Getting to “The Heart of the Matter”: Thoughts on the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and Humanities Higher Education

Finally, after one of the more hectic weeks I hope to ever experience in my life, I’m back and settled in Tempe. A week ago, I sat in an Oxford hotel room, preparing for one of the major steps in every graduate student (and would-be academic’s) career: the dissertation oral examination. Just two days before, I had flown over to the United Kingdom from Tempe, Arizona, where I’m taking courses in intermediate Uzbek at the wonderful Critical Languages Institute, to arrive in time to de-jet lag and arrive at St. Edmund Hall, Oxford, for what turned out to be a two-hour conversation with two prominent historians of Russia and the Cold War, respectively, David Priestland and Odd Arne Westad.

After getting the good news out of the way – I passed! – we had an extraordinarily stimulating discussion that I hope to turn to bear on my manuscript as I begin the (long) process of turning a D.Phil. dissertation into something I can show to editors at university presses. Two of the more crucial questions, in my mind, as I seek to expand the project and make it speak to a wider audience are, first, an emerging conversation among historians about the extent to which the Cold War (i.e. USA-USSR antagonism) constituted the or even a major storyline in twentieth century; and second, the way in which one can write the history of Soviet development in occupied Afghanistan at the same time that one provides adequate coverage of the war, and, with it, the disappearance (either killed or driven into exile) of a third of Afghanistan’s pre-1978 population. Both are great questions and problems to keep in one’s head as one sits down to re-write, expand, and improve existing written work.

Word cloud of frequently mentioned terms in my D.Phil. manuscript as submitted: no real surprises here!

Word cloud of frequently mentioned terms in my D.Phil. manuscript as submitted: no real surprises here!

While I’m mostly up to my eyeballs in Uzbek grammar during the week, it’s also great to get some time – as I did this weekend – to sit down, hash stuff out, organize one’s notes, and figure out how to plug holes in what sometimes seems like a sinking ship. And as your (by August or September, hopefully) Dr. Humble Narrator writes and tweaks pieces in his manuscript, new thoughts come to the forth all the time. And because we have thankfully little homework on weekends here at CLI, there’s time to implement them. During early May, for instance, I spent a few days at the Archiv des Auswärtigen Amtes in Berlin, the archive of the German Foreign Ministry, which ended up containing reams of great material on West German efforts not only in Paktia Province (about which I’ve blogged before) but also in the Ministries of the Royal Government of Afghanistan in Kabul, too.

That the Germans were in the Ministries, I knew from my work with the Arthur Paul and Bob Nathan (American) material I had seen from Omaha and Ithaca. But what makes this material – especially in conjunction with the Soviet stuff I gathered at RGAE (The Russian State Economics Archive ) this spring – useful and compelling is that is allows us to conduct a synchronic and diachronic comparison of what three very different states thought development meant in the 1960s and 1970s in the context of making the bureaucracy in Kabul conform to expectations of what a rational state was supposed to look like (i.e. it produces statistics, collects income taxes, has a customs policy designed to stimulate trade rather than vacuum up revenues). There’s still a lot of writing to do – see the snapshot below for what one section of my Scrivener doc looks like – but I have a pretty clear idea of where I want to go, and I hope that by the end of the summer I should have made some good writing progress. Combine that with some of the progress I’ve made on developing a storyline about rivalries in Soviet academia for Afghan Studies, and a pretty clear sense of where I need to go to drive the narrative and analysis for hydrology and development in southern Afghanistan in the 1960s and 1970s, and there’s still a lot to do – but it feels totally manageable. Perhaps these are famous last words in the early days of any post-doc, but … I feel confident.

Though this be madness, yet there is method in ’t: a screenshot of where I left off in my beloved Scrivener this afternoon. Next week's task: how to weave the stories of West German, Soviet, and American economists in Kabul into something that's narratively compelling and contains an argument?

Though this be madness, yet there is method in ’t: a screenshot of where I left off in my beloved Scrivener this afternoon. Next week’s task: how to weave the stories of West German, Soviet, and American economists in Kabul into something that’s narratively compelling and contains an argument?

Still, I wanted to do more than engage in productivity self-congratulation in this post. One of the most interesting higher education story lines of this past week, in my mind, was the release by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences entitled “The Heart of the Matter,” seeking to address the state of humanities education in the United States. A recent interview conducted by PBS Newshour with the Co-Chair of the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences that put together the report, Richard Brodhead (the President of Duke University), and Commission member and actor John Lithgow, provides some of the broader context for why the report was put together in the first place. (One of the immediate reasons the report was put together was that U.S. Senators Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Mark Warner of Virginia requested that the AAAS seeking to provide perspective and guidance in light of ‘growing financial challenges and a diminished interest in our national history and shared values.’ A copy of the Senators’ letter is included towards the end of the report.) After Newshour host Jeffrey Brown noted the growing obsession with STEM education (often to the exclusion of everything else in secondary or tertiary education), Brodhead wiggled but still noted that

The study of humanities is not being attacked. It’s not a terrible political football, which is always a great danger, because people have different belief systems. But it is being simply neglected. There is an imbalance. And my feeling has always been that these two sides of the brain have to work together.

