Getting ready for a bright new world
September 27, 2013
In this era of standardization and utilitarianism, it is heartening to hear a government-appointed committee come to the conclusion that our educational system should be placing more emphasis on the arts and humanities, particularly language.
"The Heart of the Matter," a report on the state of the humanities and social sciences in the U.S. by the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences, a panel formed by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences at the request of Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA) and Reps. Thomas E. Petri (R-WI) and David E. Price (D-NC). makes the compelling argument that our current neglect of the humanities will not only diminish our quality of life, but it may also result in the dehumanization of future generations and jeopardize our very existence.
Over the last few years, a weak economy and poor job prospects for graduates have led to increased emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education at the expense of the humanities.
However, this report finds that "at the very moment when 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 invention, the U.S. is instead narrowing our focus and abandoning our sense of what education has been and should continue to be — our sense of what makes America great."
Even the most qualified experts cannot predict what the economy will look like in a few months' time, let alone what will happen in a few years. So our education system needs to produce people capable of critical thinking who can react and adapt to situations.
Key to adaptability in our global age of communications are languages and international understanding.
"How do we actually come to understand each other if we don't share languages and the ability to speak across the boundaries of difference that language and nationality can sometimes present?" asks Earl Lewis, president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which helped fund the report.
The study recommends that state and local school districts should establish programs to increase language learning, including immersion programs for second languages.
Programs might include blended learning technologies to facilitate language learning in schools that lack funding or infrastructure for additional classes. Colleges should build on and expand these competencies.
The report also recognizes the importance of study abroad programs, although federal funding for international training and education has been cut by 41 percent in the last four years.
Every undergraduate should be encouraged to have a significant international experience. Not only do government agencies and the military require the kinds of expertise that students can acquire only through advanced study and immersion in other cultures, but business also needs the perspective and insight that only such in-depth knowledge can produce.
Thankfully, the report states the obvious: "The creation of innovative programs for teaching languages and cultures, as well as the expansion of study abroad programs, will require new sources of funding and could be attractive options for public-private partnerships."
Blended learning is the key to a well-rounded education, so we should not be pitting the arts against the sciences. We need to find a balance between them so graduates know not only how to do things, but why we should do them.
Perhaps we should look to the example of France, where the study of philosophy has a core role in secondary education. In terminale — the last year of high school — it is a compulsory subject for all students. Those studying humanities do eight hours of philosophy a week, while pupils studying science and technology do just two hours.
The curriculum aims at producing "enlightened citizens" capable of intelligent criticism.
Even though this report was commissioned by influential members of Congress, it is unclear what its real purpose is apart from provoking some thoughtful discussion.
Maybe it could be the springboard from which we start basing educational policy on research. All too often, the education of our children relies on the whims of politicians with little concept of human endeavor.
Daniel Ward is editor of Language Magazine (www.languagemagazine.com) in Los Angeles, California.
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