• Heart of the matter
    July 04,2013

    The news over the last few months has been discouraging. Many Americans are going into this 237th Fourth of July celebration feeling that the nation’s reputation has been tarnished by modern-day scandals and muckraking. The erosion of principles has been hotly debated and has even further polarized a system already well-entrenched and well-versed in extremes.

    Last month, a silver lining — albeit a modest one — came in the form of a 92-page report by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences titled “The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive and Secure Nation.”

    The report brought together some of the greatest American scholars, thinkers and visionaries of this era and asked them to put together a blueprint for what the nation needs in order to ensure success for our nation’s economic and intellectual well-being. Among the 50 leaders consulted for the project was Peter Gilbert, executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.

    Overall, the report identifies three goals: first, to educate Americans in the knowledge, skills and understanding they will need to thrive in a 21st-century democracy; second, to foster a society that is innovative, competitive and strong; and third, to equip the nation for leadership in an interconnected world.

    “Ultimately, this report calls on parents, teachers, scholars, the media, and the public at large to join a cohesive and constructive national discussion of these issues,” its members stated.

    But what does that mean? It all sounds good, but what does it translate to for everyday Americans — many of whom are dismayed at the direction our country has taken?

    Gilbert and his colleagues look to some common-sense goals designed, as a whole, to make better-educated, more civic-minded and prepared citizens. They do not overreach, but they raise the bar on expectations.

    “Citizens who are educated in the broadest possible sense, so that they can participate in their own governance and engage with the world. An adaptable and creative workforce. Experts in national security, equipped with the cultural understanding, knowledge of social dynamics, and language proficiency to lead our foreign service and military through global conflicts. Elected officials and a broader public who exercise civil public discourse, founded on an appreciation of the ways our differences and commonalities have shaped our rich history,” the members concluded. “We must prepare the next generation to be these future leaders.”

    They recommend supporting full literacy (reading, writing, speaking and analytical skills), as well as a comprehensive knowledge of history, civics and social studies, and increased access to online resources that are available to all students, even those in economically disadvantaged schools nationwide.

    The report recommends: Increase investment in research and discovery; create cohesive curricula to ensure basic competencies; strengthen support for teachers; and urge foundations, universities, research centers and government agencies to draw in humanities and social sciences together with physical and biological scientists to “address major global challenges” like clean air, water, food, health, energy and universal education.

    In the end, the committee stated, the results need to be celebrated and communicated to the world as a measure of success and our adaptability. In the end, the members concluded, “we live in a world characterized by change. ... How do we understand and manage change if we have no notion of the past? How do we understand ourselves if we have no notion of a society, culture, or world different from the one in which we live?”

    The humanities are “critical to our pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness, as described by our nation’s founders,” the committee wrote in the report. “They are the heart of the matter.”

    As our democracy lists, it is up to all of us to do our job to right the ship for the journey forward for the next generations.

    This committee of thinkers has given us a simple map to follow. The rest is up to us.

    Read the report, and see who joined Gilbert on the historic panel, at www.amacad.org.

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