Impoverishment of the Human Soul in American Education

I’ve often written about education. Not that it’s a hot-button topic, or that I’m an expert; but it’s so important for America’s future.

Souter

Souter

We know we’re behind on STEM education – science, technology, engineering, math. But recently the American Academy of Arts and Sciences issued a report spotlighting an even more dire deficiency, in humanities education. I went to a presentation about this by a panel member, David Souter, former U.S. Supreme Court Justice.

You might think STEM is the critical stuff, and humanities is really just fluff. Indeed, when Souter mentioned decreased funding for “social science research,” I couldn’t help recalling the Sokal hoax, an article of gibberish parodying modern academic jargon that made it into a prestigious publication, Social Text. imagesAnd it’s true that much of what passes for social science work is crap. Which is a shame, because vaunting STEM over humanities actually puts the cart before the horse; the importance of the former rests upon the latter.

You can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve come from. The real aim is human flourishing; a person who’s a science whiz while knowing little of history, civics or the arts is a hollow shell. All the science in the world can’t safeguard the human values we claim to cherish as Americans if, in fact, we don’t understand those values, in the larger context of humanity’s progress.

Unknown-1The point was nailed in a short film preceding Souter’s talk. One scene showed two young girls watching, on TV, a clip of Neil Armstrong’s first Moon step, and his words. “What did that mean?” one asks the other. “I don’t know,” she answers. “Doesn’t seem a big step to me.”

That’s impoverishment of the human soul.

Souter illustratively chose to single out one particular corner of the humanities: poetry. When he said he was going to recite a familiar American poem, and then talk about the problem of what the poet meant by it, I could instantly guess his choice: Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken. Unknown-2After his recitation, Souter told of once hearing Frost himself perform it (at his request), and coming away with the usual understanding of the poem reinforced. But he then quoted Frost calling it a “very tricky” poem, and eventually Souter arrived at a very different understanding. And that itself is an important lesson to be gleaned from poetry studies – how even one’s best thinking can lead to wrong conclusions – a lesson with applicability far beyond poetics.

Meantime, a grasp of our poetic heritage, as part of our larger literary endowment, is essential to what Souter called civic literacy. It’s part of knowing where we’ve come from. Of course, history is central. Those two girls watching Armstrong couldn’t have understood much history – didn’t understand the story of humankind, and their own place in it. Without that, how can we fulfill our roles as members of society?

images-1In this regard, civics per se is also integral. We used to teach civics; no longer; and that seems, well, crazy. We’re making a civicsless citizenry. Two thirds of American adults today don’t know about the separation of powers among three branches of government!

When Souter said he was about to quote a famous past American judge, I also guessed right: Learned Hand (of Albany). It was from a WWII “why we fight” speech. Hand said, “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women.”

The relevance for today’s America is obvious. With our ideological polarization, far too many people seem far too sure they’re right, and little interested in understanding the minds of others. Viewpoints are not informed by a broad perspective – the sort of perspective that is attained by a grounding in the humanities – literature, and the other arts, history, psychology, anthropology, and so forth. Speaking in the film, columnist David Brooks said our biggest policy mistakes turn out to be mistakes about human nature.

I keep saying that America’s specialness is not some God-decreed eternal verity. It’s a human creation. And if Americans stop understanding what it’s really all about, it cannot be sustained.

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8 Responses to “Impoverishment of the Human Soul in American Education”

  1. ashleysenti Says:

    I sense that you are a fan of Allan Bloom and also Alexis de Tocqueville and I appreciate that. 🙂

  2. rationaloptimist Says:

    Thanks. I’ve read both, and they do have some useful things to say.

  3. Pedro Dunn Says:

    Maybe a little Cicero also? You ought to send this one to print, it asks important questions in a concise manner – all rather difficult to accomplish without a sound education possibly?

  4. rationaloptimist Says:

    Thanks, “Pedro.” I do feel that I’ve gotten a sound education — but very little of it in SCHOOL!

  5. dryder23 Says:

    Nice post. Despite the category it’s filed under, I was surprised to see that you didn’t mention philosophy! Since philosophy teaches and explores how to think about everything from science to values, it seems a particularly fundamental branch of the humanities. (Though as a philosophy prof I may be a little biased…)

    Here’s a nice post (despite typos) in The Guardian blogs about philosophy in school: http://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/teacher-blog/2013/sep/23/teach-philosophy-in-the-classroom

  6. rationaloptimist Says:

    Thank you. Modern academic philosophy has a tendency to get tangled in esoteric debates somewhat removed from real life. However, my daughter had a course in high school called “macro economics” that was actually all about major IDEAS and the history of thought. It was a great course that really introduced her to the world of ideas, and made her a better, deeper person exactly along the lines Souter talked about, and I talked about in my post. Unfortunately, the guy who taught that course was a rather unique individual of a sort one couldn’t normally expect to find on a high school teaching staff. I’m currently reading Tarnas’s “The Passion of the Western Mind” and while perhaps it spends too much time discussing early Christian thought, the story of how we got from that mindset to the modern one is actually thrilling — and THAT’S certainly a story that should be part of anyone’s education!

  7. dryder23 Says:

    Yes – a high school philosophy course that combined the history of ideas with a study of logic (broadly construed) would be ideal. That’s typically what happens in a university level intro course. (In which the students are woefully underprepared by their high school experience.)
    I’ll check into the Tarnas book, thanks. And I agree about modern academic philosophy – unfortunately it can take a lot of nitty-gritty following up on bad ideas before we discover that they’re bad! Thankfully there’s no need to go into that stuff in an intro course.

  8. Gregory Kipp Says:

    Without minimizing the need for education in history, social studies, math and science, and all the other fields required for a good rounded education, recent studies suggest class-size is the most important factor affecting the quality of our school system these days.

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