We hear a lot these days about Connecticut's stubbornly high unemployment rate. In the same breath, we are told that Connecticut's industries cannot find the skilled workers they need as they adapt to new technologies and new markets. How should we react?
First, we re-entered the national high-stakes bidding war to attract new businesses to Connecticut. Financial incentives today bring the promise of jobs tomorrow. Now, we are doubling down on educating the next generation of workers to fill the biomedical and technology-driven jobs of the new Connecticut economy. Businesses and industries that once trained their workforces now expect colleges and universities to do that for them.
Education needs to be more clearly focused on vocation, they say, so Connecticut will invest $2 billion to grow the University of Connecticut into a national center for science, technology, engineering and math education, known as STEM. In the words of university President Susan Herbst, "states must rely on their public research universities to be the backbone and the driver of economic success." This makes sense to me. Strengthening STEM education will clearly support our future economy. But given the complex challenges that Connecticut and America are facing, won't we need more than a backbone?
Until recently, we haven't heard much about the wisdom and vision also needed to guide Connecticut's families, communities and businesses forward. In June, the Academy of Arts and Sciences presented a report to Congress called "The Heart of the Matter" (www.humanitiescommission.org), which says continuing investment in the humanities and social sciences, in addition to STEM, is "essential for the inventiveness, competitiveness and security of the American public." The study of history, languages, arts, literature and ethics not only helps us navigate our complex lives, it provides real-world skills that we need to keep our society and our economy innovative, competitive and strong.
From the local community level to the planetary level, we don't just have jobs to fill; we have huge problems to solve. Where will our leaders find the creativity they will need to even ask the right questions? Where will we all learn to be open to new ideas, or even more important, to admit that we don't have all the answers?
Where will we strengthen our ability to work collaboratively across differences of culture and custom? Where, if not through the study of those humanities disciplines that teach us how to be thoughtful human beings fully engaged in our world and our work?
This is not a new idea. In 1818, Thomas Jefferson described the importance of a broad education:
"To give every citizen the information he needs for the transaction of his own business; to enable him to calculate for himself and to express and preserve his ideas, his contracts and his accounts in writing; to improve by reading his morals and faculties; to understand his duties to his neighbors and country, and to discharge with competence the functions confided to him; to know his rights … and in general to observe with intelligence and faithfulness all the social relations under which he shall be placed."
We need more than productive workers. We need an engaged and productive citizenry — citizens who volunteer for boards, contribute to charitable organizations and serve as watchdogs to the public and private sector. Fortunately for us in Connecticut, our state legislators know this, which is why they help fund our libraries, our museums and the work of Connecticut Humanities.
But at the national level, this funding is at risk. A proposed budget circulating in Congress would slash appropriations for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities virtually in half. If those cuts go through, civic dialogue, museum exhibitions, book discussions, heritage preservation and cultural conversations will plummet.
U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., appropriations committee chairman, called the arts and humanities funding "nice-to-have programs." They are more than nice to have. They are essential. Cultural enrichment and civic engagement are vital to our society's health and our economy's strength. They are not luxuries we can do without.
Stuart Parnes is the executive director of Connecticut Humanities, a nonprofit affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun