“The Heart of the Matter”: Why we need the humanities

By Jamil Zainaldin

We in Georgia are engaged in a national conversation on the value of the arts and humanities. One of the leaders in this dialogue is Wayne Clough, the former head of Georgia Tech and now the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.

Georgian Wayne Clough is the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and an advocate of the humanities.

Georgian Wayne Clough is the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and an advocate of the humanities.

Clough worked diligently to infuse the arts and humanities into the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) curriculum when he was president of Georgia Tech. It is important to do so, he recently said at a University of West Georgia humanities symposium, if that institution is to graduate young men and women “who use both sides of their brains” and are “able to understand cultures of other countries and move with ease across societal boundaries.”

Clough continues to make this case as a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences commission that earlier this year released “The Heart of the Matter,” a report that called for increased federal, state, and philanthropic support of the arts and humanities at every level.

As the report’s title suggests, the best reason for funding programs as well as scholarship in literature, history, philosophy, ethics, the arts, and related educational endeavors is because they comprise the foundation of our civilization. This is fundamentally a conservative argument. Support for the “arts and humanities” contributes to our enlightenment as it also imposes on us a responsibility for passing on to succeeding generations the best of what we have thought, seen, heard, and done. The skeptic may ask, “Who cares?”

Civil rights icon John Lewis greets readers at the annual AJC Decatur Book Festival. Photo courtesy of Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Civil rights icon John Lewis greets readers at the annual AJC Decatur Book Festival. Photo courtesy of Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Socrates said that the “unexamined life is not worth living.” Now there’s a challenge. Step back and examine our popular culture as a whole (movies, TV, electronic games, fads, and all manner of trends for all age groups) and ask: What does the current state of popular culture in the United States signify? What does it tell us about our greatest ambitions, our highest hopes, our vision, and our values? What does it tell us about the purposes we ascribe to life?

The urge to examine and understand is what the ancient philosopher recognized as intuitively human, and worthy of encouragement. For self-examination is a confirmation that we are living and breathing and thinking beings. And that’s the great conversation that the arts and humanities invite us into.

Operated by Georgia State University, the Rialto Center for the Arts features theater, dance, and music performances in downtown Atlanta.

Operated by Georgia State University, the Rialto Center for the Arts features theater, dance, and music performances in downtown Atlanta.

“The Heart of the Matter” works very hard to be optimistic. That is not always so easy in this era of unemployment and recession. In higher education, which is the report’s primary focus, humanities and arts course enrollments are on the decline. Who hasn’t heard the latest jibe aimed at the college history or drama or English major: “Do you want fries with that”? Pre-professional, pre-business, job-oriented learning is much in fashion on our college campuses — not exactly late-breaking news.

The great curricular beneficiary of this trend in higher education is STEM. These disciplines in the college curriculum, and even in schools, are being promoted for their capacity not only to meet national needs but also to position the next generation for our vastly more competitive world. This is hardly the first clarion call of its kind; the U.S. seems addicted to the idea that the latest national crisis can be resolved by tweaking (or by a wholesale revision of) our educational curricula.

The Carlos Museum of Emory University collects, preserves, exhibits, and interprets art and artifacts from antiquity to the present.

The Carlos Museum of Emory University collects, preserves, exhibits, and interprets art and artifacts from antiquity to the present.

As important as STEM and job-oriented coursework may be in our colleges, there are other considerations for how to succeed. What about values? What about the capacity for assessing what is “good”? What about “responsibility,” “mutual respect,” and the information we need for making not only “correct” but also “right” choices? How can we make technology our servant and not our master?

This is a complicated question. Societies, cultures, and civilizations rise and fall on their technological resilience (technology is as old as humankind – and is even an aspect of what it means to be human) and on their economic viability. Still, “The Heart of the Matter” is a timely reminder that these are not the only ingredients of societal health. Societies need “glue” too – the glue of culture, understanding, intelligence, and foremost, values. In a diverse democracy such as ours, the glue of an engaged citizenry is perhaps most important of all.

The world-renowned Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performs at Atlanta Symphony Hall in the Woodruff Arts Center.

The world-renowned Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performs at Atlanta Symphony Hall in the Woodruff Arts Center.

The arts and humanities by no means hold all the keys to life, but one might safely say, nor do the sciences. For a healthy balance in national life, both need to be supported. The sciences and technology may position us for economic advancement, but the arts and humanities are undeniably important in providing human context, purpose, fullness, meaning, and understanding to our economic and technological successes. Two sides of the same coin.

Imagine a world where the arts and humanities are no longer part of the fabric of national identity, and what can come to mind is a dystopia of human beings adrift from their bearings, their roots, their values — what makes a human life meaningful.

The founders of our country never intended that we lose our soul in order to establish our global prominence. Informed by ancient wisdom through their study of the humanities, our founders exemplified citizens who could articulate a direction and purpose for the country.

"Turning Point: The American Civil War" exhibition at the Atlanta History Center

“Turning Point: The American Civil War” exhibition at the Atlanta History Center

If we are to continue to thrive as a nation, to be comprised of citizens who can imagine and aspire to the highest levels of human civilization, then the arts and humanities must retain their place at the table.

As one of the original 13 colonies, Georgia helped lead the way in the founding of our nation. Let us lead now in recognizing the importance of the arts and humanities by defending the institutions where they are taught, interpreted, experienced, and preserved: our universities, museums, libraries, historical societies, galleries, performing arts centers, and stages.

Kelly Caudle of the New Georgia Encyclopedia provides Jamil Zainaldin with editorial assistance for his SaportaReport columns.

Jamil Zainaldin is president of Georgia Humanities, a nonprofit organization working to ensure that humanities and culture remain an integral part of the lives of Georgians. The organization is a cultural leader in the state as well as a pioneer nationally in innovative history and humanities programs. The New Georgia Encyclopedia is a project of Georgia Humanities, in partnership with the Office of the Governor, the University of Georgia Press, and the University System of Georgia/GALILEO. The first state encyclopedia to be conceived and designed exclusively for publication on the Internet, the NGE is an important and authoritative digital resource for all Georgians.

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