America is facing a crisis. Studies indicate that less than a quarter of our 8th and 12th grade students are proficient in reading, writing, and civics. Not surprisingly, three out of four employers want schools to do better in teaching critical thinking, complex problem-solving, and written and oral communication.
In response, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences has released a significant report titled “The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a vibrant, competitive, and secure nation.” What does the Academy suggest that we do?
First, we should “educate Americans in the knowledge, skills, and understanding they will need to thrive in a twenty-first century democracy.” Second, we should “foster a society that is innovative, competitive, and strong.” Last, we should “equip the nation for leadership in an interconnected world.” The report lists 13 specific steps to accomplish these three goals.
The commission that produced the report was composed of some of America’s best-known public intellectuals, from university presidents to professors to a retired Supreme Court justice. They identify the source of our problem as educational emphasis on STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) to the detriment of the “liberal arts.”
However, they do not engage or even acknowledge what I believe to be the larger problem: For more than a generation, the humanities have abandoned truth even while teaching ways to find it. David Brooks of The New York Times is right: “The humanities turned from an inward to an outward focus. They were less about the old notions of truth, beauty and goodness and more about political and social categories like race, class, and gender. Liberal arts professors grew more moralistic when talking about politics but more tentative about private morality because they didn’t want to offend anybody.”
For a variety of reasons (beyond the scope of this essay), we now believe that “truth” is how your mind interprets your senses. As a result, we have “your truth” and “my truth” but not “the truth.” After 30 years of teaching philosophy, I can testify that it’s harder to get students interested in studying “their truth” than it is to offer skills that will make money in the marketplace. Since our culture no longer believes that “the truth” exists, we have largely abandoned its study.
I know today’s essay is more philosophical than usual, but wanted to offer it as a prayer request: Would you join me in asking God to embolden his people to stand for biblical truth today? We can build our house on the rock of God’s word or on the sand of our opinions (Matthew 7:24-27). But when the storms come—and come they will—only one will stand. Let us choose wisely.