Neglected indeed. As the Introduction to the report notes, both on the level of society and government America has been participant to some troubling trends in recent years. “We are confronted with mounting evidence, from every sector,” reads the report,

of a troubling pattern of inattention that will have grave consequences for the nation: 

• For a variety of reasons, parents are not reading to their children as frequently as they once did.

• Humanities teachers, particularly in k-12 history, are less well-trained than teachers in other subject areas.

• And even as we recognize that we live in a shrinking world and participate in a global economy, federal funding to support international training and education has been cut by 41 percent in four years.

As the report argues, this represents a moral, intellectual, and even to some extent political crisis, especially if current trends continue. Writing from an Institute devoted largely to studying languages that many Americans have never heard of (Tatar, Uzbek, Tajik …) it’s no surprise that I agree with the statement that “the wars of the past decade have underlined the difficulty of fighting abroad without a subtle understanding of foreign histories, social constructs, belief systems, languages, and cultures.”  One wishes that the report had stressed that learning these things is a) interesting and b) just as important for peace and commerce as war, but as someone who has had to take time out repeatedly to explain what, exactly, Uzbek is, I can’t help but agree with Brodhead’s anecdote about how

[former US Ambassador to Afghanistan] Karl Eikenberry looked at us and said, if you have been a general, you know that weapons are the least effective weapon in your security arsenal. If you don’t know anything about cultures, if you don’t know anything about histories, foreign languages, you’re going to find yourself in places where all the weapons in the world can’t solve the problems you went there to solve. And that just seems to me a plea for the humanities.

More than that, as the report commendably argues, the humanities isn’t just about national security, trade, diplomacy, or even some hermetic mode of scholarship. Public humanities projects and sites – museums, cultural exhibitions, libraries, and so on – constitute an important public site outside of the marketplace (or strip mall, or shopping mall), one where Americans can potentially mingle with one another, and be exposed to traditions, ideas, or cultural products outside the family, church, school, or mass culture. More practically, such places offer literacy training, arts courses, public Internet access, and exhibition space for local culture. And yet the decline in funding, attention, and prestige bestowed upon the humanities has, the report argues, led to a kind of shrinking ambition among Americans (or their cultural institutions, or both); the percentage of Americans 18 and older who visited an art museum or gallery of any kind in the course of a calendar year declined across all age groups (interestingly, from an apparent renaissance in the mid-1990s) since 2002. The more that we paint all humanities scholars as useless narcissists engaged in navel-gazing gender or critical race studies (perhaps the favorite targets of commentators), the fewer opportunities we make available to graduate students outside of academia, and the less assertive American humanities professors and public intellectuals are in articulating the value of these kinds and similar kinds of public events (public lectures on parts of the world to which Americans may travel infrequently, readable scholarship, institutional freedom to pursue more mass appeal books of the kind that one sees more frequently from British academics), the more of a disservice they do to themselves and the broader culture.

Bowling Alone, But Avoiding the Museum Altogether: All Americans' Participation in Public Humanities Dropped Since the 1990s.

Bowling Alone, But Avoiding the Museum Altogether: All Americans’ Participation in Public Humanities Dropped Since the 1990s. From The Heart of the Matter, page 49.

Fortunately, the Commission makes some interesting suggestions for how to navigate out of this muddle. Part of the responsibility for the future, the report makes clear, lays on the shoulders of humanities academics themselves. We need to find ways to reach out to non-academic audiences – something I try to do modestly, if also infrequently on this blog. Younger Americans (a group in which your rapidly graying Dr. Humble Narrator shall include himself) need to show some of the curiosity that my fellow students at CLI do in getting beyond our version of Little Englandism: Anglophone chauvinism, a disinterest in cultures outside of Western Europe, and an inward-looking folksiness that does a disservice to the real ways in which ‘real American’ institutions like Evangelical churches, or the Mormon Church, are in fact parts of global assemblages that demand extrospection on our part. Institutions need to play a part, too. I was glad to see my friend, and former President of the American Historical Association Anthony Grafton, cited in the report as being one of several scholars calling for humanities departments to a) start actually taking statistics on their graduates and b) ‘think beyond Plan B’ – that is, they start taking serious action towards securing non-academic employment for their graduates rather than just waving their hands (the status quo at many universities, since most professors, at least in history departments, got their jobs by being really good at graduate school and being successful, persistent, or both in the academic job market).

