Sunday, November 01, 2009

One Last Post On Humanities Education (With Guest Appearances By Mister Rogers and John Stewart)

Inspired by Mark Slouka’s Harper’s magazine article “Dehumanized: When Math And Science Rule the School,” I’ve been writing for the past couple days about what I see as the proper role of education in our democracy (here and here).

I thought I was done until I came across this quote from Mister Rogers:
What matters isn’t how a person’s inner life finally puts together the alphabet and numbers of his outer life. What really matters is whether he uses the alphabet for the declaration of a war or the description of a sunrise – his numbers for the final count at Buchenwald or the specifics of a brand-new bridge.
In the wake of our crisis on Wall Street, business schools have tried to re-emphasize ethics. It seems logical. After all, every doctor is expected to sign an ethics oath. Every judge is expected to pledge to serve the Constitution. Why shouldn’t business school graduates, at a minimum, be expected to do the same? Sadly, more than 80 percent of Harvard’s MBA graduates have so far refused. If there has ever been a stronger argument for strengthening humanities education, I don’t know what it would be.

As Slouka asks:
How does one “do” the humanities value-free? How does one teach history, say, without grappling with what that long parade of genius and folly suggests to us? How does one teach literature other than as an invitation, a challenge, a gauntlet—a force fully capable of altering not only what we believe but how we see?
In effect, as we’ve marginalized humanities education, we’ve essentially removed “values” from our curriculums entirely, ghettoizing this vital democratic subject by relegating it to the home or the church. I’m not saying that we should be teaching children what values to have, but I am saying that our democracy will not survive without a population capable of thinking critically about their own values and the values of society at large. It’s clear to me that the only way to do this is through the rigorous teaching of history, art, and literature.

I’m not a regular viewer of The Daily Show, mainly because I’m usually asleep when it airs, but I did catch this one during the summer. It’s hilarious, of course, but also chilling. From the pathetic Columbia business ethics professor to the terrifyingly amoral MBA students (I would be mortified if they were my kids) this piece shook me when it aired and did so again when I re-watched it.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart
Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c
MBA Ethics Oath

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We can do better.

Okay, now I’m done with the topic. Back to preschool posts.

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Unknown said...

I can't see the clip but I am going to change internet browsers in order to be able to. I agree wholeheartedly about this of course. I was wondering though why you said we wouldn't teach children which values to have. Whyever not? Aren't the values that we want humans to have universal? I would hope so.

Teacher Tom said...

I wasn't clear. We owe it to our own children to teach them our values, but in the context of institutionalized education I don't think we can tell anyone what values to have. That said, through the study of art, literature, history, etc. I believe that the outlines of a universal value system become clear. At the same time, there are some values that ebb and flow over time, and some, hopefully, that we've relegated to the ash heap of history.

We can teach immutable mathematical and scientific concepts (1 + 1 = 2, e = mc2), but ultimately we can only express opinions about values. A strong education in the humanities, however, gives us the tools for thinking about values so that we can reasonably accept or reject them.

Anonymous said...

Love that clip, I usually DVR The Daily Show because I can't make it up that late anymore myself. I can't stand MBA's and their nonsense double speak and I have several close friends that have them. Unfortunately, when they start talking business anymore I just tune them out because it is all nonsense. Those HBS grads won't work an honest day in their lives.

Pumpkin Delight (Kimberly) said...

I agree with your explanation in the comments section. I'm reading a book right now called "Doing Well and Doing Good by Doing Art" by Ph.D James S. Catterall. It shows the link between students who were involved in the arts and the types of people they are now in their mid-twenties. It's not just about their job/income, but about being a good person, being involved in the community, voting, etc. This issue makes me torn when I go to work every morning. I try to incorporate the arts as much as I can, but high stakes testing is the bulk of my day.

Susan said...

Tom – stop writing! My head’s all full of words! Owww...

How long have we had nationwide formalized education now? Since the 1930s? About that, I’d say. I know schools were started in cities much earlier but my own grandfather only went thru 2nd or 3rd grade & I’m sure that was common then in the rural areas. School wasn’t a priority for farm families.

So...we’ve had formalized school for about as long as we’ve had frozen foods, a patriarchal medical system, cars. In other words, just long enough for these things to become the norm, & anything outside of that is too weird, despite the fact that we’re talking about something being the way it is for only about a century.

Did you know, many early school curriculums were substantially formed by the early home economics movement. Talk about preparing kids for the economy, in late 1800s, it seemed self evident that boys were inclined by nature to study farming & manual labor, & it was the nature of girls to want to learn cooking, cleaning, sewing, taking care of babies, & maintaining their husbands. Teach them these things in school & they would be fitted to join into a perfect unit to raise families & be productive citizens. Also, school systems were run by the upper class, who needed a way to brainwash young people that service jobs were easily as respectable as factory jobs. (Young people who could work in factories tended to take those jobs instead of maid or butler because even tho the work was hard & the hours long, they earned actual money & had more freedom.)

Formal education, since it’s paid for by the govt, has always had some agenda. The mid-century time you spoke of as being the heyday for the humanities, I think that was part of an agenda too – that we’d somehow be the new Rome, leaders to the world in all things.

Something you said about kids in your school not being corrected when they used a certain crayon made me think of this – When Reid was in 2nd grade, I remember hearing his teacher totally chastise a boy for not making a drawing as instructed in art class. “You’ve totally ruined it,” he said. I felt so bad for the kid. Someone else saw this same teacher line up the kids’ artwork after class & go down the line adding things. Adams is an “art rich” school. But all us parents knew, looking at the stuff on the wall, that surely our kids hadn't done that shading, that perspective work. I was so offended at this.