With unemployment hovering above 7 percent and the United States facing challenges from Syria to North Korea, you might be surprised by the skills some corporate leaders and military officials say Americans now need to succeed in the global economy and political arena.
James McNerney, the CEO of Boeing, for instance, says his most successful engineers are not only technically proficient but also able to communicate and interact with people from divergent backgrounds. Karl Eikenberry, who headed U.S. military and diplomatic efforts in Afghanistan, speaks eloquently about the military importance of studying foreign languages, histories and cultures, and beliefs and ethical systems different from our own.
Even Norm Augustine, the longtime head of Lockheed Martin who led a celebrated 2006 National Academy of Sciences study that warned of a "gathering storm" in U.S. competitiveness unless dramatic improvements were made in sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics education, says STEM fields alone are an insufficient preparation for life.
All three men recognize that American prosperity and national security also require, with growing urgency, excellence in the humanities and social sciences. They were among the members of a national commission who recently warned of serious consequences if the United States doesn't embrace these disciplines and act to strengthen them.
A bipartisan group of U.S. senators and representatives requested the report from our group, which was convened by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Its members ranged from business and academic leaders to filmmakers Ken Burns and George Lucas, musicians Yo-Yo Ma and Emmylou Harris, actor John Lithgow and retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter. I chaired the group with John Rowe, the retired CEO of the Exelon Corp.
Time and again, we heard from experts across a wide swath of American society that we collectively need to do a better job of producing broadly capable people who can live up to their personal potential and fill all the roles a complex world requires. This training must go beyond vocational and technical skills, providing a balanced, integrated education that includes the humanities and the social sciences alongside mathematics and the physical and natural sciences.
The humanities -- languages, literature, history, jurisprudence, philosophy, comparative religion, ethics, history and arts criticism -- tell our shared story as a culture and help us appreciate our commonalities and differences. The social sciences -- including anthropology, archaeology, economics, political science, sociology and psychology -- analyze the lives of individuals and societies, revealing patterns of behavior and interpersonal dynamics.
Together, these subjects offer an intellectual framework to understand our changing world, whether it's turmoil in the Middle East, swings in the stock market or a cultural controversy in Hollywood. They teach us to question, analyze and communicate -- skills that are critically important in shaping adults who can become independent thinkers and citizens.
Our report recommends expanding support for teaching the humanities and social sciences. More Americans need to learn foreign languages. Our museums, libraries and cultural organizations all might form new partnerships to foster lifelong curiosity and learning. A new Humanities Master Teacher Corps could assist classroom teachers.
Faculty at our colleges and universities, too, should form collaborations with K-12 educators. They also might reach beyond their own disciplines to join with colleagues across their campuses to provide the diverse perspectives required to tackle "grand challenges" such as global conflict or urban poverty. Meanwhile, government agencies needing students with advanced language skills and transnational expertise should work in new ways with universities to provide the necessary training.
Especially amid the current budget battles in Washington, some may be tempted to dismiss these disciplines as a frill that's fine for interested students to spend time with on their way to medical school or the corporate world, but hardly essential for landing a job in a tough economy. Those who actually run businesses and institutions, and whose cultural leadership help define our civilization, know this argument is wrong. Without broad training across the arts and sciences, they agreed, young people will struggle to thrive in a global economy or engage successfully in the demands of citizenship.
An education aimed at cultivating these competencies cannot be reserved for an elite few. In our democratic society, the humanities and social sciences matter, for everyone.
Richard H. Brodhead, the president of Duke University, co-chaired the American Academy of Arts and Sciences commission.