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The Humanities as a Resource in Delivering Public Administration Courses

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Lois Warner
February 10, 2023


Over the past two decades, open educational resources (OER) unfolded as a great idea for reducing educational material costs toward making education more accessible. The use of OER is now in the mainstream at different levels of education, and although many related institutions produce substantial online databases comprising the full range of OER, there is a dearth of field-specific OER collections. Public administration (PA) educators face the challenge of selecting and organizing adequate and appropriate OER resources for course content and in planning and executing learning activities. In this article, I share examples of how the humanities provide opportunities for doing so, from genres in the fields of architecture, visual arts and literary arts.

Examples from the Humanities

Public spaces are a good place to begin since they often memorialize public servants in the form of sculptures celebrating their dignity, heroism and leadership and setting the stage where governments communicate with their public. They highlight our history and motivate reflection, while raising awareness of the scope of public service in contributing to the common good. The educational value of public architecture is similarly noteworthy, as John Ruskin emphasizes, during the Victorian era, nineteenth century Britain, in his book entitled “The Seven Lamps of Architecture.” 

Ruskin identified with the idea that ‘art can transform society’ and late in the twentieth century well-known PA scholar Charles T. Goodsell revisits Ruskin’s ideas in his article “Social Meanings of Public Architecture: A Victorian Elucidation” Public Voices, Vol. 3 No. 3. (Journal of ASPA Section on Historic, Artistic, and Reflective Expression, SHARE). Goodsell and a group of scholars interpret the symbolism of public architecture as communicating the presence of social anchors, creating a sense of belonging and unity, associated with concepts linked to conflict, for example, and to preservation, and socialization. Public spaces and public buildings are well documented in photographs stored in public libraries and on display in exhibits at public museums. These materials are free and accessible for introductory PA courses, as well as for studying leadership and human resource management.

In addition to photography, PA is a major theme portrayed in many genres of the visual arts, for example, portraiture, screen printing and public murals. Portraits of public leaders and officials remain a feature in public organizations, although, now rendered in photographs. The long-standing tradition of commissioning painted portraits of the US President and leader of the Executive Branch of Government remains. Indeed, new technologies impact the field of PA, in public relations, disseminating information, being responsive to constituents and increasing efficiency in the delivery of public goods and services. 

In the history of PA, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) demonstrates the value of public communication systems by building on the use of silk-screen printing to produce informative posters aimed to enhance public safety in multistory residences, on busy streets and in the workplace. This medium was also used to promote public participation in community-based activities and to announce opportunities for adult continuing education. During a period of economic recession, government departments used this medium to communicate their presence and commitment to addressing quality-of-life issues, which engenders trustworthiness. The WPA (1935) also employed thousands of workers in producing 225,000 works of art including public murals to celebrate public service. Among the WPA posters are useful examples appropriate for courses on public relations, public budgeting and managing public organizations.

From the literary arts, selected short stories provide insight into the world of public service through the eyes of authors (Czarniawska-Joerges, Barbara & de Monthoux (1994) Good Novels, Better Management; Reading Organizational Reality. Harwood Academic Publishers: USA.) These authors hold that literature presents case studies for learning about a field and for deriving wisdom: it facilitates gaining ‘practical’ experiences by simulating real life; “students read themselves into organizational reality”, which provides a kind of socialization and ‘realistic’ educational experiences. Many educators find that their students welcome story-telling about their professional experiences and according to Dwight Waldo (1998), stories dealing with organizations allow us to expand the range of our knowledge and provide a vicarious experience that can substitute for personal experience.

Planning Lessons using OER from the Humanities

In an undergraduate program, I invite students to ‘visit’ several public buildings, squares and parks (using photographs) to reflect on the statements outlined above from Goodsell et al (1997) and to discuss how their experiences compare, considering different reactions to venues and the extent to which they inspire them to public service. Two follow-up assignments are: writing a short inspirational speech to their peers about serving the public interest and writing a poem about public service or public servants. A fourth assignment aims to recognize diverse perspectives among students, who learn to prepare documentaries and hone their skills through a project to create a narrated video using OER from the visual arts to tell their choice of stories about public service. Students are enthusiastic about this assignment, which they post for peer review. This engages them in thinking and acting creatively while building confidence. Documentary projects in PA education can also be created using OER from the performing arts: cinema, comedy, music and theater.

Author: Lois Warner is an Assistant Teaching Professor at the School for Public Affairs and Administration, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Email: [email protected]

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