Extolling the Value of Humanities

Commission co-chaired by Brodhead offers recommendations.
September 17, 2013

Great minds, they say, think alike, and the fifty-three impressive minds that converged for the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences agreed that both fields are key to the nation’s future. Indeed, the group, co-chaired by Duke president Richard H. Brodhead, went further, releasing in June “The Heart of the Matter,” a report offering three goals and thirteen recommendations for advancing the humanities and social sciences.

“If you want students to solve a science problem, they have to understand the words in the problem,” says Brodhead. “The foundation of literacy is the foundation of everything we do in this culture.”

Brodhead, whose co-chair was retired Exelon Corporation CEO John W. Rowe, was one of a dozen college and university system leaders on the commission. The group included a disparate range of voices, among them film director Ken Burns, former Supreme Court Justice David Souter, musician Emmy-lou Harris, Princeton professor Kwame Anthony Appiah, and actor John Lithgow.

Making the case: A humanistic grounding is basic to good citizenship, say Brodhead, left, with The New York Times’ David Brooks. Eric Craig Studios

Among the recommendations offered in “The Heart of the Matter” are a thorough grounding for all citizens in history, civics, and social studies as a way to aid full participation in the democratic process; the development of a “culture corps” to transmit humanistic and social scientific expertise through generations; the creation of a Humanities Master Teacher Corps; and encouraging all disciplines to address “Grand Challenges” such as the provision of clean air and water, food, health, energy, and universal education.

Brodhead says Duke, and other research universities, could play multiple roles in promoting those ideas; in particular, he says, Duke has the experience to be “extraordinarily good” in helping with Grand Challenges because humanists have been part of the university’s genome center and global-health program.

“The humanities are relevant to every aspect of existence. So you won’t get the humanities right if you develop them in isolation,” he says.

Along with goals and recommendations, the report offers a sense of urgency. “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.”

Early response to the report has been mostly favorable; some felt the report leaned too heavily on the humanities at the expense of the social sciences. In an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal, a writer faulted the report because he felt it didn’t illuminate what he believes is the dire state of liberal education.

In August, Brodhead also got to talk about the report on Comedy Central’s Colbert Report. The comedian had some fun with the president, teasing Brodhead about majoring in English and the perils of reading Moby Dick (“Is Moby Dick a metaphor for the struggle of trying to read Moby Dick?” Colbert asked.) Still, Brodhead held his own, delivering his message and even receiving a fist bump for the humanities from Colbert. 

With the report to start the dialogue, Brodhead says the ideas the commission put forward can become a blueprint. “People casually dismiss the value of humanities in everyday conversation. So the idea here is to make people realize there’s something at stake. This is something we have a choice about. And everyone from the federal government to your local library branch has a role to play.”