Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Humanities and Democracy

When we hear politicians talk about education, rarely will you hear them talk about the value of the humanities; things like philosophy, literature, and my favorite -- history.  What we hear is the need to improve our math and science scores.  Now, I'm all for improving math and science scores, even if I didn't do very well in either subject.  But, what about the humanities and the arts.  Math and science may make a person more employable, but do they prepare a person for living in a democracy?   Apparently the Chinese are doing quite well in math and science, but I wouldn't call China a democracy!

Of course, in an age of standardized testing the humanities don't fare well.  You can test things like grammar and names and dates, but that's not the same thing as a true education in the humanities that helps form the person as a whole and enables them to exist in a democracy.   As Parker Palmer points out in Healing the Heart of Democracy, the humanities "help form habits of the heart that are crucial to democracy's future -- including humility, chutzpah, and the capacity to hold tension creatively -- all of which help counter the cult of expertise" (p. 134). 

You may ask, what is the "cult of expertise"?  Palmer notes that expertise isn't a problem -- we need people with expertise in various areas -- but when the expert becomes a guru, and becomes the only voice that counts, then everyone else is robbed of the right to speak -- questions are stifled and dissent is silenced.  This undermines democracy, because it limits our right to ask questions.  Now, as Palmer points out, the problem isn't with science or experts, but with passivity in face of these voices.  

The humanities help form our hearts so we're in a position to ask questions, probe, and seek truth.  It calls us out of passivity and empowers us to be engaged, to care about the polis, the public square, in which we all live.  As Palmer makes very clear throughout his book -- the public is not the same as the political.  And a full, rounded education, which includes a good dose of the humanities -- taught well -- is an important contributor to living in the the polis.  


dcsloan said...

What Is Not Education?
Education is not for the betterment of the local economy, the gross national product, or the global society. Education is not about transforming, unifying, or homogenizing society. Education is not a solution for the problems of society – neither problems that are persistent and universal nor problems that are uniquely contemporary. Education is not about providing competent workers for the future. Education is not about preparing students for college. Education does not transform students into either an intellectual natural resource or a pool of human capital – these concepts have no basis or existence in reality. Education is not the means by which we can gain a national economic competitive edge over other nations. It is not an event in some imaginary on-going international academic competition. Acquiring an education from a public school system is not an act of consumerism because public education is neither a business nor a product. Neither competence in passing a specific test nor receiving narrowly focused training qualifies as an education. Such purposes and goals are wrong. Such purposes and goals cause a destructive mutation of the education process and such treatment of children must be labeled and rejected for what it is – criminally coercive and abusive.

excerpt from THE PURPOSE OF EDUCATION by Doug Sloan

Brian said...

Thank you for writing this Bob. It is near and dear to my heart. It seems to me that we are teaching kids how to take tests instead of how to think critically. We especially need to equip kids and adults to think critically about society and one's place in it. It almost sounds like a conspiracy the way the very disciplines that focus on this are treated as less important than math and hard science.

keithwatkinshistorian said...

Bob, a year ago I posted a column discussing an essay by Robert Coles, "The Words and Music of Social Change," in which he makes points similar to yours. There is much to be said in favor of a general education with a strong emphasis upon the humanities. I am going to try to include a link to my column, which was posted Aug 1, 2010.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

Keith, thanks for the link. I hope people can copy and paste to go there and read!