22 oct. 2010

Can Humanities Education Be the Basis of Citizenship?

No, I don't think so. I have several objections to this whole line of thinking, however well-intentioned.

1) Not everyone goes to college; not everyone who goes to college takes a lot of Humanities courses. Citizenship has to have a more expansive base, not dependent on your choice of major, or even less a few gen ed classes. That's a heavy burden to put on a few courses in the curriculum, or the graduates of a few majors.

2) Education in the Humanities promotes critical thinking skills. Sure. But so does education in general. In sciences, social sciences, and any field of intellectual endeavor. And is that what the Humanities are really about, a set of skills abstracted from our scholarly practice?

3) Isn't this really a backdoor way of using a political alibi to save the humanities? In other words, it's not the humanities saving humanity, but vice-versa? (Society will save the English department if it realizes the English department will save society.)

4) Won't those arguments devalue any part of the humanities that doesn't have a direct pay-off (pay-out) in utilitarian terms? So if the humanities are not useful for business, they are essential to forming citizens! Once we take that step, why preserve the parts that don't seem directly relevant to civic life? (Most of it?) It's a way valuing the humanities for their closeness to the social science. The humanities become a less rigorous, more warm-and-fuzzy social science. Even philosophy, a more rigorous discipline, will be reduced to a few "relevant" subject, like ethics.

5) The argument is self-serving, when promoted by people in the Humanities (as it usually is). Sure, without the English dept. civilization will die out. Philosophy holds the key to thinking itself. Surely biology should be the master discipline, since we are living creatures. But physics holds the keys to the universe itself. And so on. In other words, anyone who has devoted their life to one particular thing will derive an exaggerated notion of its relative importance, whether it's Baroque poetry or exercise physiology.

6) There's often an appeal to the use of language in a clear way, which will in turn clear thought about politics to the nation. But no one discipline or set of disciplines owns language. Freshman composition won't prevent Bush from abusing power, no matter how good those composition courses get. Once again, there is the problem of getting from the curriculum to the real-life effect it's supposed to have.

7) Finally, there's the assumption that humanities will save the nation because humanities professors have the correct politics and can transmit that viewpoint to their students. That will probably merit a post of its own. The problem, basically, is that then it is the particular political views that matter, not the integrity of the discipline or the specificity of its content. If humanities professors turn conservative, and physics professors get consistently leftist, then will physics provide the basis of civic life?

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