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How can Obama save our economy and our democracy? Humanities education

President Obama called the push to revamp our math and science education this generation's 'Sputnik moment.' But how many Americans even know what Sputnik is? Studies show US students don't know their own history. That's what the president should really be concerned about.

By / February 18, 2011



Baton Rouge

Calling America’s present economic challenges “our generation’s Sputnik moment,” President Obama used his State of the Union address last month to call for more federal spending on math and science education.

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One might have wondered, while listening to the president’s speech, just how many of his fellow Americans knew what Sputnik was – and what it represented to the United States in the 1950s. Obama gave a capsule account of the Soviet satellite, launched in 1957, which shook America’s confidence about its ability to compete in space and the future world economy.

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But such analogies can fall flat in a nation full of historical illiterates, and that is what the leader of the free world should be most concerned about.

Each day’s headlines seem to bring fresh evidence of how little many Americans know about their country’s past. One survey by the nonprofit American Revolution Center found that many more Americans knew that Michael Jackson sang the hit song “Beat It” than knew that the Bill of Rights was part of the Constitution. More than one third of the survey participants didn’t know the century in which the American Revolution took place.

Such findings suggest that the president should be worried not only about support for math and science, but also about how his country is advancing the study of the humanities.

Why humanities education matters

The humanities, which include history, art, literature, and music, are a critical wellspring of America’s creative capital, and they are also an important source of wisdom for those who wish to nourish and maintain a free society.

The Mississippi newspaperman and progressive crusader Hodding Carter II said as much in addressing college students in 1955, and his words ring with even greater urgency today. Sputnik hadn’t yet left the launch pad when Mr. Carter offered his remarks, but he was already sensing a national preoccupation with science that threatened to obscure the virtues of the liberal arts.

Carter’s point wasn’t to offer a false choice between science and the humanities, but to remind his audience that an enlightened democratic society needs both. Without a deep grounding in the humanities and its insights into the individual spirit, said Carter, the Founding Fathers could not have created the Bill of Rights. “Its authors, though they may not have so described themselves, were in the liberal arts tradition,” he said.

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