The Humanities and Contemporary Society

With the focus of education reform seemingly centered primarily on STEM content areas, I am often confronted with the statements, “Why do we teach the classics?” or “Why do we need humanities taught in schools?” Of course, my instant reaction–being an English teacher–is to rebuff these statements with some anger, but in a base sense it is a valid question, one that needs to be answered.

The difficulty is that the questions are usually asked accusingly or with an added sarcastic note or simply put more bluntly and disrespectfully. A colleague at my school told one of my department members that the English Department teaches nothing of any relevance and that the literary studies are unnecessary. It brought tears to the eyes of my department member, but I think there is quite a bit of cynical superiority when people look at the humanities as a lesser discipline.

We see this mentality in our English classrooms. How often do your students put their reading homework last because “it’s only reading”? The kids are taught, indirectly or directly, that literature is a lesser content area or one of little immediacy despite its everyday relevance.

Bill Smoot spent an entire column answering the humanities’ critics, and he concluded that the students needed:

“to pay attention, to contemplate, to appreciate beauty, to experience awe and wonder, to think with depth and sensitivity about life, and to know there are values beyond profit and self-interest.”

The society of today is very often deemed selfish, self-interested, and egocentric, and the study of the classics, the literary canon, teaches us that there is more to life than what kinds of toys we have (although I might advocate for the Kindle in this discussion).

My students have often asked me why they have to study literature, but this question only appears at the beginning of a course. By the time the course concludes, they can answer this question with authority, assured that they know why the classics remain important. I use the classics, ancient and contemporary, to teach the students life lessons as well as to teach critical thinking, analysis, and clear communication; great literature teaches us as much about ourselves as individuals as it does about the people of other times.

Ultimately, classical literature is a study of humanity itself. Antigone teaches us about leadership, rebellion, and individual strength. The Odyssey teaches us about hubris, honor, and justice. To Kill A Mockingbird teachers us about equality, innocence, and courage. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn teaches us about conscience, equality, and hypocrisy. And so on.

Smoot, in my mind, accurately sums up the defense of the humanities with this:

With each new gee-whiz technological gadget, with every claim that the world is now flat and the 21st is a century like no other, I become more convinced that the humanities’ greatest value lies, as my student said, in their lessons for contemporary life. For the world will never change so rapidly as to outpace the issues universal to humanitiy — war and peace, good and evil, justice and revenge. Unless we take an awfully dim view of humanity and its potential, we have to conclude that it is better to think about these things than not, and better to think about them more rather than less. Lest we fall prey to an arrogance like that which infected those suitors on Ithaka [in The Odyssey], we should acknowledge that the deepest literary and artistic expressions of the world’s cultures, from the ancients to the contemporary, are of interest and value to us. We need them.

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