment and success as it is today; but never has such has there been so much cynicism and mistrust. You know the litany. College is our only hope, yet college costs too much. You can borrow to help pay the cost, but then you're saddled with disabling debt. Some colleges admit students with no realistic chance of completion, and they end up with the worst of both worlds, the debt and not the degree. But those who do graduate may fare little better. Students may have learned little or nothing in college (journalists eagerly adopted this message from Arum and Roksa's Academically Adrift), and so may have no better shot at quality employment after they graduate than if they had never gone.

As I trust you know, this litany represents a mix of fact and wild distortion. In sober truth, unemployment is significantly lower and lifetime earnings significantly higher for four year college graduates. But media organs prefer the lurid version of the tale, which their repetitions have come close to establishing as accepted truth.  In May 2012, right around graduation weekend for many colleges, the Sunday New York Times ran a lead story featuring a student from a four year liberal arts college who emerged with $120,000 in debt.  She was working two fast food jobs to pay it down, and her mother had taken out insurance in case the child died and she became liable for the loans. Right there on page one, the poster child for college education in the scammy days of cost, debt, unemployment and disablement! Only in the sixth paragraph did the story reveal that the median debt load of graduates was in the $20,000 range, one-sixth of what the front page implied was "typical."

As you also know, however, the new negativism is not solely a media creation. At bottom, it is a by-product of an economic downturn followed by a recovery which has lacked the lift of a true recovery, especially for the middle class. Barbara Ehrenreich long ago explained that the middle class is that class that can never amass enough wealth to secure its children's well-being through inheritance.  Instead, middle class parents strive to assure their children's success by hyperinvesting in education.  When costs go up for families whose incomes aren't rising, and post-college employment prospects grow uncertain, this strategy comes under massive pressure, with its hopes shrouded by a sense of betrayal.

We see one result in the rush to hold higher education accountable for the value it no longer seems to deliver. When the President began a virtual campaign tour this past August, he sought to connect with the public's hopes and fears by preaching federal accountability for higher education. After the State of the Union Address, the Obama Administration issued report cards measuring cost of attendance, debt rates, and completion rates for every institution of higher education. Virginia law now requires all institutions to post the starting salaries for their graduates broken out by college major, so parents can know what course of study leads to what result.

The anxiety that higher education may not lead to a secure, prosperous future is the great new fact of our time. There's no wishing it away:  if we are living through a structural change in the distribution of wealth and opportunity, as many fear, it will be with us for a long while to come. In this new circumstance, we have work to do to mitigate cost increases and teach the public the real facts of price and choice.

But that is hardly the end of our challenge. A peculiarity of recent years is that as the debate over the value of college has grown more heated, the concept of this value has grown narrower and more impoverished.  The White House website may tell you the effective cost of attending Dartmouth or Arizona State, and this is useful information, except that it leaves the impression that the value of a college education is identical to its price. The Virginia website makes it easy to calculate the benefit derived from attending any institution, provided you assume the benefit equals the salary paid by your first employer.

As such reductive metrics gain ground around us, the friends of higher education have a job to do. Without ignoring or minimizing economic realities, we need to say loud and clear what the value of a good education actually consists of.

Now, there are many different versions of post-secondary education, some of which do involve learning specific workplace skills, and these may be adequately measured by near-term employment statistics and rates of pay. But much of American higher education draws on some version of the liberal arts model, which has an altogether different value proposition. Liberal arts education is not just a matter of requiring students to visit random unrelated fields and check the curricular boxes. Beyond its formal requirements, this education aims to engage multiple forms of intelligence to create deep and enduring habits of mind, an active, integrative, versatile spirit that's naturally disposed, when it comes upon a new fact or situation, to use existing knowledge to try to grasp it, while updating preexisting understandings in this new light.

The value of this habit of mind is not measured by income alone. It is, in the fullest sense, equipment for living. Its value is that it supplies enrichment to personal lives, equips students to be thoughtful and constructive social contributors, and prepares them to participate fully and creatively in the dynamic, ever-changing world that awaits them after college.  It's easy to see why people might get anxious about something so difficult to calculate, and might want a straighter line to the payoff. But the fruits of such education can only be reckoned over long time-horizons, as they enable people to rise to challenges and seize opportunities they could not foresee at first. The lives of successful people almost never involve continuing to do what they prepared for. As their lives unfold, they find that by drawing on their preparation in unexpected ways, they're able to do things they hadn't intended or imagined.

