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.