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In 1810, as tensions mounted among the United States, France and Britain, President James Madison made sure to note in his second Annual Message, known today as the State of the Union address, that “a well-instructed people alone can be permanently a free people.”

Today, Americans have lost any shared sense of what it means to be “well-instructed.” Does it mean to become adept in computer science, genetics or communications? Does it mean attaining a bachelor’s degree or securing a job? Does it mean being competent in a difficult task? Or does it mean being capable of self-reflection?

While much of the press in response to the recent assault on the Capitol has focused on the challenge of disinformation today, the crisis in education goes deeper, into the very way we as a country interpret and carry forward the purpose, meaning and requirements of American civic life. What do we need to know, what do we need to share, and how do we pass on the essential values of our democracy? These questions are at the center of what it means to be educated, what it means to be “well-instructed,” and yet they are rarely the questions we pose in higher education or that motivate our system of education.

We need to ensure that the benefits of the humanities are broadly accessible, even as students pursue more professionally oriented programs of study.

In the wake of last week’s horror, we have a national opportunity to revisit the purpose of education. We can begin by confronting the recriminations and fears that have become pervasive in recent years, which reached a terrible crescendo on Jan. 6, and ask ourselves, as Vice President elect Kamala Harris urged: “What went wrong? And how do we make it right?”

What form of knowledge do we all need to be alive to the contradictions of our humanity, to the way information and disinformation both form our character, and to the many ways we uphold and abdicate our civic responsibilities?

Students today cannot be “well-instructed” without the grounding and perspectives provided by the disciplines dedicated to the Socratic form of wisdom: knowing what you don’t know. Disciplines like philosophy, history and English can help students formulate questions about our humanity and give them the tools to begin the lifelong process of articulating, revisiting and adapting their answers. These disciplines, often known as the humanities, are a part of university life now chronically undervalued and often even cut down or eliminated. We need to ensure that the benefits of the humanities are broadly accessible, even as students pursue more professionally oriented programs of study.

Higher education can reclaim the role of the humanities in creating a “well-instructed” citizenry by ensuring the humanities have a prominent place in general education, the prescribed portion of students’ work that falls outside their chosen major. A general education anchored in the humanities can give students an opportunity to broaden their understanding of the world and themselves, while strengthening the skills to read closely and contend with differing viewpoints and perspectives — capacities that are crucial for the “participatory readiness” of citizen-leaders of our democracy. Deep engagement with transformative texts — regardless of authorship, geography or the era that produced them — gives students the analytical tools and historical awareness to interrogate themselves as well as the culture and society by which we are all partially formed. Such texts help us step out of our preconceived notions and to interrogate current events critically and independently.

Students are better able to understand our country and our world by engaging with the perennially pertinent words of great authors. Last summer, for example, undergraduate students from across the country participating in the Humanities Fellows program supported by The Teagle Foundation, looked at racial reckoning through Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.” They explored our deep political divide through Sophocles’ “Philoctetes.” And they viewed the coronavirus pandemic through Albert Camus’ “The Plague.” They learned to question their sources, understand new perspectives and build their own points of view on some of the most pressing issues facing our country today. This opportunity — to explore critically the world through perspectives different from and yet relevant to their own — is one far too few Americans experience.

Often treated as a luxury today, the humanities are actually a necessary means to reckon with our desperate state of affairs. We were reminded last week that our democracy is fragile and breakable. Our higher education system is critical to its preservation. Every institution of higher learning has the urgent task of taking stock of why our democracy exists, whom it serves and what it must do to “well-instruct” the next generation of students. How can we be alive to the humanities, and in turn, alive to the complexity of our own humanity? Institutions can begin by valuing their humanists and calling upon them to help pose the necessary questions to ensure that an educated citizenry, prepared for the hard work of maintaining our democracy, is not an aspiration but a reality.

Loni Bordoloi Pazich is program director of institutional initiatives at The Teagle Foundation, where Tamara Mann Tweel is program director of civic initiatives and Annie W. Bezbatchenko is program consultant.

This Op-Ed about the humanities was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Loni Bordoloi Pazich is program director at The Teagle Foundation, responsible for the Foundation’s “Hybrid Learning and the Residential Liberal Arts Experience” initiative.

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