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The Humanities


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What is school for?

I’m going to use the term “humanities” pretty broadly here to encompass a lot of different fields of study and practice, including the arts, although for funding purposes the federal definition of the “humanities” keeps these separate. As the executive director for a federally-funded council on the humanities once explained to me, this has a lot to do with the way these domains were framed by one of the early Congressional supporters of federal funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities. To me, while there is a practical reason to separate them for funding, there is something false about describing philosophy and art, or English and theatre, or history and music, as if they are so foreign to one another that they need to occupy different boxes.

Still from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), public domain in the United States. “Epigram: The mediator between brain and hands must be the heart!”

Frederick Winslow Taylor is considered the godfather of “scientific management,” a belief system centered on the idea that by using data about the behavior of workers, managers can develop more efficient ways for workers to complete tasks. Taylor evidently believed that such a system would benefit not only the management class, but laborers, as well. He had trouble understanding that efficiency at the expense of individualism and autonomy can be a curse.

Modern American education owes a great deal to Taylorism. In its focus on outputs, on “science” and “data,” American education tries to improve itself by asking questions about whether it is generating outcomes that make it worth the investment.

But what are those outcomes supposed to be?

From a humanities perspective, one thing school is supposed to “produce” (in the sense that it offers students the ability to learn and develop in this area) is people who are more human. People who can ask questions, reflect, think deeply, feel deeply, and interact with one another, themselves, and the world, in thoughtful ways. People who can do more than simply survive. Philosophy, the arts, language, and communications are “humanities” subjects.

This vision of education has been artificially pitted against a “career readiness” outlook, often favored by representatives of the business sector. One reason for this is that “school choice” advocates seem to prefer a modular, “customer”- facing education model, where families with enough money can choose whichever education “services” they want, and somehow the free market will sift everything bad or wasteful out of education. (For purposes of this argument, we’re supposed to avoid the very wide quality and efficiency standards of largely unregulated American private schools.)

In a STEM-obsessed world, is there still a place for the humanities?

Well, first, we might want to consider whether our obsession with STEM is healthy. Peter Greene recently reposted a piece of his from 2015, in which he wrote, “There are so many reasons for music education. Soooooooo many. And ‘it helps with testing’ or ‘makes you do better in other classes’ belong near the bottom of that list.” In other words— and this applies to all of the arts and humanities— we have to stop pretending that everything worth doing is going to help students get better jobs, or do better in fields like science and math.

Part of the obsession with STEM flows from the 1983 “Nation at Risk” report, a questionable, politically-motivated study that selectively used data to suggest that America’s schools were “failing” (despite historically-high literacy rates). The fear that other countries were outpacing the US economically and academically still likely feeds into a feeling that we have to beat them at their own games. And the authors of the report likely intended just that, writing,

“If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

(I’ve written about the report before, but to put it succinctly, the report’s central image of a school system in decline was based on data that needed valuable context: by the early 1980s, more people than ever before had access to American education. As a result, the test scores that the authors used to support their arguments were coming from a much larger sample, one which now included many people from families historically excluded from the education system through segregation and economic barriers. You could argue that of course scores were going to go down, and it was going to take more time to compare this larger sample with future larger samples.)

Forty years later, the story is much the same: those with a political motivation to label schools as failing have done a great job of convincing the rest of us to rely on the metrics most likely to assist that narrative.

Our obsession with outputs makes our schools vulnerable.

One particularly insidious result of an overly simplistic redefinition of public education as an output-obsessed, depersonalized “fact” factory, is that it has left us open to more and more extreme efforts to censor and direct the kinds of ideas which can be discussed in public education. In South Carolina, one of several censorship bills, “The Integrity in Education Act” has been filed in both the House and Senate. Both versions prohibit even the “encouragement” of discussing “political beliefs,” or “mental, physical, or emotional health or well-being”. Both bills repeatedly appeal to the teaching of “facts,” as if there were some ancient tree of “facts” from which we could all just choose to pluck uncontroversial “truths”.

The idea that arriving at “truth,” if it’s possible at all, requires deep engagement with multiple perspectives (something else the bills claim to promote, before outlawing several of those perspectives, including whatever gross thing they mean by “gender theory”) is left out of these bills.

But to be fair, that engagement with multiple perspectives is more and more left out of education at large. Discussion and interrogation and skepticism and wrestling with different ideas different individuals and groups treat as “truth” are fundamental to philosophy, the arts, and the understanding of literature; they are not really a part of standardized, multiple-choice tests, canned curricula, or scripted lessons.

In other words, these are specifically the domain of the arts and humanities.

As the son of an engineer (who also had a psychology degree and a lot of teachers on his mother’s side of the family) and a nurse (who also had an English degree and a brief stint as a school teacher), I love science. I think science and disciplined research are a vital part of decision-making and policymaking. And, crucially, I don’t see it as a completely separate discipline from the “humanities” or “liberal arts”. Science, math, and engineering require not only a general “literacy,” but domain-specific literacies. Science isn’t the memorization of scientific facts, but a system for asking and attempting to answer questions; that involves a lot of communication, writing, reading, and analysis.

