In case you’ve been on another planet for the past decade, the hottest buzzword in education circles today is “STEM” – an acronym for science, technology, engineering, and math. STEM has become a holy grail of sorts for certain educational administrators and politicians, who blindly worship before its altar, and are eliminating what once constituted a classical liberal arts education from time immemorial: literature, philosophy, and history.
Now, don’t get me wrong, science and technology deserve a rightful place in our educational programs, shouldn’t be neglected, and, if anything, ought to be strengthened (strategically), with more funding for critical areas like medical research and green energy.
But what’s to become of the humanities? Are we to simply let them go? These are the very subjects, after all, which add a spiritual richness to our lives, help us appreciate the world around us more, and deepen our moral sensibility. Matthew Arnold talked of the “sweetness and light” that comes from reading “the best that has been thought and written” – think Plato, Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, and Proust – still a profound insight for those of us, myself included, who believe in teaching for a happier, kinder, more joyful world that still might be.
Another great benefit of the humanities is that they strengthen democracy; in more ways than one. By encouraging open dialogue in literature classrooms, for example, we produce what the great literary theorist and educational philosopher Louise Rosenblatt believed is the ideal training ground for life in a democracy.
Empathy is another quality, crucial to the functioning of a decent society, that we get more from reading novels and studying art than classes in I.T., business analytics, or entrepreneurship studies. However justifiable such narrower courses might be, they do nothing to develop human personality or deepen the heart and soul. Nor do they help you love your neighbor, build community, or care about the less fortunate of our planet.
My wife Claudia and I recently featured two of the world’s most noted literary scholars, Harold Bloom and Stanley Fish, as guests on our nonprofit TV show “Public Voice Salon.” Both of these intellectual titans are deeply pessimistic that literature and the humanities can survive the current technocratic, market-based onslaught in education. Though their prescient warnings ought to be heeded, they also left us with a glimmer of hope I’d like to build on.
Would it help to build a political movement around saving humanistic education? Why do YOU think the humanities matter? What novels, films, or plays have made you a better person or citizen? Why don’t they talk about this stuff on the other TV shows? As you ponder these questions, feel free to reach out in dialogue to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Let me know what you think so we can do a better job resisting the disastrous march away from humanistic learning, and toward a new dark age—call it a “digital dark age”—of the mind and soul.