Humanities Education’s Limits

One-room schoolhouse with flagpole, Seward County, Nebraska, 1938

I’ve seen this thought expressed a lot in the United States recently:

I shouldn’t speak for the author of that tweet, but typically (and in view of last night’s news) “this” would refer to some combination of political chaos, success by demagogues, bigotry and racism, and maybe voter apathy. (I’m guessing the author does not identify with the current president, in any case.)

In other words: Humanities education keeps democracy healthy. Conversely, poor funding and inadequate emphasis on humanities education contributed to the current lamentable state of political affairs in America.

As much as I share the goal of increasing public funding and support for humanities education―and I really, really do―and as much as I believe that humanities education does have a critical role to play in the health of a democracy, I’m skeptical of this causal claim. It may not be entirely wrong, but it’s far too simple.

It reminds me too much of other declension narratives about the American education system, from globalization-inspired stories about American children “falling behind” other children in the 1990s to the notion that Supreme Court decisions about school prayer and Bible-reading led to rising crime in the 1960s. Our schools absorb a lot of anxiety about the future of American society, and perhaps that is inevitable. But we should remember that the education system is only part of the institutional environment we live in.

(Also, on average, I suspect that the voters who strike Rebecca Makkai as the most easily manipulated didn’t get their formal education in the last twenty years.)

What larger institutional environment should we consider in this case?

First, more important than formal humanities education, or at least more pervasive in eligible voters’ thinking, are the cultural master narratives that different subcultures embrace. In our time, various groups of voters and nonvoters tend to envision American history—and calculate its urgency—very differently from each other. They also imagine that critical thinking and reading will lead to very different sets of conclusions about the aims of human life.

The way that Americans dwell in these competing narratives is shaped by our formal humanities education, but it is also shaped by other kinds of institutions. In fact, various subcultures in the United States have all kinds of infrastructure for their competing value systems besides what the schools provide.

To put that another way, “the humanities” are far bigger than humanities education. There’s a vast fragmented landscape of cultural media that shape our understandings of humanity and society, just as there is a vast fractured landscape of news media.

Intergenerational cultural institutions, especially institutions that have a kind of ritual character—TV shows, religious congregations, public holidays, popular music—probably have at least as much to do with how Americans experience the humanities in that larger sense, or with how they understand critical thinking, as educational institutions do. I’d argue they’re often much more important, since they tend to mediate a person’s education more than vice versa (especially outside the few years some people spend at universities).

We educators like to flatter ourselves that the critical function of a formal humanities education is what matters most in shaping a worldview, but it’s the constructive function of those cultural institutions that usually wins the day.

Thus educators in the humanities often find themselves fighting a rear-guard action against both persistent subcultural notions, which usually prevail (as when a historian spends months teaching a certain academic critique only to have students repeat the clichés of popular culture on their final exams), and students’ sense that formal humanities education is fundamentally alienating, abstracted from real human experience.

Part of the solution to both problems may well be providing more and more emphatic humanities education—I’m certainly not opposed to that!—but I’m not convinced it’s that easy. The effects of a humanities education are unpredictable. What works educationally for one student will be deadly to the curiosity of another, or will provoke furious ideological reactions, or even will be put to use in articulating evil ideas more effectively. And frankly, different educators have different views; some of us spend a lot of our time trying to undo the damage we think other educators have already done. Funding and emphasis will go only so far toward fixing those problems.

Finally, it’s worth observing that the claim I’m criticizing is most common (though only at the moment) among American liberals, who basically identify with a mainstream secular humanities education. They should be aware that competing subcultures in America have built viable alternatives to the kind of formal education they have in mind—for every level from early childhood to graduate and professional school.

Humanities educators in those parallel institutions (like conservative religious academies) are often fully committed to providing an education that grounds students in humane values and gives them critical thinking skills for the sake of democracy’s survival. In many cases, their institutions actually stress that idea much more than a typical public institution does; people attend those schools because they’re trying to save the world, not just earn a living. And at least individually, the humanities educators in those institutions actually share plenty of intellectual common ground with humanities educators outside of them. Yet those institutions, as institutions, tend to foster very different ways of thinking about public life from what liberal champions of the humanities have in mind.

Looking to humanities education for a remedy to democratic decay isn’t a waste of time. But it’s not entirely different from looking to journalism for it, either. In both cases, from any mainstream conservative or liberal political viewpoint, it’s probably not the volume of information or critical analysis that’s the problem in American politics.


Image: One-room schoolhouse in Seward County, Nebraska, 1938. John Vachon, photographer. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Public domain.


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