And the ability to research, think critically, communicate, and support arguments are clearly overlapping skills that are most explicitly taught in English courses, but form the basis of the scientific method, of mathematical proofs, etc.

I considered it a vital part of my job as an English teacher— along with helping students to learn to express themselves, understand drama, fiction, and poetry— to teach student systematic research and credibility analysis skills.

Consider the deep resonance of literary texts like Frankenstein or historical figures like Oppenheimer: information, alone, doesn’t create ethical or moral decision-making. It doesn’t make people kinder, happier, or more empathetic. The epigraph of Fritz Lang’s great 1927 science fiction epic, Metropolis (a film that can easily be read as a satirical critique of unchecked Taylorism) is “The Mediator Between Head and Hands Must Be the Heart”.

A society that values only one side of that coin is likely to damage both. (In other words, to practice a STEM field in ways that makes life on Earth better, you have to also have some humanities skills.)

A randomized, controlled study by researchers at Brookings found that,

substantial increase in arts educational experiences has remarkable impacts on students’ academic, social, and emotional outcomes. Relative to students assigned to the control group, treatment school students experienced a 3.6 percentage point reduction in disciplinary infractions, an improvement of 13 percent of a standard deviation in standardized writing scores, and an increase of 8 percent of a standard deviation in their compassion for others. In terms of our measure of compassion for others, students who received more arts education experiences are more interested in how other people feel and more likely to want to help people who are treated badly.

Earlier this year, researchers at Oxford University “followed the career destinations of over 9,000 Oxford humanities graduates aged between 21 and 54 who entered the job market between 2000 and 2019, cross-referenced with UK government data on graduate outcomes and salaries.” They also carried out a series of interviews with students, and with employers— both before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. Predictably, they found that studying humanities subjects was positively correlated with lots of job skills, like communication, critical thinking, and flexibility. These students entered a wide range of fields— especially business— which weren’t always directly related to the arts, but were able to draw on what they had learned in their subjects. Perhaps most importantly— for those of us who don’t see schools as purely future employee factories— humanities students reported being able to make contributions to society, to identify “fake news,” and to be able to see themselves in relation to a larger societal purpose.

Consider also that STEM isn’t generally why kids show up for school and remain until graduation.

I did have students who professed to loving math or science, or who sincerely wanted to go into STEM fields like medicine or engineering, but most of my students seemed far more motivated by their theatre, dance, orchestra, and band classes; their athletic events; and, most importantly, by the social networks they had formed at school with their teachers, coaches, friends, acquaintances, crushes, boyfriends, girlfriends, and frenemies. Even if we granted— I don’t— that STEM is more important than everything, or that schools exist to prepare workers, or that education is a kind of space race against China, it’s pretty clear that you have to get kids to show up— physically and mentally— before they’ll be able to get much out of their science and math courses.

And yet, we’re not investing in the humanities.

Many attribute schools’ decreased emphasis on the arts to the increased focus on subjects measured for test based accountability. In one national survey, more than half of educators reported the arts were receiving less instructional time and resources.

Universities are cutting humanities programs for reasons that probably go beyond funding. The board of University of North Carolina, for example, recently ended its practice of distinguished professorships in non-STEM fields:

The board approved new rules for which subjects can have distinguished professorships. They will now only be given in STEM-related (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.

Subjects outside of this category will keep the distinguished professorship positions they’ve already established, but are no longer allowed to create new ones.

As writer and professor John Warner recently wrote, “And let’s not give in to the fiction that this is about budget savings. The credit hours conveyed in programs like languages run at a surplus to the cost of labor and overhead. This is cutting the liberal arts because they are not important to industry.”

What do we do?

We have to fight for the humanities, but again, the justification for teaching students to read literature, write poetry, draw, paint, and play musical instruments should be that these are worthwhile, important, human pursuits, in themselves, and not simply that they help with STEM.

Reading literature can be fun. It can challenge our thinking. It can make us more empathetic. It can help us to become better writers.

Painting can be fun. It can help us express ourselves. It can help us understand the artistic work of others. It can be a spiritual practice.

Just as the humanities generally focus on addressing the bigger, more abstract questions of human existence on Earth, we’ll need to think bigger and perhaps more abstractly about what school is actually for. Few parents probably want to send their kids to be processed in the fact factory, but I’m not sure those of us who support the mission of public schools are always good at explaining what it is we’re trying to do. We need to be able to make the case— and this starts with actually making sure we’re really practicing what we preach— that there’s something worthwhile about getting a holistic education that includes the humanities and arts. That we care about more than test scores or “outputs”. That we are interested in giving children and young adults opportunities to grow into better versions of themselves, and that we are interested as a society in growing with them. 

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