Reclaiming the Value of the Humanities

BY AARON BARLOW

Maybe we can blame it all on Sputnik. Sixty years ago, next year, the Russians panicked the Americans via satellite… literally. Suddenly, research had to be sped up in new ways, and consolidated. Suddenly, the centers of the scholarly world were physicists and others whose thought could have practical application for military operations—in particular.

Don’t like Sputnik as the starting point? OK, use the Manhattan Project or something else. Any way you look at it, though, or anywhere you start it, we’ve increasingly given intellectual primacy to scientists or, today, to those in so-called STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields. Everything else is insignificant. At least, there’s no money in it (or doesn’t seem to be). Intellectually speaking, no longer do we have the two cultures C. P. Snow described, but a single scientifically oriented one and a bunch of wannabes.

This is destroying our teaching, our education.

There’s a reason for the difference between the humanities and the sciences—or there used to be. Even now, conflating them, at least in terms of pedagogy, serves no one well. Quantifiable assessment and Student Learning Outcomes dumb down education as a whole by denigrating half of the schooling project—the half teaching students to think.

Snow, in The Two Cultures almost sixty years ago, posited something of a parity between the two sides, with “Literary intellectuals at one pole—at the other scientists…. Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension” (5). Reflecting the already growing primacy of the sciences, though, even he didn’t really believe them equal: “If we forget the scientific culture, then the rest of western intellectuals have never tried, wanted, or been able to understand the industrial revolution, much less accept it. Intellectuals, in particular literary intellectuals, are natural Luddites” (23). One of his main points: “Have we begun to comprehend even the old industrial revolution? Much less the new scientific revolution in which we stand? There was never anything more necessary to comprehend” (29). He dismisses those in the humanities as children unwilling to be dragged into the adult world.

Yeah. The sciences are necessary. The other pole? Not so much. This has been the bias of European and American intellectuals (and much of the rest, in the West) for generations.

In fact, or so many came to believe—or so it has evolved—those in the humanities would be better off if they worked a little harder to become more scientific. Quantify! Assess! Make the humanities digital. Learn to apply the scientific method (seen small) to philosophical inquiry, to historical research, to literary scholarship. Reduce art to formula: Learning need be nothing more than paint-by-numbers.

Those of us in the humanities have been complicit in our own debasement. So widespread is the belief in the primacy of science that we, too, have accepted it without much question—and have done so for decades. Even when we bemoan the loss of ‘critical thinking,’ we fall right in line with the imposed methodologies of the sciences and accept without thought our place as second-class citizens.

Judgement, that great unquantifiable, has had to go, replaced with rubrics—and we have done nothing to fight back. A good piece of writing should be able to be determined by the strength and sum of its parts, right? We’ve stopped worrying with the dynamic of communication in favor examining the pieces on the paper.

When we can point to thesis statements, topic sentences and structure (at every level), we think we know what we are talking about and imagine we are being scientific. We tell ourselves we are being analytical and, just perhaps, that we are finally reaching the point where we can hang out with the big kids over in the Math department. Maybe, if we really work hard, we can even develop ‘theories’ or can expound upon the value of counting in the exploration of history, philosophy or literature. That just might allow us, one day, to hobnob with those adult holies, the physicists, whose work we view with awe as if it were beyond our ken. If we make our own theories as difficult to understand and surround them with formulae, perhaps these geniuses will, one day when we are older, deign to acknowledge our existence.

“’Oh, realism! Oh, here, oh, now, oh hell!’” wrote Ray Bradbury in his story “Usher II.” I like to quote that line. It resonates with the reduction of the abundant world we live in to the simply quantifiable one of ‘information,’ of education and exploration dumbed down to those elements or things that can be numerically assessed. It posits an objective truth that can be laid out on a spreadsheet, sprawled on a pin or evaluated in terms of expense versus income. It masks the fact that there are things not so easily delineated, the fact that features on a map are never the whole of a landscape. The fact that learning cannot be reduced, as I’ve said, to ‘outcomes’ or measured by what one retains now.

Yesterday was the last meeting for my Law through Literature class. It would have been a final-exam time, but the students had elected to write a take-home and simply had to turn it in. They had been instructed to find a line or two from the “Grand Inquisitor” chapter of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov that they could then use as a starting point for discussing their own visions of the law and society. It was a difficult final and I don’t yet know how, as a group, they did. The ones who stuck around to talk, however, were fascinated by the questions of freedom and metaphorical (and literal) salvation and responsibility they had been grappling with for the final.

