Reading & Literacy Opinion

The Humanities Keep Us Human

By Fred Zilian — January 06, 2015 5 min read
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President Barack Obama’s announcement in November of $28 million in new funding to better prepare STEM teachers is great news. It reminds me of my passion for science during those heady days of John F. Kennedy’s “Camelot” era, when that president set the goal of reaching the moon.

In a speech before a special joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961, President Kennedy said: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project … will be more exciting, or more impressive to mankind, or more important.”

At the time, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was in full swing. Several years before, in 1957, the Soviets had leapt ahead in the space race with their launch of the Sputnik satellite. There were fears of a “missile gap,” by which the Soviets, with a lead over the United States in missile technology, could intimidate, coerce, and—in the worst-case scenario—attack us, and we would be unable to defend ourselves. Fallout shelters were all the rage.


Though the acronym for science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM, did not exist at the time, I was STEM through and through: Sputnik, missiles, spaceships, those great futuristic fins on the ’57 Chevy and the ’59 Cadillac, and all those great, corny “B” science fiction movies. I was all in.

Back to today: President Obama’s Educate to Innovate program is now 5 years old. When Mr. Obama launched it on Nov. 23, 2009, he described it as “a nationwide effort to help reach the goal this administration has set: moving to the top in science and math education in the next decade.”

The White House has portrayed it as “an all-hands-on-deck campaign to help more girls and boys be inspired to excel in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects.” The program has sought a synergistic effort, using the combined forces of government, education leaders, foundations, companies, nonprofit organizations, and science and technology professionals. Even though I chose not to become a scientist, I am all for this.

However, caution is needed here—a caution against imbalance. We take a risk in shifting resources to STEM from the humanities, the mix of subjects that includes the language arts, history, philosophy, religion, and the visual and performing arts. (STEM, of course, has evolved into STEAM in some K-12 communities, folding in an A for arts.)

Caution is needed here. ... We take a risk in shifting resources to STEM from the humanities."

Science and technology have given us wondrous benefits and conveniences. I, for one, relish the ability to communicate easily with my friends in Germany or, via Skype, with my grandchildren far away. Nonetheless, we should not place STEM on a pedestal too high. It brought us the wheel, the polio vaccine, and the Internet; it also brought us napalm, cluster bombs, and the atomic bomb.

Science and related subjects can give us the what and why of the physical universe, but not the ought of our key decisions.

Beyond the molecules, fractions, and scientific laws that govern the physical universe, the humanities teach us about “human-ness” and our relationships with each other.

As the world gets smaller, and as we are forced to share more of its decreasing resources, it is the humanities, along with the social sciences, that will help us cooperate, coexist, continue, and even flourish.

We need the language arts. When I decided in 10th grade to study German, little did I know that, almost 30 years later, I would be using what I learned to interview former members of the East German army about German reunification. As anyone who understands a foreign language appreciates, actually living in another language—rather than relying on translations—gives one a much richer understanding of the people who speak that tongue, and a larger and more nuanced window into the world of that society.

We need English and literature so that we can see and employ the beauty and utility of the spoken, recited, sung, and written word. We cannot think without words. The more sophisticated our vocabulary, the more sophisticated and subtle our thoughts. This becomes especially important as we increasingly rely on clipped and mangled English in the digital world. And through reading about other people, we can learn more about ourselves. In my previous career as a professional Army officer, it was not Newton’s Second Law of Motion that sustained me during difficult times. It was Shakespeare, Beethoven, and Frost.

We need history. The historical method teaches us how to weigh carefully the credibility and reliability of the sources from which we derive our picture of reality, ever more important in our information-flooded world. Though I strongly disliked all the curricular requirements the College Board heaped on me as an AP history teacher, I appreciated how they forced me to teach my students such essentials as the difficulties of pursuing knowledge and causality in history.

We need philosophy and ethics. More here than in the other humanities, especially for students who prefer rationality and linearity, is where we can learn to deal with ambiguity and irrationality, where we can grapple with essential questions which have no right answers.

In the War & Morality course I now teach to 12th graders, we deal with questions such as: When is it right to use violence against other human beings? Who is to judge whether there is “just cause” to begin a war? My students role play a post-World War II commission, examining whether the British-American fire-bombing of Dresden in February 1945 was a war crime.

In a world where so much emphasis is placed on metrics, these subjects can force us to deal with factors that resist quantitative measurement: levels of trust in Ferguson, Mo.; mistrust with Iran; the fundamentalism and hatred of jihadis.

And finally, there is religion. Whether one is a believer or a nonbeliever, understanding the history of the world’s major religions, their role in societies, and their influence in shaping our world today is crucial to being an educated person and engaged citizen. Religion also can give us words and ideas for our celebrations, as well as for our commemorations and memorials.

After a Western Civilization lesson on the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire, one of my Chinese students remained after class. She was curious about Jesus Christ and the broader subject of religion and society. I asked her about religion in China. She indicated that she had never really been taught religion, and followed by saying that, if there were any “religion” in Chinese education, it would be “science.”

In ancient Greece, even wealthy, aristocratic non-Greeks would journey to the famous Oracle at Delphi to seek guidance on pressing questions. One of the most common responses the Oracle gave was: Meden agan (moderation in all things).

STEM must be complemented by an ample ration of the humanities. Giving too much emphasis to STEM may cause us to lose too much of our human-ness.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 07, 2015 edition of Education Week as Remember That the Humanities Keep Us Human

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