American Academy Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences conference

Chancellor Cigarroa's speech from the American Academy Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences Conference, Saturday, January 12, 2013, at the Four Seasons in Chicago:

It has been an honor to serve with you and our distinguished colleagues in the American Academy Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences.  I am especially pleased to join you today for this review of the Commission’s draft report, which is the product of two years of discussion and evaluation – a collaborative process we all learned to value from our education in the humanities and social sciences.

As a medical doctor and transplant surgeon, I support our nation’s renewed strengthening of the STEM areas.  You are all familiar with the Rising above the Gathering Storm report and you know that the U.S. has fallen behind other nations in the STEM fields.  Underrepresented minorities, for example, are not currently pursuing STEM degrees in sufficient numbers.

You can understand why I support the STEM initiative.  My degrees are in biology and medicine.  I am a former president of a health science center and medical school.  And now I serve as the Chancellor of 15 institutions of higher learning, including six health institutions.  While I am responsible for the advancement of scientific and biomedical research – and other STEM areas of study at University of Texas institutions – I do not for a moment think that we should promote these fields to the exclusion of the humanities, social sciences, and fine arts.  I firmly believe that an undergraduate curriculum should offer a balanced exposure to the arts and sciences, even to students who are seeking a professional degree that requires more specialized training. An undergraduate education should provide more than the preparation for a first job or a successful career.  One of our core values should be to nurture more sensitive, thoughtful readers and writers – and to produce more reflective, caring, and well informed citizens of the world.

 I was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and educated in public schools.  When I was growing up, Laredo was ranked as the poorest city in the nation.  In my wildest dreams as a child, I never imagined I would attend an Ivy League university or serve on prominent national commissions.  Needless to say, going from Laredo public schools to Yale was the hardest challenge of my life.  Despite my success at science and math, I was under-prepared for the Yale liberal arts curriculum, especially those courses involving written communication. 

My exposure to the Yale curriculum was transformative.  As filmmaker and fellow Commissioner George Lucas has observed, “the sciences teach us how.  The humanities teach us why.”  The liberal arts and humanities teach us critical thinking and problem-solving.  They introduce us to histories, languages, and cultures.  They show us how we might reason together and reach common ground.  And they prepare us for a lifetime of learning.    

As our report observes, the strengthening of the humanities and social sciences should begin in high school.  It is crucial that high school students experience excellent courses in literature, history, social studies, civics, and composition classes that teach them to read and write intelligently – to articulate – and to develop the skills to think logically and construct a persuasive argument.  And as a practical matter, students will not advance to the next level unless they reinforce their GPAs with strong grades in the liberal arts and social studies.

The humanities and social sciences also pose questions about our values and the moral purpose of society.  My father is still a practicing physician at age 88, and for many decades his service to Laredo and the Border Region has been an inspiration to me personally and to the Laredo community.  As a boy, I shadowed him as he made house calls.  Seeing his love for his practice – and for his patients – gave me firsthand knowledge not only of the beautiful art of medicine, but of how this art profoundly touches all classes, from the poorest to the wealthiest without regard to economic status or homeland of origin.  My father is an incredibly ethical man and his bedside manner with patients is truly exemplary.  Not every university student will have this kind of direct exposure to goodness and moral purpose, but every student can learn these lessons from the study of philosophy, theology, literature, and history – the province of the humanities. 

It was a combination of my father’s example and my study of ethics and humanities that led me to create the Center for Medical Humanities and Ethics when I served as president of The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.  I wanted our medical students, student nurses, and other health-professionals-in-training to understand that the practice of medicine is both a science and an art.  I wanted our students to approach their work with compassion, empathy, and a strong desire to heal.  Physician and best-selling author Abraham Verghese – one of his books was a finalist for the prestigious National Book Critics Circle Award – served as the first director of the Center for Medical Humanities and Ethics.  For the last 10 years, the Center has provided course work in global health, literature, and art – and real-world experience in hands-on community service.  Students are required to take these courses during all four years of their medical education, and the Center is regarded as adding great value to the School of Medicine and the community. 

After a task force recommendation and several years of planning, our flagship University of Texas at Austin created a School of Undergraduate Studies in 2008 to implement a revised undergraduate core curriculum for all UT students, regardless of major.  The core curriculum includes coursework in English composition, literature, government, history, social sciences, mathematics, natural sciences and technology, and visual and performing arts – courses that are designed to complement a student’s major with a broader intellectual experience.  Students are also introduced to a set of important skills in writing, quantitative reasoning, global cultures, cultural diversity, ethics, and leadership.  UT Austin’s new core curriculum represents the university’s commitment to expand beyond traditional boundaries to help students become informed, well-educated citizens of the world.

I will also add here that University of Texas institutions are exploring ways in which blended and online learning can enhance the educational experience.  And while I believe that face-to-face instruction in the classroom and lab is indispensable and invaluable, I think it is wise for us to explore the use of online technology in the fine arts and humanities, where a website’s visual and interactive qualities can enrich the learning experience – and where digital delivery of information speaks directly to a generation of students deeply involved in technology and social media. 

This past year, The University of Texas System established the Institute for Transformational Learning, which aspires to make UT institutions world leaders in developing and implementing online learning.  Our founding director is Steven Mintz, a prize-winning scholar and former director of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Teaching Center at Columbia University.  Dr. Mintz and I have had wonderful discussions about how students can now access – in nanoseconds! – the best museums and libraries in the world, and how the masterworks of music and literature are literally at their fingertips.  This will benefit underserved populations from Mongolia to the impoverished colonias of the Rio Grande Valley in Texas.

In this new readily accessible world of online learning, what is now the role of our universities?  For centuries we have been the keepers and protectors of information – libraries, archival collections, art and natural history museums, the galleries where visual masterpieces in painting, photography, and medieval manuscripts are displayed and studied.  We have begun to digitize these images and reams of related information for a global audience.  This will not replace the experience of seeing great literary and artistic treasures in person, but it will stimulate the imagination and introduce students around the world to the excitement of discovery.

Let me conclude my remarks with a quotation by Harry Ransom, a remarkable scholar and book collector, the creator of UT Austin’s globally renowned Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, and one of my predecessors as Chancellor of The University of Texas System.  In his 1958 essay entitled “The Arts of Uncertainty” – which is what he called the humanities – he wrote:  “We must assume that somewhere in our scheme there is a place, not measured and calculated, for the pleasures of the mind, for the instruction of the heart, for the foundation of ideals, for the reformation of manners, for the lifting of human sights, and for the cultivation of understanding among men – all men.”

That place is the humanities and social sciences.

And by emphasizing “all” men – and all women too, of course – Chancellor Ransom was declaring that a humanistic education should not be the sole preserve of elite honors students or richly endowed private universities.  All students should be given the opportunity to cultivate analytic reasoning skills that help them respond to difficult arguments – to wrestle with thorny, ambiguous, and sometimes enigmatic examples of human creativity – and to formulate their own ideas in a clear, compelling, and coherent manner.

To put it simply, our greatest hope is that if we strengthen the humanities and social sciences, we will better educate a new generation of thinkers and innovators, advance civilization, move us closer to world peace, and provide a more fulfilling life for our children and grandchildren.  Who today can afford to ignore this vision of a better tomorrow?  

These are some of the many reasons why a surgeon and man of science, like myself, deeply values the humanities and social sciences – and why I am proud of the work we have accomplished on this Commission. 

Thank you very much for your attention.  I am deeply honored to join you in this endeavor, and I anticipate our exchange of ideas today with admiration and great respect for all of you.