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David J. Skorton Headshot

What We Need to Know in Good Times and Bad

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The most wretched nonmonetary consequence of our nation's economic distress over the past two years, in my view, is an acceleration of our country's loss of values. No, I am not referring to coded political messages about "family values." I mean values as related to language, literature, culture, and ethics, to the very breadth of knowledge that helps us understand ourselves and what it means to be human -- in good times and bad.

Yes, I am talking about the humanities. But before you groan at yet another university president seeking to feed at the public trough by proclaiming the value of a liberal education, let's get serious about what our nation needs. To be sure, jobs, regional economic development, and careful control of expenditures in the public and private sectors are keys to a robust recovery. But we got where we are in part through a loss of values, a lack of understanding of the lessons of history and, increasingly, a loss of civility and of the sense of fair play. Witness, for example, the nastiness of the recent midterm elections, which demonstrated our collective loss of the ability - or even the desire -- to understand and respect each other. I would echo James Leach, chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities and former U.S. Representative: "The temper and integrity of the political dialogue are more important for the cohesiveness of society than the outcome of any election."

Do we want our children to find better and more effective ways to understand their world and work with each other to improve it? Of course. Then we better think twice about the education they should receive.

Course work in the humanities is often promoted, legitimately, as a way to teach basic skills of contextual thinking, communication and ethics to scientists, engineers, businesspeople and others. But we must also recognize the value of the humanities as a discipline of research and critical analysis in its own right. The past cannot be changed, but our knowledge of it can be enhanced through rigorous study. As we have learned the hard way in Iraq and Afghanistan, if we want to "win the hearts and minds" of those in the line of fire in war-riven areas of our world, we must understand their histories and their cultures, languages, religions, and values.

All of us, and especially policymakers in Washington, need to recognize that the risk of losing the underlying disciplines that make these understandings possible is real. Students are voting with their feet by choosing courses in "practical" fields that they think will yield employment. They are often wrong, but who can blame them? As the number of bachelor's degrees in the humanities as a percentage of all degrees has declined (from a high of nearly 18% in 1967 to about 8% in 2007), so has the funding for these fields.

Democrats and Republicans in Washington fail to recognize that we are steadily divesting from support of the humanities and the arts. To wit, the NEH and the National Endowment for the Arts have been tempting targets for those seeking to advance particular political, social or religious agendas or to show fiscal restraint; since 1994 their budgets have dropped by more than a third in inflation-adjusted dollars.

The amount of funding needed to turn this around, let me emphasize, is modest. While our government now operates in large part under a Continuing Resolution (a legislative procedure that funds a new fiscal year at the same level as the last while appropriations decisions are considered), the NEH budget is pegged at $167.5 million, with the President's budget suggesting a cut to about $161 million (hardly a rounding error in comparison to the more than $30-billion budget of the National Institutes of Health). If the trends continue, it is not hyperbolic to suggest that these critical areas of study may reach a tipping point and go into an irreversible decline. We need to appreciate and communicate to the country the important role that the humanities play in our national life.

Of course, as a physician and biomedical researcher, I firmly believe in the power of science and technology to advance knowledge and to improve our lives and the economy. But make no mistake: the most significant problems in our country and world will not be solved by science alone. We need aware and educated people and approaches to act upon that knowledge, recognizing its power as well as its limitations.

How can we reach the future to which we aspire without a broad educational curriculum and research portfolio that give vitality to our laws, ethics and cultural values? And how can we divest ourselves of the humanities at a time when our economic, political and military struggles increasingly underscore the costs of ignoring history, literature, languages, and philosophy?

Despite -- and perhaps because of -- stark budget realities we must have the political will and discipline to stabilize and, yes, increase investments in state and federal agencies, such as the NEH, that support the humanities. It's good for our children, it's good for our security, it's good for America.