The Heart of the Matter, a 61-page report on the humanities and social sciences released in June by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences at the behest of Congress, comes close to defining the value of a liberal arts education. Not, of course, that the humanities and social sciences alone constitute the liberal arts, but they are in many ways defining components insofar as they necessarily incorporate close attention to communicative skills along with comparative thinking.
Until the last century the sciences were largely downplayed in liberal education. Now the non-sciences are at risk of being almost eclipsed nationally, not so much by the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) as by applied sciences, including many types of technical or vocational training. This trend is particularly concerning in the public universities, and is in large part a result of legislators’ efforts, in reducing the public stake in education, to focus only on what they consider most practical.
People sometimes have difficulty understanding the practical value of the languages, the arts, and some of the human sciences. Dismissing these disciplines as mostly decorative is philistine and myopic. In the post-Sputnik era, the United States realized it had a serious strategic failing not only in the sciences but also in foreign language competence. Thus the National Defense Education Act of 1958 was passed by Congress to “correct as rapidly as possible the existing imbalances in our educational programs which have led to an insufficient proportion of our population educated in science, mathematics, and modern foreign languages and trained in technology.” We should have recognized that deficiency again in the 1990s when a focus on the Middle East and the Balkans replaced a preoccupation with the Cold War. To insist solely on education that is “useful” is almost certainly to adopt a dangerously narrow view of usefulness. Most of us have seen our lives greatly enriched by things we learned in college that are only remotely applicable to our careers. “The humanities,” as the Academy’s report states, “foster creativity, appreciation of our commonalities and our differences, and knowledge of all kinds. The social sciences reveal patterns in our lives, over time and in the present moment. […] Together, they help us understand what it means to be human and connect us with our global community.”
Their practicality is not only for the individual but also for society. As the Academy’s report concludes: “The humanities and social sciences are not merely elective, nor are they elite or elitist. They go beyond the immediate and instrumental to help us understand the past and the future. They are necessary and they require our support in challenging times as well as in times of prosperity. They are critical to our pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness, as described by our nation’s founders. They are The Heart of the Matter.” Indeed, at Hamilton we believe that the humanities and social sciences are essential parts of a liberal education and important to the future of democracy.
Two weeks prior to the release of the Academy’s report, Harvard University issued its own internal study of the arts and humanities. Currently, 20 percent of the students in Harvard College concentrate in the humanities, including history and the arts; the national figure is 7 percent, and the comparable statistic at Hamilton is 33 percent.1 “The Arts and Humanities are the realms in and through which we define values, form relationships, express our thoughts, feel, imagine, process, and create,” writes Harvard Arts and Humanities Dean Diana Sorensen in describing the Harvard humanities project. “The study of the Arts and Humanities provides a basic toolkit for personal and professional success: how to communicate what we think; how to interpret what we read, see and hear; how to understand and respond to difference.”
Together, these reports have boosted a national conversation about the future of higher education. The paradox is that we are finding it necessary to advocate for the arts, humanities and social sciences in the U.S. at a time when, as the Academy’s report asserts, “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 innovation and a source of social cohesion.”
Approximately one-third of the students in the Hamilton Class of 2013 graduated with a degree in the arts and humanities2, one-third majored in the social sciences and one-third in the natural sciences. The symmetry is a pleasant coincidence, and the comparatively large percentages of social science and arts and humanities concentrators at Hamilton are a welcome counterbalance to trends reported elsewhere. At the same time, we are, of course, proud of the contributions made by graduates of our programs in the natural sciences and we derive satisfaction from knowing that Hamilton is consistently among the top 10 colleges nationally in the percentage of its graduates who major in mathematics (10.2 percent in 2012). A year ago, Hamilton graduated a greater percentage of mathematics majors than either the California Institute of Technology, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or the University of Chicago.
A Hamilton education is challenging, practical and precious. We hold to the modernized ideal of a classical liberal arts education, and we do so in the belief that such an education is the best preparation for service to humanity, for a career of distinction and for a general enrichment of life. I am grateful to the Hamilton alumni who have made possible for others the education that served them so well. Those who have had the privilege of a Hamilton education understand its importance. Together we will help ensure that future generations of students have the same opportunity. We do so in the knowledge that the education young people acquire on College Hill will enable them to make the world a better place.
Joan Hinde Stewart
1 Includes humanities (20.3%), arts (6.3%), history (5.4%), American studies (0.5%) and archaeology (0.3%)
2 Includes history, per Department of Education classifications