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In Defense of the Humanities

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When the title of the article is “Dehumanized: When Math and Science Rule the School,” it’s safe to assume that the author is not buying the prevailing line about the United States’ shortcomings in those subjects, and their alleged consequences for society. Mark Slouka, in a piece in published in this month’s issue of Harper’s Magazine, derides the continuous “ritual” of pointing out new crises in math and science, a campaign that he says is being pushed along by corporate America with uncritical assistance from politicians, colleges and universities, and the news media.

Slouka is not arguing that math and science are not important. His point is that business and political leaders have become so intent at revamping those subjects in the name of job creation, economic prosperity, national security and so on, that they ignore that vital role that the humanities play in encouraging students to think critically and function as active, intelligent members of a civic society. “The humanities, in short, are a superb delivery mechanism for what me might call democratic values,” Slouka said. “There is no better that I am aware of.”

About the current wave of interest in improving students’ math and science skills, he writes:

"Typically, the call to arms comes from the business community. We’re losing our competitive edge, sounds the cry. Singapore is pulling ahead. The president swings into action. He orders up a blue-chip commission of high-ranking business executives (the 2006 Commission on the Future of Higher Education, led by business executive Charles Miller, for example) to study the problem and come up with “real world” solutions.

Thus empowered, the commission crunches the numbers, notes the depths to which we’ve sunk, and emerges into the light to underscore the need for more accountability. To whom? Well, to business, naturally. To whom else would you account? And that’s it, more or less. Cue the curtain. The commission’s president answers all reasonable questions. Eventually, everyone goes home and gets with the program.”

But it’s a shortsighted point of view, Slouka argues:

“The case for the humanities is not hard to make, though it can be difficult—to such an extent have we been marginalized, so long have we acceded to that marginalization—not to sound either defensive or naive. The humanities, done right, are the crucible within which our evolving notions of what it means to be fully human are put to the test; they teach us, incrementally, endlessly, not what to do but how to be."

The humanities “complicate our vision, pull our most cherished notions out by the roots, flay our pieties,” he says. Grounding students in the humanities moreover, is “value—and cheap at the price,” Slouka adds. “This is utility of a higher order. Considering where the rising arcs of our ignorance and our deference lead, what could represent a better investment?”

Slouka is, of course, hardly the only observer to warn of the downside for U.S. schools focusing on core academic subjects without giving sufficient time to history, literature, social studies, and the arts. I recently reported on the work of some scholars who believe that the roots of innovation and creativity in math and science rise are made stronger by the cultivation of arts and music skill.

Slouka’s point is different: not that the humanities are important because they build a math and science workforce, but because they build the individual, and build a better democratic society. What do you make of his arguments?

1 Comment

I think Slouka is less charitable towards math and science than you suggest. At times he seems to make his case at the expense of STEM, arguing at one point that they don't supply the building blocks for democracy the way the humanities do. There, he overstates the case. (It's hard to imagine scientifically-challenged citizens having a productive debate about healthcare, for example. Unfortunately, we don't have to imagine the reverse.)

Still, Slouka is one of few recent writers on education to give the humanities their due. He is also one of the few who treat democracy as more than an afterthought to economic competitiveness. For that, he is worth reading.

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