AHHEcropThe role of the arts and
humanities in civic
learning and engagement:
The US debate

by Donna Heiland, Emerson College, Boston &
Mary Taylor Huber, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Stanford

Introduction to the forum on civic engagement in the arts
and humanities

Over the past few years, a series of linked calls to action have urged US institutions
of higher education to give greater attention to civic learning and engagement as
central outcomes of a liberal education (Heiland and Huber, 2014).The purpose
of this forum is to map out how this current spate of calls for civic learning and
engagement in the US is being (or can be) answered by the arts and humanities in
higher education, and how these disciplines themselves are being (or can be) reenergized
as their importance to civic work is acknowledged, understood, and developed.

The first of these calls came in January 2012, when the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, convened by the Association of American Colleges and Universities aacu-logo(AAC&U) and the Global Perspectives Institute, released A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future.
The report ‘‘call[ed] on the nation to reclaim higher education’s civic mission,’’ and
had been produced with the support of the US Department of Education, which promptly followed up with its own publication, Advancing Civic Learning and Engagement in Democracy: A Roadmap and Call to Action.
Both of these documents trace a trajectory from the effective functioning of a democratic society through to the forms of individual civic engagement, learning and action that make that functioning possible. This linking of civic knowledge and learning at the social and institutional level to the knowledge and actions of individuals is key to their message, and their specific recommendations for how to embed both in students’ college educations are meant to shape and guide the considerable work that is going on at colleges and universities across America in the name of civic engagement.
Especially powerful for those of us in the arts and humanities is the National Task Force’s call to ‘‘[e]nlarge the current national narrative that erases civic aims and civic literacy as educational priorities contributing to social, intellectual, and economic capital’’ (2012: vi). If a national narrative is to be re-written (or even simply re-claimed), who better than those of us who specialize in the narrative disciplines—classics, literary study, history, anthropology and so on—to lead the way? And indeed, the idea that the arts and humanities might play a special role in civic learning and civic engagement got further attention from a third report, published in 2013, from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS).
                The Heart of the Matter, commissioned from the AAAS by the US Congress on
the state of humanities and social science learning in the United States, was comprehensive
and widely publicized. Spurred by the high level of attention to improving education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields (STEM), the AAAS report aimed to strengthen the country’s commitment to the humanities and social sciences as well—in part, as a necessary means of ensuring the strength of American democratic society. The first of the report’s three major goals for strengthening humanities and social sciences is articulated in a language of civic concern—‘‘Educate Americans in the knowledge, skills, and understanding they will need to thrive in a twenty-first century democracy’’ (10)—and the remaining two continue to intertwine civic and political interest as they call on readers to‘‘[f]oster a society that is innovative, competitive, and strong’’ (11) and to ‘‘[e]quip the nation for leadership in an interconnected world’’ (12).
The connection between the flourishing of democratic society and the flourishing of humanistic knowledge is an old one (to say the least—it dates back to the Greeks). But the connection today is too easily classed as an abstraction or even forgotten altogether. The Academy’s report does well to remind the country of it, and to point to actions through which to ensure that the connection remains powerful. That said, the report’s recommendations are by and large very general—ranging from ‘‘support full literacy’’ (10), ‘‘invest in the preparation of citizens’’ (10) and ‘‘increase access to online resources, including teaching materials’’ (10), to create a ‘‘Humanities Master Teacher Corps’’ (11) and create a ‘‘National Competitiveness Act’’ that would fund ‘‘education in international affairs and transnational studies’’ (12). If this report is to have any force at all, its calls and imperatives will need to be further discussed and more concretely translated into
the policies and practices that shape the day to day lives of all who work in—or simply value—the humanities and social sciences.
A good start in that direction can be found in a fourth report, also published in
2013, on ‘‘The Teaching of the Arts and Humanities at Harvard College: Mapping
the Future’’ (Harvard University, Arts and Humanities Division, 2013). Recognizing that the civic role of the humanities has never been uncontested (also going back at least to the ancient Greeks), the Harvard report’s careful analysis of different scholarly traditions within these fields helps illuminate their punctuated history of engaging with and standing back from civic affairs. For example, the authors identify a position of ‘‘skeptical, principled detachment’’ deriving from fifteenth-century philology and its critique of received texts. They argue that this
tradition can provide students with the leverage they need to critique ‘‘the mesmerizing, often dehumanizing force of powerful institutions’’ but can also lead to alienation, leaving the humanities ‘‘standing to the side of, and undoing, the collective project’’ (2013: 20).
Other humanistic traditions, too, have strengths and weaknesses in relation to civic engagement. The Harvard report’s authors argue that the position of ‘‘disinterested
artistic enjoyment’’ deriving from eighteenth-century Enlightenment aesthetics can lead to an ‘‘experience of liberty through the experience of art itself,’’ but often at the expense of divorcing art from context and practical effect (2013: 20,21).

And a third scholarly position of ‘‘enthusiastic identification,’’ rooted in Romanticism, has contributed to the building of ‘‘transformative social movements’’ and ‘‘new forms of community’ but is also’’capable of tribalist exclusions of those not regarded as part of the trans-historical identity’’ (2013: 20, 21).

These tensions in the humanities’ stance toward civic life contribute, the authors suggest, to the problems that the academic humanities have had in maintaining a strong voice in the wider culture—and to the recent decline in the number of Harvard undergraduates choosing to concentrate (or major) in humanities fields, many of disciplines instead. Yes, the authors acknowledge, students’ desire to prepare for remunerative professional careers may play a role in their choice of majors. But many also want to do good in the world, and may not be finding sufficient encouragement in their humanities courses. ‘‘We might,’’ the authors suggest, ask ‘‘ourselves whether or not we are failing to address urgent questions about their world that students feel will be answered by social sciences?’’ (2013:30)

As this forum recognizes, deliberations about the civic role of college- and university-based arts and humanities are taking place in many countries, and now involve a lively and growing international community of educators who meet regularly to exchange ideas. We recognize and welcome this global turn in higher education’s discussion of civic engagement, with its increasing focus on global citizenship and global civics. We also embrace the growing internationalization of higher education in the United States and elsewhere. At the same time, it seems to us, when higher educators in the United States discuss civic engagement, the primary locus of the democracy they are talking about strengthening generally is the United States, and discussions within the United States have achieved a density and urgency that merits attention (Colby et al., 2003). Thus for this AHHE Forum on Civic Engagement, we decided to emphasize US developments, but also seek out an international response….

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