In a speech for the National Endowment for the Humanities earlier this month, the talented documentarian Ken Burns gave a powerful and compelling defense of the humanities. He mixes life lessons with insights into our current state of affairs gleaned from his immersion in the humanities. It’s really worth reading the entire speech.
Here’s and excerpt: “In a larger sense, the humanities helps us understand almost everything better–and they liberate us from the myopia our media culture and politics impose upon us. Unlike our current culture wars, which have manufactured a false dialectic just to accentuate otherness, the humanities stand in complicated contrast, permitting a nuanced and sophisticated view of our history, as well as our present moment, replacing misplaced fear with admirable tolerance, providing important perspective, and exalting in our often contradictory and confounding manifestations. Do we contradict ourselves? We do!”
Read the entire speech here: Ken Burns Jefferson Lecture | National Endowment for the Humanities
I share the same concerns as Ron Briley. He is rightly troubled by the side lining of history in favor of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) courses. He notes, “This view of higher education as simply providing the basis for job placement within a technological society may be understandable in light of the student loan debt burden, but it is shortsighted and fails to address the larger goals of a college education.”
A knowledge of history in all its complexities remains vital to the health of our democracy. History is more than names and dates. It helps us make sense of the world around us. It teaches us humility as we struggle to understand the complexities of human nature and the world. It shakes us from our simplistic worldview so that we can better address the problems of the world. It offers lessons and warnings if we are willing to learn from it. It forces us to see the world from different perspectives. And, of course, it offers us great stories. We should resist the transformation of education into a job training program. We are human beings not worker bots!
Read the entire article here: History News Network | I’ve Taught History for 40 Years. I’m Alarmed.
I share B. C. Knowlton’s concerns about teaching college students to really read and understand works of history. He first taught a group of students who needed remedial help in reading and writing. For them, the popular The Guns of August was too difficult. With some help they were able to get through the material but in the end he could not get them to a level of critically thinking about the subject and its significance. The other group of good students were able to read and write well, but they also seemed unmotivated to engage with works of history (or any other readings of substance) on any sustained level beyond their required courses.
His experience with these students led him to wonder whether or not “those who take required History courses as college freshmen become and remain literate and critical students of History? Once there are no more papers to write, will they see any reason to read? How, as they head into the future, will they engage with the past? When historic anniversaries approach, will they pay historical attention to them, or just watch the documentaries?”
Given the lack of interest in anything not related to their majors or future careers (at least in my experience), I’m guessing that they will “just watch the documentaries” (if even that!). But I always hope that as they mature they will change their minds.
Source: History News Network | The Surprising Reaction I Got When I Assigned Barbara Tuchman’s Popular History of World War 1 to College Students
“David Silbersweig, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, says today’s multidisciplinary world needs liberal arts — and philosophy in particular — more than ever.” Silberweig is right. Unfortunately, just as we desperately need the skills and knowledge that comes from studying the humanities, politicians and business leaders are devaluing these fields. As a result, students view their humanities courses as an unnecessary obstacle in pursuit of their careers, and student disinterest then provides the justification for defunding these fields.
As a successful medical scientist who studied philosophy in college, Silbersweig is the perfect advocate for the liberal arts. He attributes his diverse educational background with his success. He notes, “I discovered that those without a liberal arts foundation, while often brilliant, generally had a narrower perspective. Their path to and through outstanding universities was more vocational.”
He argues that “[i]f we are to remain at the forefront of knowledge creation in this changing, globalizing world, then our students must be the next generation of explorers. We have a sacred obligation as educators, role models and mentors to ensure a system that promotes the attributes conducive to their success. A broad yet rigorous education will best equip them to go forth into uncharted territory to address issues of import to humanity in a creative fashion.”
“We need to foster and protect academic environments in which a broad, integrated, yet still deep education can flourish. They are our national treasure and a strategic asset, whether some politicians would recognize that, or not — and philosophy is foundational, whether my old dentist would appreciate it or not.”
Read the entire article here: A Harvard Medical School professor makes the case for the liberal arts and philosophy – The Washington Post
What would happen if we completely abandoned the humanities in higher education? The world would be very bleak! (see interview with Michael S. Roth)
This subject is related to my previous post on public education, but here the focus is on the humanities since much of the animus towards higher education is directed at the humanities. Conservatives insist that they are a luxury that we can no longer afford. This is a new stance in the conservative platform as pointed out by Andrew Hartman, author of A War for the Soul of America. Hartman thinks that new conservative position is “not only because most conservatives now dismiss the value of the humanities,” but as a product of “the traumatic culture wars, when left and right angrily battled over radically different visions of a humanities education.” Read Hartman’s discussion of this topic here:
History News Network | The Conservative War on the Humanities.