Why Teach the Humanities in Education?

I’ve been invited to participate on a university panel today entitled “Why Teach the Humanities?,” and this is what I’ve prepared to share. It’s a bit of a jeremiad, for sure – but it’s what I am seeing right now, and some of what I am doing about it in my teaching.

I have been on paternity leave this semester, and blogging energy has mostly been spent on our adorable baby boy! I hope to be posting more regularly soon. Thanks for your interest, gentle reader.

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I am going to assume that most of you already understand the value of the humanities to scholarship, and of humanistic values, generally, in learning. Since you are already convinced, I am going to use my time to let you in on what it means to make such a case right now in my field: education.

In education, we love to say that teaching is an “art and a science.” And we usually put big air quotes around both words as we state this, then lean back with a satisfied look, as if we have “really said something there.”

This makes me nuts, because it seems we are saying very little, and not what we think we are saying. What I think we are trying to convey when we say that teaching is ”an art and a science” is that there are elements of teaching that are serious, data-driven best practices, but that there are also elements of teaching that are personal, high-touch, affective, and beautiful. What we are really doing is trying to make sure you understand that we are both serious and sensitive: that we are to be respected, not to be trifled with, but that we also don’t care about esteem and prestige if it gets in the way of connection with young people. (You’ll note that, like most psychological complexes, what we are saying isn’t really about you at all – it’s about our own insecurities, in the academy and in the culture generally.)

But the truth is that, even as we say “art” and “science,” and lean back, etc., we increasingly don’t really believe our own cant. The truth is that we are far more on the “science” side of things right now. As a discipline, we have believed the politically-driven fiction that student success is completely about individual teacher effectiveness, not poverty, and have dutifully applied ourself to making sure that everything we do can be demonstrated to those who audit our work incessantly as data-driven, committed to accountability, and deadly serious.

This data-fetish, of course, is also a fiction (and a reductive version of “science,” to boot, for which I apologize to my friends in the sciences). Teaching and learning are immensely complex, even alchemical acts, and our insistence on reducing their results to quantifiable, rubrick-ed outcomes, which in turn can be benchmarked based on previous performance, strains credulity. Most of the rest of the developed world scratches its head at our national educational folly right now, before in large part adopting it as the new order.

But the emperor has no clothes. And I wonder sometimes, my colleagues, if your concerns about the undergrads you presently teach – that they are only focused on grades; that they throw your syllabi back at you as accountability weapons to keep you from expecting more of them than you said you would; that they exhibit rampant incuriosity, even as the world’s knowledge sits waiting in their smartphones – are not really the chickens coming home to roost. They are only managing learning they way we taught them to, after all, way before they ever met you.

The humanistic side of education – the part that concerns itself seriously with exploring complex and ambiguous issues, learning from the past, and admitting the whole range of human experience and sense in the quest to prepare people to live a life, not just find a job – well, we haven’t seen that part for a while in K-12 education. We are buried under administrative oversight and accountability expectations, hog-tied by impoverished notions of workplace readiness and economic panic. Accountability is our favorite word, really: that pale shadow of responsibility that is left over when autonomy and passion have been elided.

Yes, things are all “science” over here right now. We are filled with fear, and in fear, we grasp for things that we can know, and show we know. A very short list of things.

All this is why the humanities remain an essential part of my practice right now, even more urgently than they were when I came to Appalachian five years ago.

I teach future teachers about the impact of social realities on school, and I use fiction, poetry, and memoir to help them develop the empathy for those not like them that is an essential precondition for actually knowing what to do with difference in the classroom.

We read Charles Baxter’s perfect short story “Gryphon” as a way into discussing the social expectations made of the teacher and the risks and payoffs of pushing against the lines.

We read Howard Nemerov’s stunning poem “September, The First Day of School” as a way to begin to grasp the enormity of school’s role in our culture, the endless cycle in which we participate as we take our place in maintaining an apparent banality that, nonetheless, forms and determines lives.

We read Dinaw Mengestu’s gorgeous “The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears” – not a school novel, but a novel about precious interactions between older and younger humans, the needs and abundances shared both ways between us as we all try to navigate a culture that is always, to some extent, foreign.

In my education classes, literature helps find the space in-between the ideas and the lived realities we incessantly hammer home. It’s the air that lets my students breathe – not by giving them a pleasant break from all that policy talk, but rather by engaging their whole subjectivities in a renewed engagement with this social practice of school, the institution that they thought they knew so well as to not need to really look at it ever again.

This year, I’m reworking my entire course to build around Dana Goldstein’s unprecedented new retrospective of American education, “The Teacher Wars.” I am committing to approaching the study of teaching historically, as anodyne to a policy world that would have us believe education is ahistorical; that ours are the first leaders to suggest that merit pay, or redistricting, or eliminating teacher tenure are ways to approach the intractable social issues that always seem to end up at the schoolhouse door first. I am convinced that a disciplined engagement with where we have been will help us grok more fully where we might go; that reading ourselves into what is past will help us place ourselves into what we shall now do.

I use literature elsewhere as well, most notably in my honors seminar on sustainable practice for caring professionals, where we gather future doctors, social workers, dentists, therapists, teachers and nurses to explore the common dilemmas of rendering effective care in underresourced, high-pressure environments. We seek to learn how to thrive in these professions, not just survive them – and, no surprise, we find that humanistic practices of making and receiving stories are essential to the development of an empathy that will sustain through a long career.

But it’s the relevance of humanities to the preparation of future teachers that burns brightest to me today. As I said, over in the College of Ed, we are losing not just our humane-ness, but our humanity itself, as the new common sense about teaching becomes all science and no art.

So I teach the humanities in education because education is perhaps the most humanistic endeavor we can pursue, save only the making of other humans. And I believe that, as the widening gyre finally tightens – as it will eventually, I hope and trust – my field will come again to understand their power, and the ultimate purpose of our work. Thank you.

Image from Brick Row Book Shop.

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