Maybe it's because it is summer, commencement address season, but I have read several vocal defenses of the humanities lately. As a teacher of Latin and History, and somebody who reads history books for fun, I certainly agree with these arguments on an intellectual level. At the same time, there's something about the way many of these arguments are presented that strikes me as counter-productive.
Recently, many of the articles I've read have been responding to a report written by the Academy of Arts and Sciences' Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences. If you read their suggestions (here's their executive summary in a PDF), there's not much to argue with. Most of their goals boil down to ensuring the American population is literate, able to communicate clearly, and capable of contributing to a global society. One thing this report does quite well is avoid the trap of arguing for the humanities only from a position of utility. While it does mention that a humanities education can strengthen creative thinking and writing skills, etc., it argues for "cohesive curricula" to practice those skills, which I think is precisely the correct goal.
The problem is that most arguments defending the humanities are not so nuanced. David Brooks wrote a column for the New York Times this week called "The Humanist Vocation." In it, he cites the Humanities Commission report and bemoans the death of the humanities.
A half-century ago, 14 percent of college degrees were awarded to people who majored in the humanities. Today, only 7 percent of graduates in the country are humanities majors... But the humanities are not only being bulldozed by an unforgiving job market. They are committing suicide because many humanists have lost faith in their own enterprise.
So according to Mr. Brooks, the problem is that the world needs more literature and history majors, and would indeed have them if only the college humanities professors were more vocal about their love of the humanities. And while he praises the Commission's report, he says it lacks "the missionary zeal" he saw in his college professors. He then tells the story of one of his college professors at the University of Chicago (where Mr. Brooks studied history) who was clearly passionate about the importance of reading Pericles and Plato and Paul, and how his life was enriched by that knowledge. Brooks ends by saying,
"Teachers like that were zealous for the humanities. A few years in that company leaves a lifelong mark."
So let me summarize David Brooks' career in the humanities. He went to college to study history, which tells me he must have had some pre-existing interest in the subject. Of course, maybe he changed his major after he arrived, but at some point during his four years at the University of Chicago he was inspired by his various professors who left "a lifelong mark." That is all fine and good, but I think it's a mistake to assume that the solution for the problem of not enough people reading Vergil is to replicate his particular kind of experience. The goal is not to have more humanities majors, the goal is to have more citizens who understand the lessons of art, literature, and history.
The solution is not for professors and pundits to shout from the rooftops, "The humanities are important!" It doesn't matter that they are right, or how much missionary zeal they show. As my high school English teachers repeated ad nauseam: Don't tell, show. The "cohesive curricula" suggested by the Commission are absolutely a step in the right direction. It's not about having more people who major in literature, it's about having scientists, engineers, and doctors who are also fluent literature, history, and art. If the humanities are so important, and again, I think they are, we should trust students to figure that out for themselves.
Of course one can make a legitimate argument for the idea that every person should know everything that matters or might matter. Works of literature? Why not? What harm could Dickens do really? Everyone should know about World War II. How could one be a citizen of the world and not know about that?
The problem is that once you accept that idea two things happen and both are bad. The first is that you implicitly accept that telling (or reading) are the means by which students will “know” about these things. But that model doesn’t work.
School doesn’t work that way, in part, because of the second bad thing. Once we think there is important stuff to know, someone is going to make a list of exactly what that is... The list is long and so in the end someone decides what matters most and that is how we have the curriculum we have.
So how do we incorporate the humanities into education in a more meaningful way? What does this look like in practice? I don't know exactly. I just know that no matter how many times I tell my students that TS Eliot called Dido and Aeneas' meeting in the Underworld the most civilized scene in Western literature, they don't automatically see its importance. Maybe I'm not zealous enough.
As it is right now, I try to impress upon them the importance of the Aeneid, and then I hope that someday, maybe soon, likely later in life, they develop an appreciation of it. They'll have some experience when they are thirty years old, and think, "I'm glad I read the Aeneid in high school. I didn't get it then, but I sure appreciate it now." That's not the worst plan in the world. Clearly it works well enough to keep me employed. But what if they were finding their own works of literature to read, their own historical analogues? Answering questions that seem vital to them now, using the humanities? Wouldn't that be more meaningful to them now and also have a more lasting impact?
This has been a lot of words to simply end with, "I don't know the solution." And I'm getting close to repeating my earlier screed against the College Board. I do think, however, that op-eds and commencement speeches aren't going to be enough to "save" the humanities. I feel like there has to be a way to make the humanities relevant without simply saying, "Trust me, kids, it's important."