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Sunday
Jun232013

English majors are people, too: The Academy report

Margaret Clapp Library, Wellesley College

You may have heard that this week the American Academy of Arts and Sciences released The Heart of the Matter,  a report on the crucial role payed by arts, humanities and social sciences to our nation. This report was requested by members of the Senate in 2011, in response to a spate of reports, symposia, conferences, etc., on the importance of investing in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education.

I have not yet read the full Academy report (it's 92 pages long!), but did peruse the report brief. I especially enjoyed the Executive Summary which states that non-science curriculum is essential to our global competitiveness as well as national security: "A fully balanced curriculum—including the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences—provides opportunities for integrative thinking and imagination, for creativity and discovery, and for good citizenship. The humanities and social sciences are not merely elective, nor are they elite or elitist. They go beyond the immediate and instrumental to help us understand the past and the future. They are critical to a democratic society and they require our support." (If you don't have time to read the report, watch several Commissioners--including John Lithgow, Ken Burns, Sandra Day O'Connor--lay out its core argument on this video.)

I cheer this report with a resounding "hurrah!" Concentrating on courses within the vast subject area known as Humanities is most definitely not elitist! But those of use who spent most of our educational lives in those departments are frequently written off. How many times I have heard it? "Arts and literature are frills, not essentials!" I was thinking of several recent examples to cite here (e.g., using "cite" not "site"), but they all seemed rather trivial and--well, if you must know, stupid--when typed into a blog. That is part of the insidiousness of the problem.

I agree with Verlyn Klinkenborn commenting on The Heart of the Matter report in today's New York Times: "What many undergraduates do not know. . .  is how valuable the most fundamental gift of the humanities will turn out to be. That gift is clear thinking, clear writing and a lifelong engagement with literature." As I tell my students and clients, you can't communicate clearly unless you can write clearly. No one will "get" what you mean if you cannot express it succinctly to yourself. No amount of dancing around a subject and "waxing eloquent" will hide the fact that your thinking is imprecise.

So, those of you who think we are being snooty or elitist when we wave our Humanities flags, realize that we, too, occupy an important place in the world. And now class, the lecture is over. I'm off to enjoy the rest of the afternoon immersed in Joyce Carol Oates' latest exercise in brilliant writing, The Accursed.

Reader Comments (1)

Clear thinking and writing can be taught through fields outside the humanities, which certainly do not have a lock on careful reasoning. To me, the strongest argument for the humanities is contained in the word itself....the humanities are the fields that shape us as humans.......that deal with such topics as morality, aesthetics, etc.

June 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Saunders

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