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Arts and Humanities: For the Common Good

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Higher education is currently identifying numerous ways to help students integrate and apply their learning. But it has not yet called on the arts and humanities to lead the way. Integrated learning requires synergy between concepts and content, active connections between and among disciplines, and activities like service learning and leadership programs that connect these components. 



The posting below looks at the importance of the arts and humanities in all aspects of academic learning.  It is by Johnnella E. Butler, provost and vice president for academic affairs, Spelman College.  It is from the Spring 2010 issue of Diversity and Democracy: Civic Learning for Shared Futures , Vol.  13, No. 2. A publication of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U).  Copyright 1996 - 2010 Association of American Colleges & Universities | 1818 R Street NW, Washington, DC, 20009. All rights reserved.  Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Arts and Humanities: For the Common Good


If identification with the human condition is a fundamental learning outcome for students of the arts and humanities, these disciplines can act as wellsprings of empathy and thus of sustenance for our participatory democracy. Democracy requires engagement with others beyond one's community. It thrives on feelings of connectedness to others, both individuals and groups. At the least, it requires one to accept respectfully the existence of narratives and experiences different from one's own. This acceptance relies on empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Each person cannot know every historical or imagined fact, or perceive experience exactly as another does. But by developing the capacity for empathy, each of us can engage conflict and difference toward a shared understanding that we have commonalities and a common good for which to strive.

Participatory democracy becomes real when individuals, groups, and communities see the benefits of connecting their identities and experiences with those of others. The practice of making these connections has the potential to become a way of being, a way of continuously refashioning self-understanding toward a common good. Opportunities for civic engagement--the vehicle for democracy--can provide the space for thinking, dialogue, and participation toward this common good. So, too, can the arts and humanities.

Seeing through a "Different Mirror"

The connections between self and others are not inherent to humankind but require nurturing through exposure and experience. The arts and humanities provide this exposure, instilling the empathy that guards against misunderstandings, fear, essentialism, and hostility. Without empathy, we will not aspire toward a common good; and once we no longer aspire toward a common good, democracy is in trouble. Signs of this trouble are apparent in the contemporary United States, where aspirations and mechanisms for civic engagement, as well as a sense of the common good, have been seriously eroded. Given the modern condition of American democracy, we need the arts and humanities more than ever.

During the 1980s and 1990s, higher education, led by Campus Compact, began to recognize civic engagement pedagogies and initiatives as essential to the practice and health of democracy. At the same time, the Ford Foundation funded major projects to incorporate diversity into curricula and pedagogy. Like the civic engagement movement, the push for diverse curricula and pedagogy arose from and addressed the need for individuals and groups to find connection across historical and imagined narratives of community while aspiring toward common goals. Those leading these earlier reform efforts found motivation in the late Ronald Takaki's recognition that we need "a different mirror" reflecting our connected histories and shared narratives--conflicting and complementary--in our schools, our homes, our communities, and our churches (1993). This mirror is essential for us to weigh, consider, analyze, and reconcile our relationships to each other.

Identities reflected in this mirror are complex, for identity is simultaneously based on individuality, group membership, and community. It is connected to, informed by, and shaped through experience--real, imagined, perceived, or passed from one to another. Like identity, democratic engagement is both individual and communal. It depends on each person's identification with others, and on each person's experiences with the local, regional, national, and global communities of which we are all a part. We identify with and embrace such connections not primarily because of shared language and common culture, but rather because human beings have a capacity for empathy that transcends boundaries of language, culture, skin color, religion, age, gender, and physical ability.

If faculty in the arts and humanities ground their work in exploring with students the cultural and social dimensions of human life, they can release their disciplines' potential. With this grounding, they can encourage students to recognize and engage with others' experiences, and thus to challenge or expand their views of the world. If faculty teach with the goal of helping students understand the human condition, using diverse content with comparative and interdisciplinary components, they can open students' minds to the possibilities for responsible and ethical participation in democracy, and also to the policy- and decision-making democracy requires.

                                             Interdisciplinary Learning in the Sciences

Realizing Great Potential

The arts and humanities can play a significant role in advancing democracy, but three stumbling blocks currently exist to realizing these disciplines' full potential. First, in conversations about the potential of the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and math), politicians and educators frequently forget the equally important and related role of the arts and humanities. The imagination and creativity that the arts and humanities promote can fuel scientific and technological discoveries. By combining STEM investigations with humanistic inquiry, we can emphasize the value of human life and guard against the isolation and alienation that threaten our culture in this technological age. Politicians and educators should recognize the complementary value of the arts and humanities, and administrators should emphasize this value by, for example, compensating teachers of those subjects as highly as those of science and technology.

Second, the disciplinary work of arts and humanities scholars has become increasingly invested in theory that ignores its subjects' insights into the complexity of human life, identity, and identification. In Learning from Experience: Minority Identities, Multicultural Struggles, Paula Moya details how experience influences identity, how identity is grounded in social location, and how mediated experience can confer knowledge of the world (2002). By more fully recognizing the arts and humanities' roles in conferring these messages, theory can help promote understanding of the crucial relationship between democracy and identity.

Third, faculty and practitioners in the arts and humanities sometimes neglect to consider their roles in introducing students to the concept of the common good. These disciplines can help higher education recast the idea of civic engagement to include twenty-first century challenges, such as globalization, diversity, sustainability, water shortages, and the search for humanity in a technologically alienated world. By helping students identify with others in the past and present, and by connecting that identification with applied learning in the arts and humanities, we can help them reach toward common goals for the common good, and thus toward a truly democratic society. When we lose the ability to identify with others, we lose our sense of human experience and our ability to empathize, to see the homeless, to recognize and fight racism, and to advocate for the aged. The arts and humanities can help our students identify human needs and find the motivation to work for the bet


 terment of the human condition.

Higher education is currently identifying numerous ways to help students integrate and apply their learning. But it has not yet called on the arts and humanities to lead the way. Integrated learning requires synergy between concepts and content, active connections between and among disciplines, and activities like service learning and leadership programs that connect these components. The arts and humanities' fundamental outcome--identification with the human condition--is both a blueprint and a catalyst for developing critical thinking, analytical, verbal, written, and quantitative skills. It also provides the key ingredient for the synergy needed to produce integrated learning: empathy. Faculty in the arts and humanities have the potential to guide students as they develop the predispositions to engage the different voices and stories that shape human inequities and potentials. By utilizing the arts and humanities as wellsprings of empathy, they can contribute significantly


  to our students' aspiration for the common good, the essence of democracy.

For more on how the arts and humanities contribute to the common good, see Butler, J. E. 2001. Ethnic studies as matrix for the humanities, the social sciences, and the common good. In Color-line to borderlands: The matrix of ethnic studies, 18-41, ed. J. E. Butler. Seattle: The University of Washington Press.


Moya, P. 2002. Learning from experience: Minority identities, multicultural struggles. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Takaki, R. 1993. A different mirror: A history of multicultural America. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company.

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