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Educators, artists, lawmakers urge more emphasis on the arts

America needs to invest more in the humanities and social sciences in order to preserve its cultural identity and economic competitiveness, according to a new report on the role those subjects play in shaping the national character

The report issued Wednesday by American Academy of Social Sciences, entitled “The Heart of the Matter,” argues that the humanities and social sciences are essential, but under-funded and under-appreciated. They include subjects like literature, history, film and languages and the arts, as well as anthropology, economics and political science.

“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,” the report states.

It goes on to describe them as “the keeper of the republic – a source of national memory and civic vigor, cultural understanding and communication, individual fulfillment and the ideals we hold in common.”

Rep. David Price, D-N.C., one of four members of Congress who called for the report in 2010, said the American education system has become an example for other countries, but “our own nation’s humanistic and social science research enterprise is shrinking as a result of financial pressures, as a result of shifting national priorities and sometimes, I fear, a dearth of leadership.”

Price spoke at a briefing about the report along with the two co-chairmen of the commission that produced it, Duke University President Richard Brodhead and John Rowe, the retired chairman of Exelon Corp.

The report only asks the federal government to pay “its modest fair share of the investment,” Brodhead said. State and local governments, businesses and philanthropic foundations also support these disciplines through support for libraries, museums and colleges and universities.

Brodhead and Rowe worked with 51 other prominent academics, philosophers, business leaders, and representatives of the arts. Among them were cellist Yo-Yo Ma, filmmakers Ken Burns and George Lucas, singer- songwriter Emmylou Harris, former Supreme Court Justice David Souter and Miami Dade College President Eduardo Padron.

Brodhead said that at stake in their discussions over the past two years was the question of whether the United States would continue to produce people with the education needed for citizenship and the ability to play a role in a changing world.

He said that the debate over the quality of education in America has picked up steam, but has also narrowed. Much of the focus has been on the importance of the STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering and math, to the exclusion of all else.

And much of the public debate about education also “tries to measure the value of education by looking at what can your education do for you the day after you graduate as measured in the job you get then and the income that day,” the Duke president and English professor added. “But ask anybody over the age of 22 and they will tell you the measure of your education is the measure of how it furnishes you for all the needs of life over the whole long course of your life.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said the Founding Fathers were “great students of the humanities” and drew ideas about the American system of government from what they studied. He said that what it means to be an American is defined by shared values.

“I think it’s fair to say that our wealth over the last couple centuries has come primarily through our technological innovation, but the American character has come from the humanities,” Alexander said.

Alexander was one of the four members of Congress who asked for the report. The others, besides Price, were Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Rep. Thomas Petri, R-Wis.

The report offers a dozen recommendations, including the promotion of foreign language learning and creation of a K-12 curriculum that includes emphasis on problem-solving, critical analysis and communication skills.

Another is a “Culture Corps” that would match up volunteer teachers with schools or other organizations “to transmit humanistic and social scientific expertise from one generation to the next.”

The report covered a broad part of American education at all stages and all parts of culture, Rowe said.

“We touch on Hollywood,” he said. “We touch on symphonies. We touch on television. We touch on all these things because that’s what the humanities and social sciences address – the entire array of human interaction, the matters that make life in complex societies both possible and worthwhile.”

Ken Burns on the humanities