Education and the Humanities

Schools are failing in their primary mission. The reasons are complicated in some respects, but in others it’s quite simple. Children should complete public education with three main understandings:

o Learning is life-long
o Thinking critically is fun and rewarding
o Knowing the trends and patterns of human history and where
power in society lies

Take history for example, history is much more than names, dates, and events. Knowing history is about understanding how power is used to organize society and how it is also abused. It’s about understanding the undercurrent of civilization and the foundations of what binds humans together in cooperative effort.

Schools have become very good at teaching kids to despise reading, view learning as boring, and think in lazy ways. Whether a student memorizes the “day of infamy” for a test and then performs a memory dump is irrelevant to understanding our heritage. History is about having access to the collected wealth of knowledge, both technical and philosophic.

We live in an age of easy access to information, yet we have raised generations of children who would rather watch TV or play video-games than read up on the humanities (after all, that’s what we’re doing). Mind you, I’m not saying video-games are bad; I’m rather fond of them. But I view them as a past-time at best and not something that should occupy all of your spare time.

The roots of all this lie with the founders of American public education. In the 1880’s, a debate was taking place about what should drive education. Should we embolden students to challenge the status quo and think independently, or should we train them to be successful and productive in a market economy. I think you know how this story ends. . .but it starts with an architect boldly stating, “We have enough doctors and lawyers and politicians. . . what we need is productive workers working in dark, dank places.”

There were opponents to this view, like John Dewey, who felt that students should leave education with the mind of challenging accepted cultural values and taking a proactive approach to challenging societal injustice. Although Dewey failed to appreciate the social ills of the Soviet revolution (he was an admirer), he may have been correct that we should rear our children in the task of challenging the world, instead of joining it.

A similar thing happened with the hippy generation. A counter-culture that challenged the world of work and cultural norms, ultimately failing because the hippies graduated from college and had to settle down to take on jobs and raise families. Owning stock gives you a stake in the capitalist economy. It’s hard to remain a radical once you’re watching MSNBC so you can get your news along with a stock ticker at the bottom of the screen.

I’m not saying that market Capitalism should be eradicated, or that it hasn’t met with some success. But you also have to recognize that much of that success was and is built on the backs of exploited laborers.

But returning to the issue of education, how should it be modeled? Perhaps the ancient Aryan culture (no, not that one) had the right idea with the Upanishads. The Upanishads translate to “come near and sit down.” The Aryan tribes which moved out of the Caucasus mountains in all directions–some of which settled in modern-day India–created a list of unanswerable questions to be discussed by successive generations of youths. These were philosophic, with no certain answers. The child’s role was to discuss and arrive at his/her own conclusions. The key is that this is what we would think today as critical thinking: teaching children how to process information and arrive at their own conclusions.

If our education does nothing else, it should rear children in the ways of thinking for themselves, loving new ideas and learning, and loving literature and the humanities. As mentioned, schools have done a lot of the opposite: kids think reading is boring (mostly), that learning is boring, and that learning stops once they get their diploma. Though trite, knowledge truly is power. But it’s hard to have it when you’re grinding it out for less than a living wage and your spare time is spent recuperating from a depressing job.

What should we teach our children about the notion of success? That it is earning good money, paying your bills, and nevermind whether you actually love what you do? It’s natural that parents want their children to be financially well-off. But what about pursuing their dreams and finding ways to contribute in meaningful ways? I shudder when I think of teachers warning students that if they don’t like school, then they will hate the world of work even more. If a student decides to do something artistic for less money and no job security, shouldn’t they be encouraged to do so?

We all have to deal with responsibility sooner or later. I would love to throw myself into writing, but I find that I have to concentrate on work to pay my bills, keep my health insurance, and earn the right to a warm bed and food in my fridge.

It wasn’t always this way, you know. Your membership in the tribe once guaranteed you access to those things. Humans didn’t trade paper notes for the right to the basic necessities. They traded energy in a Star Trekian mode of, what is good for all is good for me. I’m not saying we should desert the cities and try to live off the land. But I’m agreeing with Einstein when he stipulated that our human culture hasn’t evolved as rapidly as our technical prowess.

In fact, you could question whether we’ve actually regressed since the dawn of civilization, since our view of human dignity is essentially that it is earned rather than inherited. If you disagree, then consider the state of American politics when those who have health insurance are aghast that it could/should be given away to those without it. Usually it’s the have nots that get upset about their lot, but now we see that the haves are the ones who are truly enraged.

© David Metcalf

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