A workforce lacking robust a humanities and social science education could be just as detrimental to the country’s future economic competitiveness as one deficient in science and technological expertise, according to an American Academy of Arts and Sciences report released Wednesday.
“The Heart of the Matter” aims to highlight the importance of humanities and social sciences to the country’s economic future and urges Americans to value a well-rounded education. The findings are the social science community’s answer to a 2007 report that pushed the importance of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education into the national spotlight.
As China, Singapore and several European nations are boosting the humanities as “a stimulus to innovation and a source of social cohesion — we are instead narrowing our focus and abandoning our sense of what education has been and should continue to be — our sense of what makes America great,” the report says.
The report outlines broad policy recommendations to improve humanities and social science education from kindergarten through college and beyond. Humanities and social sciences include a broad range of subjects: history, literature, language, civics and the arts.
Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), and Reps. Tom Petri (R-Wis.) and David E. Price (D-N.C.) requested the study in 2010. The legislators will discuss the findings and recommendations at a news conference scheduled for Wednesday morning. A companion film featuring Yo-Yo Ma, George Lucas and others is expected to debut at the event.
“Having a strong knowledge of civics, comprehensive reading and writing skills, and an appreciation of history are important for a well-rounded member of the 21st century world,” Warner said. “We must use this report as a foundation to continue to engage with the public on how best to keep our humanities and social sciences robust.”
Alexander said the American character is defined “by a common set of ideals and principles that unite us as a country.”
“Those ideals and principles have always been shared and learned through the study of history, philosophy and literature, but today their study is at risk,” Alexander said.
A liberal-arts education combined with STEM disciplines could improve innovation and inventiveness among the American workforce, according to the report, but there has been a diminished focus on, and funding for, humanities and social sciences. Parents are spending less time reading to children, history and humanities teachers aren’t as well trained as STEM teachers, and civic education has declined. In 2010, about 45 percent of high school students had a basic understanding of U.S. history, the report said.
Stephen Kidd, executive director of the National Humanities Alliance, said humanities and STEM education should not be mutually exclusive. For example, doctors are studying literature to help them better relate to patients and produce more coherent narratives for medical histories. And engineers are paying more attention to the humanities to better understand the social and cultural context of the communities for which they design products.
“It is really the combination of skills and habits you learn from studying social science with knowledge you learn from STEM that leads to innovation,” Kidd said. “This broad-based education creates people who are able to think creatively and analytically about problems more so than a very narrow specialized education.”