Another Angle on the Humanities

No adequate name exists for the level of education I teach. Elementary school is “primary education” and “secondary education” is college.  “Middle school” makes some sense—because it’s in the middle—but few think of  “high school” as very high anymore.

High school should probably be middle school too.  The term sometimes used to describe independent schools like mine—prep or preparatory school—comes closest to what I do.  I ready students for “higher education.”

So news about university trends suggests what’s to trickle down soon, and I read Stanley Fish’s January 18th “Thinking Again” column in the NYTimes with particular concern.  Titled “The Last Professor,” it describes the decline of the humanities in colleges. Fish uses a new book, The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities, to describe how practical education has defeated humanist values.

As college is the tail that wags schools like mine, I also worry how long it will be before high school English teachers are passé.  But I have to ask a bigger question, whether any of us—humanists, or non-humanists, or even Stanley Fish, understand education at all, whether we are all wrong about what education is.

The observations of Frank Donoghue, the book’s author and Fish’s former student, aren’t new.  Fish cites Andrew Carnegie praising students for learning shorthand and typing instead of less practical stuff like dead languages.  Fish quotes another industrialist, Richard Teller Crane, saying, “No one who has ‘a taste for literature has the right to be happy’ because ‘the only men entitled to happiness…are those who are useful.’”

This latest round of doubt has some oomph because more and more humanities positions are untenured or adjunct.  As Donoghue baldly puts it, universities don’t “hire the most experienced teachers, but rather the cheapest teachers.”  Jobs and status are on the line, and professors shudder when  their values and their motives for teaching come under fire.  John Sperling, a founder of the University of Phoenix  and champion of for-profit education, says, “We are not trying to develop value systems or go in for that ‘expand their minds’ nonsense.”

Understandably, statements like Sperling’s anger humanists.  If we really believe expanding minds is “nonsense,” I guess I should be upset too.

Except that I don’t entirely buy Sperling’s position.  I’d like to know how a teacher avoids expanding minds, how any education—even the most practical and job-oriented—won’t shift the students’ perspectives.  Who hasn’t had the experience of learning something that then appears everywhere?  Awareness seems an inevitable consequence of any education, which is, by its nature, expansive.

And just as we can’t avoid expanding minds, it’s hubris to believe we could design education to be practical in the first place.  The world has long moved too quicky to expect today’s teaching to be practical or even relevant tomorrow.

Even if we could be practical, we couldn’t prepare students for exactly what they will face.  All we can hope for is some good rehearsal, developing sufficient skills so that, when the real moment arises, students can improvise resourcefully and reliably.

Fish opens his column by saying, “higher education, properly understood, is distinguished by the absence of a direct and designed relationship between its activities and measurable effects in the world.”  If I understand him properly, he’s saying we shouldn’t expect to connect education to jobs, material progress, or cultural values.

In high school, we try to violate Fish’s wishes exactly, and fail.  We design a relevant curriculum, not for jobs (at least at my school) but to achieve a specific effect measured by the corporate entities who created the AP, SAT, and ACT.  We hope our activities will prepare students for college, which necessitates our guessing constantly about “what colleges want.”  Yet, doing so is nigh impossible because, as Fish’s column illustrates, universities shift their thinking and vary considerably.

And despite our best guesses, some of the least practical things we do—reading Shakespeare, studying art history, discussing the causes of World War I—end up being the most practical. We live in a world where developing visual acuity is indispensable.  The skills learned decoding difficult literature—the resourcefulness gained by rearranging language to discern meaning—comes in handy reading all the bad prose out there and composing better prose ourselves.  Finding historical causes, it turns out, isn’t that different from finding the cause of a shift or change in markets.

What’s more, students don’t learn what we desire, they learn what they desire.  Try as we might to be practical, they constantly question what’s relevant and ultimately decide what is worth remembering.  What they don’t question—and can’t question because it’s never overt—is the training their minds receive.  Their familiarity with mental work of all types is the most practical, and sometimes least recognized, effect of their education.

I’m not a college professor—not even an adjunct. I toil away in the farm leagues, so my perspective may be moot—and far be it for a lowly high school teacher to enter a conversation, virtual or real, with Professor Fish—but the real issue appears to be how much our society values the content of humanities classes, which is another question altogether.

I don’t know the answer, but I love books, art, history and all that the humanities entail.  Many of my students share that love.  I have a hard time believing that humanities, despite its declining status, will disappear.  In corporate terms, the market won’t vanish.

So rather than create war between history and chemistry or English and Math, I’d like us to acknowledge that all education is impractical and that the humanities are no more impractical than anything else or, seen in another light, that the humanities are no less vital than shorthand or its modern equivalent.

Perhaps you have to see education from my perspective—from the middle—to understand how academic this debate over the humanities can sound. It might be healthier to view education as mental training, all of it—humanities and non-humanities—useful more as practice than as practical.

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Filed under Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Humanities, Meditations, Stanley Fish, Teaching, Writing

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