Last Thursday evening, William Adams, the Chairman for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) addressed a crowd at the Spurlock Museum in Urbana.
In addition to a multitude of topics regarding the far-reaching influence of the NEH in funding humanities research throughout the country, Adam’s talk was, in part, focused on his assessment of why the humanities are often neglected in education programs at the secondary and post-secondary levels.
He referred to the recent “narrowing” of discussions regarding educational practice in general within the last decade or so. He asserted that this decline likely draws from the recession and the consequent vocational concerns, the recent focus on STEM fields as well the new technological and information advancements, and recent educational testing practices – including standardized testing.
Adam’s discussion extended beyond the topic of humanities and into a commentary regarding the education system in a broader sense. He echoed educational theorist John Dewey in the sentiment that satisfactory public education must prepare students for participation in a liberal democracy; that notion is one of the most foundational ideologies in our nation. Thomas Jefferson and Horace Mann, previous to Dewey, also advocated for public education in the interest of creating a quality citizenry.
Adams stated that this type of satisfactory democratic participation can only exist when strength in every aspect of an education, including the humanities, is present.
In my opinion – here I do not claim that these are any longer the opinion of William Adams – so many reoccurring issues in politics result from the inability to deeply empathize and intolerance.
Yet apathy and intolerance are the exact issues that those in the humanities most frequently attempt to eradicate. The humanities teaches its participants to engage with historical and contemporary cultures and steers us away from ethnocentrism. It further encourages its participants to study and understand minority cultures within the United States. The humanities, so frequently, require that we occupy someone else’s mind, someone else’s concerns; it, therefore, effectively teaches empathy.
It teaches us to be open-minded and tolerant. Those working within the humanities are constantly engaging with social issues and social change to an immense degree that is somewhat unique in academia.
The humanities, perhaps most applicable to this presidential election cycle, teaches those who study it a reverence for social issues, to choose our words carefully and respectfully, and to be mindful when we are not a part of the social group most directly affected by a given issue.
Education is generally agreed to be, in its most ideal sense rather than in reality, a societal equalizer. Regardless of socioeconomic beginning, someone with a good education is supposed to be able to succeed in the United States.
Presently, that isn’t true, due to the effect of one’s experiences outside of the classroom, bias, school funding, tracking, etc. But, it is supposed to be true; that’s one of the primary aims of education.
I think that, for the most part, people believe in education as a potential societal leveler because someone with an education can transition from high school to college to a high-paying job. But, there’s more to it than that.
A quality education should address social inequalities and discuss potential remedies and therefore assist our society in moving beyond racism, sexism, bias on the basis of sexual orientation, and so on. It’s imperative that we recognize that those discussions happen disproportionately often within the humanities.
A thriving humanities program is therefore equally essential to any other facet of academia in the creation of an education designed to create a capable and equal citizenry.
Yet, we continue to reside within a culture that is seemingly obsessed with math and science to a degree almost reminiscent of educational practices following the Sputnik scare.
It’s clear to me that we need to be supporting the humanities and strengthening the perception of its importance in secondary and collegiate education. We need to support it within the University of Illinois and the Champaign-Urbana community, which means directly supporting the NEH, as it has always supported the University.
The NEH, in the 50 years that it has been engaging with the University, has provided $37,725,518 to the University of Illinois System. This has allowed them to fund 550 grants, 309 of which have gone to researchers at the Urbana campus.
The NEH is a large part of what makes this research university so powerful.
This all comes down to the reality that we have a responsibility to break from the reign of the STEM fields. As important and consequential as they are, we cannot afford to prioritize them in such a way that will sacrifice the well-being of humanities research. The continued working of our liberal democratic system, frankly, cannot afford it, and as a community with a massive research institution, Champaign-Urbana must take note.