Education Opinion

An Early Start in the Humanities

By Morris Freedman — April 30, 1986 6 min read

We worry so much about how children do on tests and what colleges they will eventually enter that we tend to slight what they feel and believe. We train them to become learning machines, not human beings.

Our relations with children are largely adversarial. We routinely condemn their habits of recreation, study, diet, work, speech, and dress. Most states still allow corporal punishment by teachers of their charges. Many communities regard the school year as a period of incarceration, during which the young inmates are to be disciplined in grammar, spelling, calculation, penmanship, and the memorization of dull poems and plots.

For all of our dramatically expressed concern about the intellectual welfare of our children, we are not in full touch with their world. We know and care little about, for example, their aesthetic, moral, or philosophical capacities. One result is that our graduates are woefully unprepared in the humanities. They do not know how to read a poem or novel, listen to a symphony, look at a painting, watch a play, resolve an ethical dilemma.

Engineering, medical, business, and other professional schools complain that their applicants know little of the world’s culture. They complain, further, that they have to spend precious time in their own training programs trying to correct their students’ deficiencies. Many such schools require farcical one-semester surveys in the world’s literature from Homer to Hemingway, in the world’s culture from Plato to Picasso. ''If this is Wednesday, it must be Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.”

In his last act as director of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Secretary of Education William J. Bennett issued a report, “1b Reclaim a Legacy,” in which he lamented the failure of our colleges and universities to keep alive the study of ancient and modern languages and literatures, classical and more recent philosophies, our sense of Western history, art, and music. He wanted institutions of higher education to “reclaim” these studies.

We may more plausibly argue, however, that we should reinstate the humanities in the elementary and high schools. Children should again learn early the pleasures and rewards of reading discriminatingly and sensitively, listening to simple and complex music, looking at paintings, sculpture, buildings, furniture. Taste in art, subtlety in ethical analysis, and perspective in history all require experience and wisdom, exercised steadily over the years.

Robert Coles, the Harvard University teacher and psychiatrist who has made the study of the world of children his life’s work, recently published two books, The Moral Life of Children and The Political Life of Children. These demonstrate how rich and subtle are the development and expression of children’s values in areas of activity usually thought reserved for adults. Dr. Coles uncovers details of the children’s beliefs and feelings by conducting long interviews with them, considering them his ''friends’’ and “teachers.” He always regards them as seriously as he does himself. He recorded in these books, for example, a long exchange with an 11-year-old boy about the relative merits of Adlai Stevenson and Dwight Eisenhower in which the young man taught him a lesson about the superior possibilities of hard-headed, realistic conservatism over those of easy, idealistic liberalism.

The humanities by definition include all human activity. Teachers and parents err grievously when they exclude fun from learning, or compartmentalize the humanities as separate from technology. David P. Billington, who teaches architecture and engineering at Princeton University, emphasizes that the Eiffel Tower is an expression of all 19th-century French culture and not simply a great engineer’s achievement. A recent essay in The American Scholar argues that a close reading of a corporation’s financial statement compares with the intellectual exercise and revelation offered by the analysis of a poem.

When I once prepared with a colleague a collection of readings for college freshmen, we planned to include a section called “Fun With Shakespeare.” The publisher’s consultant vetoed that idea with the admonition that “students are not supposed to have fun with Shakespeare.” This sort of egregious pedagogical nonsense has kept generations of students from openly enjoying current novels, movies, or the lyrics of the popular songs they listen and dance to. They have not even been allowed to develop the skills to tell worthy popular art from schlock.

The intellectual and aesthetic capacities of children are not dormant. As children early develop a sense of right and wrong, good and evil, pretty and ugly, they also cultivate instincts that tell them what is real and false in poetry and fiction, tawdry and moving in art, boring and pleasing in music. Dr. Coles asked the children he interviewed to make their own pictures, which he then analyzed with them as sensitively and methodically as any art critic reviewing an exhibition. Bruno Bettelheim, in The Uses of Enchantment, demonstrated how complex and intricate are the responses of children to the grim material of the classical fairy tales.

We cannot start too early the refinement of taste in children, their learning the fine gradations between right and wrong, their treasuring of a sense of the past. Kindergarten teachers know well the fascination children display when stories are read to them; they know how quickly children develop an instinct about property and about fairness, and how much they want to learn about things in the olden days. Early reading can include traditional ballads and folk songs; early drill in grammar can as readily use elementary Latin or French, say, as English. Early group decisions can layout some basic principles of social need or of Western justice.

We must always exercise balance and good sense in introducing children to the humanities. How far do we heed the cautions that literature should not depress youngsters, that we do better to exclude Greek and Shakespearean tragedy with their various horrors? How do we answer the objections to the teaching of The Merchant of Venice or of Huckleberry Finn because they may offend black or Jewish children? How much can children absorb of the terrors of nuclear war, of the Holocaust, of natural calamities, of national catastrophes?

Perhaps the very fact that we have to ask such questions in such a primitive fashion is an index of how we have neglected this area of teaching. We know that children are tougher, more resilient, more forgiving, more armored, more complex than we like to believe, as we are reminded by Dr. Bettelheim’s work. We have only to look at classics like Charles Dickens’s A Child’s History of England--a compendium of maimings, beheadings, and tortures recounted in a gory detail seldom indulged in by professional historians--to realize the capacity of children to assimilate horrors in context. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Gulliver’s Travels seem traditionally to disturb adults more than children.

Obviously, teachers must have formal preparation in handling the grim tales of the Brothers Grimm, the disturbing implications inherent in accounts of blacks or Jews mistreated by their contemporary societies, and plays that end with self-blinding by the hero or the deaths of whole families. The libretti of many grand operas call for a special sophistication.

Schools, communities, teachers, and parents may soberly decide that a particular work or subject may indeed not be suitable for this or that group, in this school, at this time. I have come to believe, for instance, that we gain little in imposing Huckleberry Finn on elementary- or high-school students who have long been academically shielded from its sort of moral complexities, terrible ironies, and cruel realities by parents and teachers who are themselves hostile to or ignorant of the humanities.

The point is not to immerse children all at once into the incredibly turbulent brew of the world’s humanities and keep them there without relief. Many of their elders would not know how to survive such an immersion. The point, rather, is not automatically to constrict the formal learning possibilities for children on the narrow and invidious basis that they belong to a kind of lesser civilization.

A version of this article appeared in the April 30, 1986 edition of Education Week