But there also need to be real changes in the relative prestige, and amount of funding, we assign to the humanities. Some of the most interesting reading in the report for me were the graphs below, showing (first) the relative amount of funding the humanities receive compared to other disciplines and (second) the distribution of the sources of funding for humanities enterprises compared to other disciplines.

Unwanted, unloved? As of 2011, the humanities receive the lowest percentage of their total funding from federal sources – and it's in decline. From "The Heart of the Matter," p. 40.

Unwanted, unloved? As of 2011, the humanities receive the lowest percentage of their total funding from federal sources – and it’s in decline. From The Heart of the Matter, p. 40.

What I found even more interesting, however, is the corollary to the above chart. Partly as a result of receiving so little federal funding, the humanities have an inverted funding source structure from most other disciplines:

Funding sources for various disciplines / disciplinary groupings. Humanities is on the top left; crimson red indicates federal funding while navy blue indicates institutional funding. Time for a change?

Funding sources for various disciplines / disciplinary groupings. Humanities is on the top left; crimson red indicates federal funding while navy blue indicates institutional funding. Time for a change? From The Heart of the Matter, 42.

Conscious or not, these relative funding allocations amount to a tacit humanities policy on the part of the U.S. Federal and state governments. And the verdict is in: even though humanities research costs a pittance to fund compared to (for example) particle accelerators – we historians really just need enough to feed ourselves, travel to the archives, and time to write (while also grooming our blogs) – we have basically decided that it doesn’t matter. But there are things that American institutions could do about it. First, the report notes that in 2011, the National Research Council argued for the creation of 2,000 federally funded chairs in “key research areas” (although only in the sciences). Why not, the AAAS report argues, designate a certain percentage of such chairs (if the proposal finds traction) for the humanities?

Even if such chairs were created purely on the grounds of national security studies, they could go a long way towards diversifying fields, improving voters’ knowledge of key policy issues, and go a long way towards building up future generations’ worth of knowledge and empathy. Compared to the cost of a single drone flown (against the objections of Islamabad) over Pakistani airspace (cost per drone:  $4 million, plus at least $3,000 per hour of flight time), having even one endowed chair for Pakistan Studies would be relatively cheap. In addition to the pure scholarly and public benefit of having such a professor, whichever university had such a chair could then  serve as an added magnet for Pakistani students (the single largest group of incoming Fulbright Scholarship winners) at whichever unit. Instead, we spend billions of dollars on a program that remains under virtually zero public oversight and which has annihilated any public goodwill the United States once had in a country of 200 million people.

And now, back to your regularly scheduled programming here in Tempe …

Reading recent works of American history like Robert Rakove’s Kennedy, Johnson, and the Non-Aligned World, I thought we had learned the lessons of an over-militarization of foreign policy and a lack of attention to local voices on their own terms. Even though the humanities debate might seem peripheral to questions of the United States’ foreign posture, this systematic disattention and fact of being thrown on institutional support means that we end up having really good humanities programs in certain fields (Jewish Studies, Armenian Studies, Hellenic Studies at Princeton), and good retooled centers for Soviet (err, “Eurasian”) studies, but not such good programs in areas that matter perhaps moreso to the fate of the country going forward: South Asia, the South China Sea, food security as a unifying topic or research initiative, and so on. The report ends up suggesting reform in this direction (“Grand Challenges” for the humanities, perhaps carried out by mega-institutions like the Center for Medical Humanities and Ethics at the University of Texas Health Science Center, or the National Human Genome Research Institute’s Ethical, Legal and Social Implications Research Program).

 This all sounds pretty interesting to me. Still, it’s incumbent on universities and their leaders – many of them new, in the case of my alma mater – to try to debate, implement, or (perhaps most likely) explain why they can’t implement some of the reforms proposed in the report. It’s incumbent on Senators Alexander and Warner to at least blow some hot air in the direction of proposing or advancing some of the federal-level reform proposed, as well as for think tank and policy types to put together the pro-humanities legislation and policy proposals together that can find a (hopefully bipartisan) consensus behind them. Finally, however, it’s incumbent on graduate students, professors, and others, to keep try explaining and presenting – hopefully something this humble post has done – what it is we actually do, and why we think it’s important. It’s back to Uzbekworld this week, but I hope to continue posting intermittently this summer to do just the above. Until then, xayr and salomat bo’ling (goodbye and be well)!

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