Of the five who stuck around (finally breaking up five minutes after the period was officially over), one was from Bangladesh, one from Indonesia, another from Bolivia, one from Ecuador and the fifth from Jamaica. There was an Applied Math major, one in Computer Science, one in Legal Studies and two who already have degrees—one of whom was taking courses to see if he wants to go to law school and the other completing prerequisites for our Nursing program. Three were men, two women. The thought of reducing them to a single set of ‘outcomes’ makes me cringe.

The discussion during the class session was relaxed and wide-ranging, including how children should be treated (should they be allowed to fall and hurt themselves, or constantly protected) and even what parents should do when their offspring want to start making their own decisions. This related, for them, to the role of law—one brought up Frank Norris’s story “A Deal in Wheat,” saying she hadn’t understood why it was included on the syllabus until she started thinking of law as protector—and the story as a cry for legal protection (or a safety net) for farmers. The law as parent.

This discussion was the result of a decision I took last fall to reduce the importance of grades in my classes. By assuring the students that, if they did the reading and assigned writing, their grades would be fine—that I am not pitting them one against the other through a curve or anything else—I established an atmosphere of comfort in my classrooms that I have never before seen actualized (not in my own classrooms, at least, not to this degree). And the students, it seems to me, have benefited.

‘Grade inflation be damned,’ I told myself as I started to revamp my approach to teaching last fall. ‘I want students to enjoy learning and even coming to class.’ This did not work universally (nothing does), but even the students in what Ira Shor calls “Siberia” (the back row) often seemed engaged.

I could never have managed this had my focus been on quantifiable outcomes or relative measurement, perhaps the most depressing result in education of our mania for the scientific culture. A deliberate break with the adoration for numeric assessment allowed me to focus on what the humanities do well. Instead of making us pretend scientists as many have (at least since the time of Snow), I am turning to another model completely. My teaching is not bound by the syllabus (that’s only a starting point); class goes where student interest takes it. I may gently herd discussion back toward the topics of the course, but I do not make the information I can give into the centerpiece. Nor, beyond reading and writing and engagement with ideas, do I try to force quantifiable accomplishment.

There’s something to be said, of course, for the mastery of information. Students should know the differences in time and location of the Civil War and Vietnam and should be aware that Shakespeare did not write in Old English. But these are things best internalized through the process of reading and writing, of listening and talking. Memorizing ‘facts’ is not going to integrate the information into the knowledge base an individual draws upon—as the generalized lack of command of such information, for all of the testing and test preparation of the last few years, shows.

The humanities assist students in developing worldviews that integrate information and opinion. Data, as a result of humanities-based learning, does not exist as a thing in a silo but becomes a tool of diverse utility, a tool of thinking.

Ultimately, the only way we are going to restore parity to the two cultures (as if it ever existed) is through refusing to be held to the standards of the scientists, if we are the humanists. Theirs aren’t the only standards and are not even the correct ones for all instances. The scientific method, after all, is only good as far as it goes.

And it does not go everywhere.

6 thoughts on “Reclaiming the Value of the Humanities

  1. I think scientists would agree. After all, Robert Oppenheimer quoted the Bhagavad Gita after the Trinity test. But scientists aren’t the ones pushing quantifiable student so-called learning outcomes, and those pushing STEM have other interests in mind . . . like corporate profit and externalizing heir costs.

    • I agree completely. The fault doesn’t lie with the scientists but with those of us in the humanities acting as pseudo-scientists… and with administrators so besotted with numbers that they can see nothing else. Except, of course, money.

      • Thank you for writing this. I agree with the comments re: scientists. I think it is also important not to underestimate the coordinated assault on “liberal arts” education that has been engineered for several decades (arguably since the infamous “Powell memo” around 1970) that means to turn higher education (especially of the non-elite kind) into vocational tech. While it is almost universally framed in terms of STEM education, I have been truly surprised — and both heartened and frightened — by the small number of STEM faculty who actually seem on board with this prescription. In my experience it comes from elsewhere–among other places, from ideological pressure put on parents (especially via talk radio) who in turn apply it to their children, demanding they major in “useful” fields because other fields lead to unemployment, despite having neither experience nor evidence to that effect. In fact, to the contrary, these same parents (again in my experience) are often professionals who had liberal arts BAs and then went on to do whatever they wanted with those degrees, from law to medicine to business.

        And of course we can’t leave out the enormous, purposeful pressure applied to students and parents in this regard via the terrible racket known as student loans.

      • You are absolutely right in all you write: For instance, the Powell Memo is another starting point. And one thing I do not discuss is the influence of those outside of education on educational policy, particularly toward moving higher ed to become simply voc ed or job training. Perhaps I should have. Another, of course, is the pernicious impact of student debt and the scandalous way it is manipulated.

  2. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 2, Vol. #42 | Whewell's Ghost

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