I am describing a situation where, thinking they are securing real value from education, people are tempted to pursue narrow and short-sighted versions of that value, and so short-change themselves and the world. One favorite target for those who want a bang for the buck has been the humanities. All federal research investments have been constrained in the days of high deficits and sequestration, but humanities budgets have been cut disproportionally. Between 2010 and 2013, the appropriation for the National Endowment for the Humanities was cut more than 16%. In those same years, allocation for the Title VI foreign language programs fell a whopping 44%. Shortly after his election, the governor of my state said that public dollars should support only education that leads straight to a job. If students want to study more rarefied subjects, he said, they should do so at private institutions at their own expense.

As David mentioned, this is my tenth year as president of Duke, but I started my life as an English teacher, and at heart I am that still. At present I'm involved in a campaign to promote the liberal arts and the humanities, and I want to share some lessons from this adventure. The story starts more than ten years back when, at the request of two senators and two congressmen, the National Academies commissioned the report called Rising Above the Gathering Storm. This report made an urgent, cogent case that to prevent a disastrous loss of competitiveness in the global economy, America needed to strengthen its training in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It's a measure of this report's success that STEM has become a national by-word, and bipartisan majorities supported the America COMPETES Act.  

Now, no one I know doubts the need for STEM initiatives, but one can ask whether the nation's needs can be met through STEM alone. When the National Research Council commissioned a new report on research universities focused solely on STEM fields, I voiced the thought that the humanities and social sciences, equally key activities of universities, needed to be included as well. That didn't happen, but later, with its own charge from two senators and two representatives, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences launched a Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences, and for my sins, I was asked to be co-chair.

Inviting people to serve on this commission was great fun. We eventually asked fifty-five extraordinarily talented and busy people. All but one quickly accepted, saying the effort was important and well worth their time.  Among others, the Commission included the presidents of Harvard, Stanford, Penn and Notre Dame, the Chancellors of UC Berkeley and the University of Texas system, and the head of the nation's largest community college; also business leaders, military leaders, a former governor, a federal judge, the heads of major libraries and museums, an actor (John Lithgow), a filmmaker (George Lucas), and a great architect (Billie Tsien).  

Over a year and a half, the Commission met for a series of highly engaging conversations. What was interesting in these discussions was that the most eloquent voices on behalf of the value of the humanities and liberal arts often came from non-academics. James McNerney, the CEO of Boeing, told us that high-tech manufacturing requires skilled engineers, but that beyond a certain level, people will not advance if they do not have a broader array of skills, especially skills at communication and interacting with culturally diverse others -- liberal arts training par excellence.

General and Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, who headed military and diplomatic efforts in Afghanistan, testified that in the globalized modern world, weapons can only do so much to protect national security. Equally essential are the understanding of foreign languages, foreign histories and cultures, and beliefs and ethical systems different from our own: classic humanities fields within a liberal arts education.

Norm Augustine, longtime head of Lockheed Martin and the principal force behind the Gathering Storm report, argued that collecting evidence, weighing interpretations, and making arguments are core skills for creative workers and good citizens, and that these require broad training across the arts and sciences. The Father of STEM said he thought America's single greatest educational deficit is in history, a prime teacher of the skills he cited.

Eduardo Padrón, President of Miami Dade College, reminded us that one-third of all undergraduates in the United States are in community colleges, where their aims are not exclusively technical. Miami Dade serves 175,000 students, 90% minority, more than 60% low income, many of them immigrants or first generation -- as Padrón says, "we take the people who can't pay or be admitted elsewhere." But even when these student seek training for a particular job, it's the broader training they receive that typically helps them to the next job -- with Miami Dade's liberal arts curriculum launching thousands into careers in public service, law, business, and education.  "If there is one area where the social sciences and the humanities are important," Padrón has said, "more than the Ivy Leagues, more than the Smithsonian, it is right there, where the masses of Americans have their first chance to achieve the American dream."

