Sunday, June 30, 2019

Humanistic Education

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.

What else?


pootrsox said...

You have described what once was called a liberal education.

I would expand it slightly to emphasize that each of the areas needs to be broadly "multi-cultural" not merely with regard to Western culture but those cultures with which we have less familiarity.

I think, for instance, of the so-called World Literature course for high school seniors I taught in the '80's and 90's. The only East Asian work was some purported autobiography (later somewhat debunked) of a woman escaping from the Cultural Revolution. There was nothing from Africa or from Latin America (though I could easily have offered curriculum suggestions from my then-husband, a Spanish teacher).

I was glad to have the option of Ibsen's "Enemy of the People" because of the ethical and political insights it allowed us to discuss in class and in essays."

And for those lower-skills students I taught in 10th grade, I regularly used the movie "The Caine Mutiny"-- usually fast-forwarding past Willy's romance (they didn't grasp the cultural issue of May's class vs Willy's) so we could focus on the various ethical issues. The last scene at the party really opened up some intensive and extensive discussion. Low reading skills don't necessarily equate to limited ethical/moral values and/or understanding. Every kid needs exposure to all the elements you list; they're not just for the educational elite.

G. Verloren said...

None of the things mentioned here are valued by our economic system.

Our society doesn't run off educated people understanding how the world works and having a broad perspective - it runs off uneducated people who "understand" only what they are told by their corporate and political masters, and whose narrow perspective is exploited to keep them as profitable cogs in the predatory capitalist machine.

People aren't better educated because our system doesn't want people to be better educated. It doesn't value educated members of society - in fact, it relies on there being a vast amount of ignorance and inability to think for oneself.

And the only way we'll ever really get to a place where society values education is to make education the bedrock of our system. Producing educated citizenry has to be The Prime Directive of our entire society.

But it's not - the pursuit of profit is.

Capitalism is inherently anti-humanist, because it intrinsically values wealth over people. We're never going to have a society comprised chiefly of truly moral and educated people until we have a system that values education and morality above all other things.

David said...


I would agree with pootrsox, that you've described a liberal arts education as it's generally been practiced in this country for years. You've added some wrinkles, especially in history--and I would strongly support your scheme there.

The problems we experience today, and which you have often discussed here, would remain, including how to get good teachers and good teaching in more classrooms, how to persuade more students that what they're learning has interest and value even when not taught by a good teacher, how to do these things repeatedly and reliably and on relatively limited budgets, etc., etc., etc.

And I would agree with Verloren that one of the problems is the unfriendliness of our culture and economy toward the humanist project--although I don't see the situation as quote so closed-off and iron-bound as Verloren depicts it. I see too much individual variation for that.

And no matter what you do, many, perhaps most, students will be unhappy with some or all of it, at least some of the time, and turn their insight and eloquence to expressing that.

Anonymous said...

I miss music


Anonymous said...

I mean, learn to play an instrument


szopen said...

Quite recently I had a similar discussion, nit about _humanistic_ education, but about education in general. The problem is that it would be great if we would teach children all the great things which can made them better people, better citizens and which would help them get the best jobs and fully use of their capabilities. The problem is, however, that we have limited resources. I don't know about the US, but here in Poland teachers are poorly paid, and giving them significant raises they feel they deserve would ruin the budget. What follows is a bit different from your answering your question, because I am more interested not in what should be ideal humanistic education, but rather, what education should be provided by our schools at the very least.

Hence, the need for priorities; and the most important question: not just WHAT to teach, but WHOM? We all pay for public education, why? Because we want to create common society with good citizens.

Surely we need common cultural base, because otherwise - how we could claim we are a nation. History, geography and most significant books and pieces of art of our culture are then mandatory - plus some background, so children could appreciate how our culture fits into greater trends. And making them aware that they can go to public museum or library (or even they can google it) to find out more.

Second most basic thing is the ability to act as a citizen in a democratic country. The knowledge about our political system and similar, the competing theories about what state should do and whether some ideas were implemented and with what results. Student should now also how to operate within our legal system: know what rights he/she has, what he can expect from police, in court, how to fill legal papers, how to read laws, where to find them. It's really frustrating that students leaving our schools know where Zimbabwe is and what is the primary export resource of Wenezuela, but have no idea what's the role of the senate or take their ideas about OUR courts from AMERICAN legal series.

Third most basic thing is scepticism. Teaching logical thinking, reasoning, scientific methodology plus basics of the science. There is really no need to torture ten years old children with details of photosyntesis (I can't remember anything, and all the hours spent on learning how many ATP's were created and what was energetic balance I consider wasted) or on proverbial paramecium caudatum. Ability to engage in a discussion, ability to recognize good and bad arguments makes better citizens.

While we have the basics, we could reduce the number of teachers while increasing their salaries and THEN we could we think about how to approach the ideal.

Unknown said...

I think that in order to understand today;s world, it is crucially important to know the ideology and practice of colonialism. In my country, Canada, this has been the determining factor in our history. So history is critical to a humanistic education. I would also want an educated person to be able to reflect critically on the role of religion in the formation of culture.