VCU’s Humanities Research Center has begun its work at a challenging yet exciting time for the humanities. Over the past few decades, the humanities have come under attack on both sides of the Atlantic, but a growing number of highly respected public figures have joined in a spirited and cogent defense of the humanities and all that they offer, not least in the report released in 2013 by the U.S. Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences, entitled The Heart of the Matter. As the commissioners who wrote that report and many other advocates have argued, the humanities are not an optional extra but of crucial importance in enabling us to function economically, politically, as global citizens, and as fully rounded individuals in the twenty-first century.
In a rapidly transforming world that constantly presents new challenges and opportunities, we need more than ever to nurture critical thinking and the capacity for problem-solving. As a growing number of employers are pointing out, specific skills become increasingly ephemeral in an ever-changing workplace; what they need are employees who can think creatively and express themselves clearly, skills that are fostered by the humanities. Indeed, these skills will be crucial ingredients for professional success in the bracing new world of the twenty-first century. The humanities can take us there.
Literacy and critical thinking also play a crucial role in the democratic process that we have inherited and now have the responsibility to protect. There are few things more dangerous than an uninformed and passive citizenry. A successful democracy depends on having citizens who have been prepared to engage actively and thoughtfully with current events, who are committed to creative and innovative solutions instead of blind deference to tradition and authority, and who are watchful stewards of our hard-won freedoms. In order to understand where we are and where we can go from here, we need to appreciate who we are and where we have come from. We cannot navigate our way through the present and into the future without a balanced understanding of our diverse, complicated, and often problematic pasts. As Faulkner observed, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Appreciating what it means to be human, how relationships work, and how perspectives on these questions vary from culture to culture – these are crucial to our present and future. The humanities can take us there.
Every day we witness the many ways in which the world around us becomes increasingly interconnected and yet remains deeply divided. The humanities can help to nurture our connection to a global community, offering pathways for constructive engagement with international affairs, global perspectives and cultural difference. The humanities enable us to acquire knowledge of other cultures and languages as well as teaching us about our own culture and history. A broadening of our perspectives enables us to move away from tensions and conflicts created by ignorance, fear, and suspicion toward informed, sympathetic, and reasoned conversation. Learning about and respecting the outlooks of other individuals and peoples is crucial to our survival in a modern global world. That does not mean that we have to forsake personal, national, or regional identities and loyalties, but it does involve developing the ability to see beyond them. Students who have participated in Study Abroad programs are eloquent about the ways in which their attitudes transform through the experience of leaving home and living in another culture.
Learning about other cultures whilst still at home in the U.S. can also play a vital role in creating citizens of the world who will then engage constructively as well as critically with other cultures. The humanities can take us there.
The humanities are not, then, an optional and unaffordable luxury, as some critics would have us believe. They are a necessity – and not only in the utilitarian ways laid out above. Important though it is to understand that the humanities have a practical value, we should never forget that the personal fulfillment and happiness to be derived from literature, art, music, theater, philosophy, religious studies, and history are equally important. An appreciation of our diverse cultural legacies enriches our lives, both individually and collectively. And the same is true of becoming actively involved as participants in the creation of new cultural forms.
We cannot surrender to a vision of the future that fixates on a narrow economic conception of what is productive and useful. Economic growth should not be an end in itself but a means to an end. We should, of course, care about the gross national product, but what about gross national culture? What about gross national happiness (a phrase first coined in 1972 by the then King of Bhutan)? What about our responsibility to nurture our capacity as individuals for creativity and artistic expression? These are also crucial measurements of our worth and success as human beings. Crucially, we need to recognize that cultural enrichment and practical economic goals do not need to operate in opposition to each other: as a growing body of research demonstrates, cultural vitality and personal happiness ultimately lead to economic growth. VCU is already a catalyst for cultural as well as economic growth in the larger community of Richmond and is strongly committed to becoming ever more so. The humanities will play a central role in taking us there.
Please do not hesitate to get in touch with me if you have ideas for how the Center can fulfill its mission. And please join me at our coming events as the Center continues its task of fostering a commonwealth of ideas here at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Director, Humanities Research Center
and Professor of History,
Virginia Commonwealth University
“As we strive to create a more civil public discourse, a more adaptable and creative workforce, and a more secure nation, the humanities and social sciences are the heart of the matter, the keeper of the republic—a source of national memory and civic vigor, cultural understanding and communication, individual fulfillment and the ideals we hold in common.
The humanities remind us where we have been and help us envision where we are going. Emphasizing critical perspective and imaginative response, the humanities—including the study of languages, literature, history, film, civics, philosophy, religion, and the arts—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. Employing the observational and experimental methods of the natural sciences, the social sciences—including anthropology, economics, political science and government, sociology, and psychology—examine and predict behavioral and organizational processes. Together, they help us understand what it means to be human and connect us with our global community.
Scientific advances have been critical to the extraordinary achievements of the past century, and we must continue to invest in basic and applied research in the biological and physical sciences. But we also must invest more time, energy, and resources in research and education in the humanities and social sciences. We must recognize that all disciplines are essential for the inventiveness, competitiveness, security, and personal fulfillment of the American public.”
The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive, and Secure Nation (Cambridge, MA: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2013), 9.