Opinion

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.

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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.

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.

As the age of Sputnik dawned, Carter continued to draw on literature and history to confront some of the most vexing moral issues of his time: racism, regional strife, and the implications of violence in a country constitutionally committed to civil discourse.

It's about the economy

Those concerns remain deeply relevant today, but a country no longer connected to its humanities tradition cannot hope to clearly understand and address the struggles of a free society.

But there’s also a real economic impact that comes with devaluing humanities education. Today’s students must be well-rounded, creative thinkers prepared with critical thinking skills for employment in an ever-changing global marketplace. To keep pace with such an economy, students must be lifelong learners equipped not just with specific content knowledge, but a broader background that has exposed them to a range of ideas and topics.

In a plug for liberal education in the New York Times’ Room for Debate commentary series, Oberlin College dean of arts and sciences Sean Decatur affirms this truth. He cites a key study showing that “essential learning outcomes of a liberal education are aligned with the skills most desired in prospective workers by private sector employers.”

But studies also consistently find that American students show a concerning deficit in their knowledge of history, geography, social studies, and civics. A 2001 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) test found that 57 percent of high school seniors scored “below basic” on the NAEP United States History assessment. The New York State Social Studies initiative starkly points out that “In no other subject tested by NAEP are there so many students ‘below basic.’”

More important: It's about democracy

However, in his recent book, “Essays from the Nick of Time,” Mark Slouka strongly argues that the humanities can’t simply be weighed for their economic benefits. He focuses instead on the key role of the humanities in a democracy.

Mr. Slouka notes that the humanities help cultivate “an individual capable of humility in the face of complexity; an individual formed through questioning and therefore unlikely to cede that right; an individual resistant to coercion, to manipulation and demagoguery in all their forms. The humanities, in short, are a superb delivery mechanism for what we might call democratic values. There is no better that I am aware of.”

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Those words are worth heeding as America waits, perhaps in vain, for its leaders to realize that stronger support for the humanities should be a national goal – just as important to America’s future as science and math education, if not more so.

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Baton Rouge Advocate, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”

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