After writing my post about Emily Wilson I have decided to launch a discussion about what humanistic education is for, and what sort of things it should include. I am putting my own ideas out mostly to find out what others think on the subject.
Things I want a person who claims to be educated to know:
I want people to be familiar with the recent history of the world, especially in terms of ideology and how that led to World War: nationalism, fascism, communism, anti-communism, World War II, the Cold War, Maoist China, anti-colonialism, the conservative resurgence led by Nixon, Reagan, and Thatcher, the collapse of the Soviet system, the transformation of China. This seems to me essential to understanding what is happening in the world around us today.
I also want people to understand how old and diverse humanity is. Through some combination of anthropology and history I want people to get a sense of how different some human societies have been from their own, and some inkling of the very different ways people have thought and lived.
I want people to be immersed in beauty and to spend some time contemplating things that are amazing to behold: art, architecture, poetry, music.
I want people to read some fiction and think a little bit about the problem of how we know other people: can a novel or memoir really give you insight into another person's mind? If not, what could? (This is of course my personal obsession: how can we bridge the gaps between people?)
I want people to have some understanding of the basics of science: what scientists do, what counts as scientific evidence, what we know, think we know, and don't know. I would teach evolution, atomic theory, and plate tectonics. This may be the thing on this list we are best at right now, and I suspect many Americans graduate from high school knowing what I consider the essentials here, but I didn't want to ignore this.
I think people should learn another language.
I think people should take a serious class in ethics that would be taught as discussion. Some notion of how complex the most basic notions of right and wrong are, when you look closely, seems to me important.
I think people should practice expression in writing and speech.