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Monday, Dec 22, 2014
Commentary

Avoiding a destructive imbalance: The value of the humanities

BY JAMES CUNO
Los Angeles Times

Published:

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A report released last week bears out what many educators have been predicting: Amid rising college tuition, increased global economic competition and a job market that disproportionately rewards graduates in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields, students are seeking degrees in what they and, indeed, many in our nation view as lucrative business and hard-science disciplines. The study is from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences' Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences, on which I serve. Some institutions have responded by cutting budgets in the arts and humanities and directing those funds elsewhere. That's the wrong thing to do. The humanities - the study of languages, literature, history, jurisprudence, philosophy, comparative religion, ethics, social sciences - and the arts are vital to our future. We should be investing more funds, more time and more expertise, not less, into these endeavors. What detractors of the "soft" subjects miss is that the arts and humanities provide an essential framework and context for understanding the wider world. Studying the humanities strengthens the ability to communicate and work with others. It allows students to develop broad intellectual and cultural understanding; it nurtures creativity and deepens participation in public discourse and modern democracy.

Without citizens whose reading, writing, speaking and analytical skills are top-notch, our society as a whole falters. Without artists, sociologists, English majors and political theorists - along with engineers and scientists - to envision what the future looks like, that exciting potential will never be realized. It takes intelligence, passion, imagination and an understanding of what has come before to be a visionary leader. Arts and humanities studies impart these critical life skills.

The commission's report points out that "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 invention, the United States is 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."

These are the telling statistics: First, that federal funding for helping American students include international training in their education has been cut 41 percent in four years. That's an astonishing number. The National Assessment of Educational Progress test shows that less than a quarter of eighth- and 12th-grade U.S. students are proficient in reading, writing and civics.

Yet, according to the report, three out of four employers now want schools to place more emphasis on the skills that the humanities and social sciences teach: critical thinking and problem solving, as well as written and oral communication.

How can we possibly equip the U.S. for its leadership role in an increasingly connected world if we are not adequately teaching students to communicate and helping them understand and encounter diverse perspectives?

The ability to connect with others is developed by studying the humanities, and in the global community this skill is not optional - it's essential.

Focusing our educational resources toward any one endeavor in narrow isolation creates a destructive imbalance. We must correct this imbalance now, before it is too late. Simply recall what Steve Jobs told graduates of Stanford University in 2005: One of the most influential experiences in his brief time at Reed College was his exposure to the fine art of calligraphy. It taught him the important lesson of the relationship between discipline and creativity.

James Cuno is chief executive and president of the J. Paul Getty Trust in Los Angeles.

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