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In recipe for success, humanities and arts as essential as science and math

November 15, 2012

Editor’s Note: This op-ed by Neal A. Lester is part of an on-going dialogue created by Project Humanities, a university initiative at Arizona State University that explores how we make meaning of our shared experiences. Through research and public programs, Project Humanities connects students, faculty, communities, and institutions toward clarifying, understanding, creating, innovating, and demystifying human ties that bind.

Between traumatic experiences of late – whether it be Hurricane Sandy, the Aurora shootings, or a local tragedy in our family or neighborhood – are the everyday places where we dwell most often and try to make sense of our lives. As Americans ponder and strategize how not to plunge over the fiscal cliff back into economic recession, it is imperative that we arrive at plans and strategies within the context of a more complicated and nuanced sense of how we define and live our lives.

I am not one who imagines that money, economics, and finances don’t matter. Clearly, these matter and determine the quality of lives. I remain concerned about how our government will deal with the growing federal deficit in such a way that doesn’t strangle the futures of future generations. I am not fully convinced, however, that our successes in the world depend solely on global competition where science, business, and technology lead the way. That both Governor Romney and President Obama in their respective Time (Oct. 29, 2012) essays on the state of American higher education cite math, science, and technology as the ticket to America’s success and recovery both inside and beyond the classroom seems shortsighted.

Romney insists: “We are rightly proud of our extraordinary universities and other institutions of higher learning. Many of the most important scientific breakthroughs occur in their labs…. Their institutions promote inquiry, inspire creativity and ultimately prepare our citizens for success.” Notably absent is the value of education in promoting good citizenship and civil behavior. Jobs can make us better citizens but jobs need not and cannot define us as individuals or be the only measure of our individual and collective successes.

Obama, while focusing on the value of good teachers, specifies adding “100,000 math and science teachers” to his plan for education reform. These are noble gestures indeed, and one would be hard pressed not to recognize the value of what is proposed.

Yet proven leaders here make no mention of how humanities and arts do in fact lead to personal, economic and business success. Arts and humanities students are entrepreneurial and gain skills that businesses need. Critical inquiry, nurturing the imagination, and an awareness of the past are essential to any and all innovation. Conversations about economic recovery cannot and should not be devoid of acknowledging the vital role arts and humanities in enabling us to understand, interpret, and assess progress on any front. Is success on the global market and a “good job” the only markers of success and progress? As one administrator has said, “humanities do not teach us what to do; humanities teach us how to be.”

Whether it be learning another language, reading and analyzing a book, understanding the connection between language and critical thinking, or reflecting on a dance performance about surviving Hurricane Katrina, humanities and arts matter. A former Harvard University President says that, “humans need meaning and perspective as well as jobs.” It is possible and essential that discussions of higher education and discussions of the financial deficit foreground the why of strategies and the impact that any and all decisions will have on everyday lives of everyday people every day. This is the value of the humanities, to underscore the ties that bind us as humans trying to make sense of the world; providing us with the tools to imagine the infinite possibilities of our everyday lives.

Upon the heels of shooter Jared Loughner’s life sentencing, be reminded that it was music, memory, and music therapy that opened the door to wounded Congresswoman Gabby Giffords’ miraculous recovery.

In matters of success and progress, humanities and arts matter.

Neal A. Lester is a Foundation Professor of English, associate vice president of Arts and Humanities and director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University. For more information on Project Humanities, visit