Humanities, saving the world.


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My head of school sent a link to an article this morning, entitled “How Humanities Can Help Save the World.” It identifies precisely where I locate my passion for teaching my subject. And this revelation was more than welcome  first thing on a morning back from a long weekend, when I’m more likely to be worried about whether or not I made enough copies of a handout than whether or not my students understand what “systemic racism” means. The article is worth reading, certainly, but in case it falls under the tl;dr category for you, here’s a salient quote addressing how students will learn what racism and anti-semitism are, and how they might be avoided (or stamped out):

Where will they learn this? Not in their marketing, economics, or STEM courses. Highly quantified disciplines like those cannot teach about things like racial or religious prejudice. To learn what anti-Semitism and racism are, students must turn to history and sociology courses. To learn why they are evil and how to avoid them, they must turn to the humanities.

In particular, it is the humanities that teach us how not to be racists, by showing us how to open ourselves up to what is different. Whether a given humanist is a modernist, postmodernist, New Critic, Marxist, or an adherent of any of dozens of other approaches, what she does in the classroom is always the same: She takes some cultural product that seems at first strange and off-putting — a poem by some ancient Greek or Persian poet, a novel by some African or Chinese author, a statue from an indigenous culture whose true name we don’t even know — and, if she is a good teacher, makes it familiar enough to be interesting. Doing that inevitably expands the minds of the students, bringing their horizons just a little closer to the widest horizons of all — those of humanity itself.

I am struggling with this right now, as I grapple with fitting the prescribed APUSH curriculum into a school-year calendar with only 40 classroom hours per semester, and wherein every. single. day. follows a different schedule. I am struggling with balancing the required memorization of facts with fostering a deep understanding of the principles History ought to teach us:

  • That alternative ways of being, thinking, and seeing exist,
  • That social and historical forces shape individual choice and action,
  • That agency exists but is often limited,
  • That in-the-moment choices and actions have far-reaching consequences,
  • That dominant narratives reflect power structures, and that
  • Commonalities exists between and across time/space/culture, but that difference can be very important.

I am struggling with this balance, it’s an intense amount of work, and I’ve caught myself feeling too run-down lately to keep the big picture in mind. But this article really reminded me that that struggle is worth it, and that teaching History is a job worth doing well.



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