Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

A Hole in “The Heart of the Matter”

Cherie Harder


July 19, 2013

By Cherie Harder

This article was originally published on July 16, 2013 by the Trinity Forum.

Last week, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) released a compelling report affirming the necessity and centrality of the humanities and liberal arts in developing citizens and perpetuating democratic self-government.

Entitled "The Heart of the Matter," the report was drafted in response to a bipartisan request from Members of Congress, and incorporated input from a large commission of luminaries, including university presidents, scholars, business executives, artists, journalists, and even poets such as our own Trinity Forum Senior Fellow Dana Gioia. The report articulates goals of educating Americans in the knowledge, skills and understanding necessary for citizenship, fostering a society that is innovative, competitive, and strong, and equipping the nation for leadership in an interconnected world - and argues for strengthening the teaching of and research in the humanities and social sciences, expanding lifelong learning programs, strengthening the teaching of American history, and encouraging the use of new digital media. 

Certainly, there is much to applaud in this report. At a time when the humanities are increasingly regarded as effete, expensive, and extraneous, the affirmation of their " the future of our nation" bucks a growing assumption that their natural sciences are largely sufficient to explain the world, and that training in technology is largely sufficient to developing a competitive workforce. And the report contains many valuable and creative suggestions to better and further circulate and incorporate humanities teaching throughout the body politic.  

Yet one is also struck by a curious hole in “The Heart of the Matter.” For all the discussion of the value of the humanities, their actual content – what it is that presumably makes them valuable – gets relatively little mention.

Moreover, the report articulates the primary value of the humanities in functional and economic terms – the ability to make citizens who can “thrive in a 21st century democracy” and advance a “society that is innovative, competitive, and strong.” But the great questions of the humanities – What makes a good person? What is the good life? What is a just society? – are not merely civic or economic in nature, but also moral and spiritual. Missing from the report is the classic understanding of the role of the humanities in cultivating students’ moral sensibilities as well as intellectual acumen to not only distinguish the true, good, and beautiful from that which is not, but to prefer and adopt the former over latter.

In his essay, "The Loss of the University," Wendell Berry argued: “What universities...are mandated to make or to help make is human beings in the fullest sense of those words – not just trained workers or knowledgeable citizens but responsible heirs and members of human culture…. The common denominator has to be larger than preparation for citizenship. Underlying the idea of a university – the bringing together, combining into one, of all the disciplines, is the idea that good work and good citizenship are the inevitable by-products of the making of a good – that is a fully developed – human being.”

Developing good citizens may seem less problematic than cultivating a good person, but how we conceive of a good person and good society determines how “good citizens” are developed. A liberal education historically exposed students to a cogent variety of perspectives from the best thinkers of history on the great questions. But as the universities have lost confidence in dealing with the great questions, it is now increasingly common to graduate with a degree in the humanities having never given much thought to man as a moral and spiritual, as opposed to merely political, economic and physical being.

The end result is a citizenry that may be able to compete economically, but whose ability to flourish is handicapped by an inability to successfully engage in such moral reasoning. Perhaps C.S. Lewis put it best: “You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive,’ or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity.’ [But] In a sort of ghastly simplicity, we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

- Cherie Harder serves as President of the Trinity Forum.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”