More students should study subjects like law, literature and history, stressed a panel of University administrators, philanthropists and a Supreme Court justice Monday evening in the Jack Morton Auditorium.
Members of Congress, GW faculty and other academic leaders gathered to hear the panelists discuss the challenges facing the humanities – the overarching field that encompasses subjects like philosophy and the arts. The event kicked off the two-day National Humanities Alliance Conference in Washington.
Panelists, including Supreme Court Associate David Souter, discussed the need to make the humanities more accessible and more applicable, especially in a time of economic downturn.
“Not enough American kids and the grown-ups they become want to pursue these fields seriously because other things matter more to them than living the life of the mind,” said panelist Don Michael Randel, president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, an organization that promotes the study of the humanities.
The Academy of Arts and Sciences sponsored the event, which featured a discussion about their recent publication of the Humanities Indicators, a comprehensive research study that examines humanities performance from elementary through post-secondary education and at the professional level as well.
Leslie Berlowitz, chief executive officer of the Academy of Arts and Sciences and the moderator of the discussion, explained the intentions of the study during her opening remarks.
“The data will provide scholars, policymakers and the public with national benchmarks of the state of humanities in America,” she said.
The panelists used the study to launch their discussion about current obstacles in humanities education. Among other issues, the conversation addressed a crisis of impracticality within the humanities disciplines.
Panelist Edward Ayers, president of the University of Richmond, emphasized this sentiment as especially problematic in poorer communities, adding that making the humanities more accessible should be a higher priority for leaders in the academic world.
“We are not reaching large numbers of first-generation, immigrant, minority or poor students with the wonder that is the humanities,” he said. “It’s time for us to reach to them in every way available to us.”
Many of the solutions posed by the panelists involved widening the scope of the liberal arts, which could offset student anxiety about the usefulness of a humanities degree.
During the question and answer portion of the meeting, the topic of discussion moved toward advocacy for the humanities. Souter advised members of Congress to appeal for greater federal support of the humanities later this week.
Randal also said he felt members of Congress could make a case for the importance of humanities in diplomatic matters.
“Members of Congress ought to be persuaded that we can’t wait until a war starts . to learn the languages and history of the people we’re going to have to deal with,” he said.
The panelists also discussed the presence of humanities in early education as a way of increasing its appeal. Randal felt reading to children was a simple solution to liberal arts depreciation, emphasizing that “you can’t name an age at which it’s too early to start.”
Souter echoed Randel’s sentiments, resolving that those who will have the greatest impact on the state of humanities in American society will be its youngest citizens.
“If you want to form habits of mind, your best bet for forming them is when the minds are young.”
This article appeared in the March 12, 2009 issue of the Hatchet.