In addition to arguing for the utility of humanistic training, commission members across all sectors agreed that that the humanities need study because they broaden and deepen human awareness. Humans are the only species capable of entering into the hopes, fears, strivings, and wisdom gained by others across space and time, a radically enhanced experience available to us through art, music, film, and the written word. As humans, we can see, feel and know things we could never have grasped on our own by entering into the transmitted imagination of others, a magnificent expansion of consciousness. We turn our backs on this legacy only at the cost of condemning ourselves to the harshest of poverties: imprisonment in our narrow present, seeing by our own unaided light.

After many months spent learning from one another, this summer the Commission was ready to issue its own report, titled The Heart of the Matter.  Like the report that launched the STEM crusade, this one aims to make a compelling argument for the public need for the humanities and the social sciences -- and to outline practical steps to advance the cause. The report makes the case that the humanities require support along the whole arc from K-12 education through college into community cultural life and lifelong learning. It also makes the case that the separate parts of this effort will each be more effective if they work together.

The Heart of the Matter first calls for a deepened commitment to literacy. "Reading and writing are the building blocks of learning, making possible all the rest of our education and development," the Report says.  "From being able to sound out words on a page, we advance to be able to analyze, interpret, ask questions, make connections, and express our thoughts in words. . . . Even in a digital age, the spoken and written word remains the most basic unit of our interactions, the very basis of our humanity."  If we are to expect any later development of this range of powers, we must lay a strong foundation in early life.

 The Common Core Standards Initiative emerged from the National Governors Association while our commission was deliberating. While we do not claim expertise in the details, we recognized the Common Core as an attempt to institutionalize such a deeper version of literacy, where learning to read is not the end but the beginning of an unfolding process of interrogating the world and building critical thinking powers.  It is our hope (as it is the College Board's) that, started early and continued from year to year, this approach will bring many more students to the end of high school prepared for the higher-order work they will do in college. We were forewarned that raised standards would initially lead to lowered test scores, but the road will still be the right one if it leads to deeper enablement for many more people. When I asked his thoughts on the expected dip, Bob Wise, former Governor of West Virginia, said that when his high school football coach would make him lift heavier weights, at first it was hard, but eventually it made him stronger.

A broad, cumulative development of powers rooted in literacy won't work without teachers who can live up to this aspiration. So as we raise the literacy bar, our report calls for a parallel emphasis on teacher training. This is a place where closer collaboration between high school and college and university teachers is needed. These two segments of our educational system are commonly separate worlds, each absorbed in its own task. But it's hard to see how high school results can be better aligned with college expectations if there is not more communication across this line.  Furthermore, higher education could help provide resources to enrich curricula and help teachers open their lesson plans for active exploration. Ten miles down the road from me in North Carolina is the National Humanities Center. It's a refuge for scholarly reflection and research, but importantly, it has also spearheaded an outreach to high school teachers through online seminars and toolkits of primary materials for historical inquiry. The different segments of our educational community will all be stronger as we see more cooperation across institutional bounds.

At the next level, the report is mindful that the distinctive American strength in higher education -- a strength envied and admired around the world and which many Asian countries are currently trying to replicate -- is based on a plan that opens minds in multiple directions, engages our curiosity in a variety of ways, and puts us in a position to synthesize bits of knowledge to form new insights. This broad, integrative training that reaches across the arts and sciences is the American alternative to the early specialization that many countries require, and it is widely perceived to support the nimbleness, innovativeness, and creative versatility that give the American economy its dynamism.

Public understanding of this model of education may be eroding at the very moment when this form of education is becoming more necessary than ever. So the report calls for colleges and universities to make a far greater effort to communicate the enabling power of liberal arts education, sharing this message in many ways with their many publics; and we call for colleges and universities to make sure they maximally deliver what we claim to provide.  Specialized curricular offerings can be life-altering experiences for students and are one of the great luxuries of a great education. But if we're to lay claim to developing the broad-based, integrative skills I've been describing, we need to take trouble to offer the courses that accomplish those goals, and to help students understand how course choices can build to a thoughtful educational whole.

