Magazine article Liberal Education

The Humanities: The Case for Data

Magazine article Liberal Education

The Humanities: The Case for Data

Article excerpt

In her 2008 plenary address to the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, philosopher and legal scholar Martha Nussbaum spoke eloquently of how a liberal arts education conveys humanistic "abilities of citizenship" such as critical thinking, cultural literacy, and narrative imagination. She emphasized that these abilities promote human development in the broadest terms and encourage responsible engagement in a pluralistic democracy and in the global economy. Nussbaum's case for the liberal arts, and for the humanities in particular, merits serious consideration, especially at a time when the concept of a knowledge-based society is widely embraced and policy makers focus on economic competitiveness and Americans' scientific and technical competencies.

How do we determine whether our colleges and universities are adequately cultivating "abilities of citizenship" in our students? How do we assess the teaching of complex literacy skills and critical thinking? What do we know about student attainment in foreign languages and cultural understanding as graduates set out to pursue careers in a rapidly changing global economy? What do we know about the humanities workforce within and beyond educational institutions? The search for answers to questions such as these would benefit from reliable, comprehensive, and ongoing quantitative information about the state of the humanities in our country. As Francis Oakley, Edward DonProfessor of History and president emeritus of Williams College, has suggested, "for the humanities, perhaps surprisingly, such data [have beenl either altogether lacking, or were inconsistently assembled, hard to access, poorly disseminated, unwittingly ignored, and routinely underutilized" (2009, 27).

Scientists have long recognized the value of having statistical data to measure the scope and vitality of education, research, and workforce development in their fields. Such data support evidence-based policy discussions in professional and governmental forums. Since 1982, the National Science Board has been required by law to publish Science and Engineering Indicators (SEI), a biennial report providing a range of quantitative information about U.S. science, engineering, and technology in domestic and global contexts. With the SEI data available as an authoritative point of reference, stakeholders can engage in well-informed discussions and make consequential decisions about investments in science and technology, including STEM education and basic research in colleges and universities.

Nothing similar exists for the humanities even though the 1985 reauthorization of the National Endowment for the Humanities called for a "national information and data collection system on humanities scholars, educational and cultural groups, and audiences." Such data are critical. Following the model of the SEI1 the American Academy of Arts and Sciences initiated the Humanities Indicators (www.humanitiesindicators.org), a demonstration project to enrich public understanding of the humanities by increasing our empirical knowledge of the humanities in action, both within schools and colleges as well as in other social contexts. Supported by generous grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Indicators are the culmination of several years of planning and collaboration with many of the country's leading humanities organizations, including the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Council of Learned Societies. The project was codirected by Academy Fellows Steven Marcus, the George Delacorte Professor in the Humanities Emeritus at Columbia University; Patricia Meyer Spacks, the Edgar F. Shannon Professor of English Emerita at the University of Virginia; and Norman M. Bradburn, the Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago and senior fellow at the National Opinion Research Center (NORC). …

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