Commentary

In Defense of the Humanities

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Not long ago, a history teacher at a well-regarded Northeastern high school asked me to intercede with her principal, who would not grant her leave to attend a National Endowment for the Humanities-sponsored conference on improving the teaching of the humanities disciplines in high schools. When I called him, he solemnly explained that he and his school were not interested in the humanities. "In fact," he said, "we offered a humanities course once, and we just couldn't get the students to take it." Of course, that principal is interested English in and foreign languages--and the teacher wanted to attend the conference because of the attention it would give to her own field of history. But the principal had summarily dismissed her, as he did me, on the assumption that "the humanities" is the name of a specific sort of course, of an interdisciplinary, suspect nature.

Many teachers also have the notion that "the humanities" is the name of something different from all of the disciplines that have, for several centuries, been recognized as lettres humaines. They say they want to learn "the humanities approach" or to "study humanities methodology" or to "draw upon the resources of the arts to give this history course some humanities scope." Some even say, strangely, that it is wrong for "an English teacher [to] feel that a Shakespeare course qualifies as humanities instruction."

One might suppose that nothing is more essentially part of "the humanities" than the study of Shakespeare. One might also suppose that something has gone awry when the very people who have presumably studied the humanities and are responsible for inculcating humane habits of mind in our youth do not grasp that the traditional humanities disciplines are "the humanities."

Something is wrong--but not necessarily with the well-meaning teachers who misuse a certain word. One thing that is wrong is that in too many schools there is really little that is humane or humanizing about the teaching and learning of history or literature or foreign languages. In too many schools, English has become "language arts," not the study of how great thinkers and artists have wrestled in prose and poetry with the fundamental questions of "the human predicament." History has become "social studies," which in turn has become "citizenship," pop psychology, "free enterprise education," and so on.

"Writing," where it exists, is a tool for learning to compose business letters and complaints to the Better Business Bureau, not the study of the logical structures of sophisticated discourse. Foreign-language study today is a pallid imitation of World War II methods of conveying simple communication skills; it is not, as it should be, immersion in the patterns of thought and cultural assumptions of other lands or an exploration of what it is to be a language user--a human.

Perhaps the people who have tried to make an "interdisciplinary turn" are simply trying to find some way to restore to the high-school curriculum an emphasis on the study of "being human" that once defined the humanities disciplines but that have slowly slipped from the center of educational attention in recent decades. Forced out of the university disciplines and their high-school counterparts, these crucial concerns find themselves obliged to occupy the interstices of the curriculum.

The wisdom--practical and intellectual--of such a defensive move into the unclaimed turf of interdisciplinary studies is questionable, however. In colleges, an interdisciplinary major can be a good path to a fine education. A student takes a variety of courses in each of several disciplines; and if he or she is creative enough and cares enough, the synthesis of these perspectives will yield insights and understanding that no single-subject major could give. But interdisciplinary humanities courses are problematic, even in colleges. Some "critical mass" of basic knowledge in each discipline seems to be a prerequisite for intellectual synthesis, and it is not clear that a smorgasbord course supplies this to students who become interdisciplinary before they become disciplinary.

Is there much reason to believe that high-school students have the maturity of mind to distinguish, say, fact from imagination--or different ways of combining fact and imagination--when in a single course they read both history and literature? That oversimplifies the question. But surely one has to learn how to read literature, and one has to learn how to read history, and these two types of reading--and reflecting, analyzing, and writing about them--are not the same. Where are students to learn the special perspectives, methods, and types of artifacts that have led to the development of the several distinct disciplines?

Many rightly lament the cultural fragmentation that overspecialization in the universities often breeds. But the distinct disciplines have developed, each with its own type of integrity, because distinct ways of addressing the questions of the humanities--from different perspectives, using different types of information, with different styles of thought--yield distinct kinds of knowledge. If high-school students are not taught to deal with the questions of the humanities in the various disciplines, there is little reason to think that they will learn to think clearly by being immersed in an interdisciplinary hodgepodge. We cannot compensate for poor teaching of humanities issues in the basic disciplines by instituting interdisciplinary courses. Nor can we eliminate the need for strong curricula in history, English, and languages by creating such courses as substitutes. It is not enough to note that the desiccation of the humanities curriculum parallels the schools' preoccupation with "life skills" of all sorts and the rise of "experts" known as "curriculum specialists" who allegedly can design courses without regard to the intellectual content of the course material. We cannot politely say, "You people go ahead and take over the basic curriculum while we just slip over here and do our little thing in 'The Humanities'."

One favorite way of structuring "interdisciplinary" humanities courses examines a particular culture or period in the history of a culture--for example, American studies, Medieval Europe, or 19th-Century England. The trouble with this sort of design is that it inadvertently presupposes that things are important mainly to the extent that they play a role in a culture or characterize the activities or feelings of the people of that culture. Teachers of these courses choose their subject matter according to its importance or prevalence within the culture in question. Students learn to look at works of art, novels, social customs, and values as "characteristic of the period." Great thinkers are seen as "representative of the concerns of their culture." But that is quite inadequate.

Rather, we should choose what to study and teach according to the truth or value of the content and its power to illuminate the human condition. We harm the cause of humane education if (perhaps in our attempts to ensure funding and avoid controversy) we retreat from claiming that what we teach is wise or illuminating to saying merely that it was thought well of by certain people in a certain place at a given point in time. We also need to help students realize that in diverse cultures at disparate times thinkers have turned attention to the same or very similar problems.

We need to show students how to draw upon the riches of many different cultures in reaching their own understanding of these important matters.

We cannot do that if the curriculum treats the cultures as radically discrete. That kind of "projected provincialism," the notion that everybody is necessarily a provincial in his or her own time and culture, is precisely the sort of perspective that a sound education in the humanities disciplines confutes.

The great claim of the humanities is that everyone wants to answer the Big Questions. Everyone decides, one way or another, what to believe about such things as freedom, honor, destiny, love, hate, loyalty, individuality, social obligation, and historical change. We may make these "decisions" without thinking, merely by accepting ways of behaving based on someone else's answers. Or we may learn to ask the questions explicitly and to think about them directly. We do students--and our culture--a grave injustice when we "train" them for certain roles and jobs but do not teach them to lead examined lives. Students need to learn how to "tap into" the rich resources of thought and imagination that a hundred generations of historians, philosophers, dramatists, artists, poets, novelists, and critics have created. The examined life is impaired when students do not have the knowledge or the critical habits of reflection and evaluation that a rigorous education in the humanities provides.

Some proponents of "the humanities approach" misunderstand the nature of the traditional humanities disciplines such as English and art, and some of their teaching methods may be questionable. Admittedly, their errors may evince the sad state of the humanities in American life--at least in America's high schools. But proponents of "the humanities approach" at least recognize that knowledge humanizes. They recognize that we ought not merely train students for tasks and equip them with skills, but that we should teach them to participate in the intellectual conversations that determine who we are to be as individuals and as a culture.

Vol. 02, Issue 29, Page 24, 20

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