I will leave our many further recommendations to your careful reading of the report, which can be accessed at I want to turn to say something about tactics -- that is, how we plan for our work to have an effect. Reports like ours can lie around unread, and many, perhaps most, have met this fate. But they can also make a difference, as was the case with Gathering Storm. So we were eager to consult Norm Augustine and other of our members who served on both commissions about the grounds of that success. What we learned was that, even after coming up with a persuasive rationale and a list of practical measures, there was a long interval spent carrying the message to multiple audiences before the result began to take shape. 

That's the stage we're at now.  We were delighted that the launch of The Heart of the Matter received enthusiastic coverage in the media. Thousands of people visited the website to download the report, PBS Newshour and The Colbert Report introduced it to television audiences, and papers around the country continue to publish op-eds and follow-on articles engaging with its ideas.

To me this is evidence that the report hit a nerve. In truth, it's actually not a hard sell to remind people that literacy is the foundation of all communications and analytical skills, that citizens of a democracy need some understanding of history, that in a globalized world it's dangerous to know so little about foreign people and cultures -- and that STEM is a crucial component of a balanced diet, but not the whole of what we need; and that it's not only good for people to study humanistic subjects, but that humans naturally love and crave this kind of nourishment. (Why else does the Museum of Modern Art have more than a million followers on its twitter feed? How else could Oprah have managed to mobilize the Oprah Book Club to read Faulkner and Toni Morrison and Anna Karenina? What else could it mean that the Coursera professor with the highest enrollment to date has been a humanist: the philosopher Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, whose online course Think Again: How to Reason and Argue has reached more than 400,000 students?) So far from bearing an unpalatable message in the Eat Your Broccoli mode, we've been telling people something that made sense to them, indeed that they already knew and believed, or would have, if our public discourse was not so clogged with other, contrary messages.

Eventually, we will be looking for the federal government to play a role in support of the humanities. It's hard to believe this is an auspicious month for seeking new appropriations, but the de-funding of the National Endowment for the Humanities, which supports arts and history projects in every state across the country, is scandalously short-sighted. Restoring adequate funding for the study of foreign languages and cultures through Title VI and the Fulbright-Hays Program is another obvious goal.

But unlike the sciences, the humanities aren't fundamentally dependent on federal support; and to succeed, we will need to mobilize actors at every level of American life, including states and local communities. With the American Academy coordinating and in partnership with state humanities councils, our Commission continues to carry the message out in this way. Former Supreme Court Justice David Souter came out of retirement to lead one such  humanities event in Albany, NY. To my great delight, Carnegie Mellon University, the computer science and technology powerhouse in Pittsburgh, featured The Heart of the Matter in its freshman orientation this fall. Two weeks back I attended an event in Charlotte, North Carolina, honoring support for the humanities by two particularly active citizen leaders and a local historian who has given presentations in nearly a hundred towns. Three hundred people came, and they cheered loud and long. As I say, the humanities have plenty of friends, if we remember to remind them of the fact.

Meanwhile, in the wake of The Heart of the Matter, the American Academy continues to engage in mass dissemination of information, some of which might take the average American quite by surprise. Did you know that three-quarters of American employers "want new hires with precisely the sort of skills the humanities teach: critical thinking, complex problem-solving, as well as written and oral communication?"  Did you know that humanities majors scored nine percent higher on the Graduate Management Admission Test than business majors? It makes you wonder if useless things might have their uses after all.

Now I turn my eyes to you, members of the College Board. More than two thousand in number, you are today's evangelizing target for this great cause. I know you are besieged by parents who want to do right by their children and don't want to fall for a scam. I know you know the legitimate concerns and frequent economic pressures they face. And we all know that colleges do not always make it easy for students to get the glorious experience they've seen advertised, especially when their families don't have the tradition of navigating college and knowing how its value is extracted.

There's plenty of work to do to close the gap between the real and the ideal in higher education. We all need to be part of that solution. For all that, a great harm we can do to today's students is to limit their reach by siding with their anxieties and letting them settle for an education that's light on ambition. The great question of education today is how to promote the fullest realization of potential in the young men and women who will be the productive and creative citizens of tomorrow -- or could be, if their education lets them.  The humanities aren't the whole of the answer but they are certainly a part of it. The humanities are not a luxury; they are a core dimension of our humanity and a crucial basis for human power. You're all counselors of different sorts. Let's counsel students to build all the sources of their potential strength. That's where the value resides.