Reduced emphasis on the humanities in school could threaten the nation’s ability to innovate and compete internationally, and leave students less prepared to participate in the democratic political process, according to a new report by the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences.
“The Heart of Matter,” commissioned by a bipartisan group of congressmen, urges educators to keep literature, foreign languages, history, art, and civics as priorities alongside math and science, which have been stressed heavily. The humanities teach communication, political engagement, and a better understanding of the world’s diverse cultures, the report says.
“At the very moment when China and some European nations are seeking to replicate our model of broad education in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences—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 humanities also better prepare students for the modern workforce. Employers demand workers who can communicate through writing and speech, and “think critically about a range of sources of information,” says Stephen Kidd, executive director of the National Humanities Alliance.
“These are all skills that allow a person to learn and adapt in a changing environment,” Kidd says. “The humanities train you for a life beyond your first, entry-level job; for a world in which there is a lot of change and where you’re called upon to think creatively and teach yourself new things.”
But with pressures around STEM and standardized tests, how do K12 leaders also make more space for the humanities?
The Common Core standards already emphasize vital humanities skills like public speaking and debating, says Danielle Allen, the UPS Foundation professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University and a member of the commission that wrote the report.
Still, feedback is needed from K12 leaders about how to make more time for foreign languages, which, Allen says, is among the most important challenges posed by the report. Allen says that educators can make space for more instruction. “In my personal view, in general, to achieve our very important ambitions in STEM and the humanities, we do need to work on issues like length of school day and length of school year.”
In the past, the humanities and science have complemented each other in U.S. education, she says. “In recent years, with concerns about falling behind on science, we’ve lost sight of the value of that union.”