The Heart of the Matter

In Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, Major Scobie steps outside of a house filled with the ill and dying:

The lights inside would have given an extraordinary impression of peace if one hadn’t known, just as the stars on this clear night also gave an impression of remoteness, security, freedom. If one knew, he wondered, the facts, would one have to feel pity even for planets? if one reached what they called the heart of the matter?

The odd thing about the new report from the American Academy of the Arts and Sciences called The Heart of the Matter is how little it really gets to the core of anything, let alone American education in the humanities and social sciences, its putative subject. Bland and generalized, it’s like the vision Scobie has of distance. Certainly, it doesn’t get to the heart of the matter where the real problems—and possibilities—lie. It does not, as Scobie would say, know.

Though David Brooks sees its authors as “rescuers… making the case for the humanities and social sciences,” what we have here is a bureaucratic plea for more money… for bureaucrats. But let’s set that fact aside. As Peter Wood of the National Association of Scholars (who one would imagine would be sympathetic to Brooks) notes, the failure of this report is much broader than that: “The answer to a nation skeptical of these disciplines is not more balloons, nor better metaphors, or even better-crafted reports. It is better work.” Though I may disagree with Wood on any number of things (including his view of the AAUP), here he is not wrong. For better work, we need room and support for such work, not bland reports for the benefit of those at the top. And Wood, at least, makes the connection to Greene’s title—something that the authors of the report, I fear, missed.

Unlike the novel, with its grim portrayal of human frailty, The Heart of the Matter is fluff, filled with self-congratulatory bios, lots of white space and pictures, and numerous unnecessary notes. The amount of text in its five chapters is as meager as the specificity of its content. It pulls tired old workhorses out of the barn, displaying them as though they are next year’s derby contenders:

The Heart of the Matter identifies three overarching goals: 1) to educate Americans in the knowledge, skills, and understanding they will need to thrive in a twenty-first-century democracy; 2) to foster a society that is innovative, competitive, and strong; and 3) to equip the nation for leadership in an interconnected world. These goals cannot be achieved by science alone. (6)

Unless you are going to provide specific ways of meeting these goals, you might as well just quote John Dewey from a century ago and be done with it.

The report is filled with soporifics like this:

The community colleges that serve almost half of all students in higher education train men and women in job skills; but they also offer broader exposures that develop the talent for a lifetime of career advancement and often a desire for further education. (31)

And this:

Courses narrowly tied to academic and research specializations can be extraordinarily valuable to students, letting them experience firsthand the living work of discovery. But college and university curricula must also offer the broad-gauged, integrative courses on which liberal education can be grounded, and such foundations need to be offered by compelling teachers. (32)

What can one say? It is, as Woody Guthrie sings at the end of his “Talking Dust Bowl Blues”:

Mighty thin stew, though,
You could read a magazine right through it.
Always have figured
That if it’d been just a little bit thinner,
Some of these here politicians
Coulda seen through it.

A dean I know laughingly chastised me for “making” him read the report. He had thought I was telling him of something useful.

Oh, and then there is this, presented totally without irony or self-reflection:

How do we understand and manage change if we have no notion of the past? How do we understand ourselves if we have no notion of a society, culture, or world different from the one in which we live? A fully balanced curriculum—including the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences—provides opportunities for integrative thinking and imagination, for creativity and discovery, and for good citizenship. The humanities and social sciences are not merely elective, nor are they elite or elitist. They go beyond the immediate and instrumental to help us understand the past and the future. They are necessary and they require our support in challenging times as well as in times of prosperity. They are critical to our pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness, as described by our nation’s founders. They are The Heart of the Matter. (61)

I think the authors of the report might want to study a little history themselves… and read a bit of literature.

Perhaps Graham Greene himself could be useful, though they might want to ease their way in. Travels with my Aunt might be a good place to start—though The Comedians might be more to the point.

One thought on “The Heart of the Matter

  1. A Burnt-Out Case is probably my favorite Greene novel and also seems an apt choice to represent the current state of the humanities: that is, faculty are desperate to retreat from such issues but are nonetheless forced to assert the fundamental truths about and fundamental value of their disciplines against “true believers” who all too predictably misrepresent and misconstrue just about everything.

    As a side note, I’ll add that Greene is so “Catholic” about faith and sex that I am always surprised that his novels don’t seem even more dated than they do–that they still resonate as powerfully as they often do. But perhaps that is some residue of my Catholic upbringing. When I first became an altar boy, I still had to learn all of the liturgical responses in Latin.

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