By Greg Lepore
Jul 3, 2015
Picture a factory large enough to rumble the ground upon which it sits and active enough to cover blue skies with rolling tides of black smoke. In this factory, imagine a series of assembly lines along which stand thousands of operators, each specializing in a certain segment of production, each with a unique approach to performing their task. All are exceptionally qualified, and all have dedicated their life to the successful operation of the factory. Nonetheless they remain subject to the rigid procedures set by their overseer.
At the beginning of the assembly line sits a mountain of raw material. Each chunk is slightly different from the next. One is big, one is small. One is bright, one is dull. One comes from the East, another from the West. One needs only minor refining, another needs plenty of work. Still, at their core each piece is cut from the same block. Imagine that by the end of the assembly line, each chunk has been crafted in the same exact manner - all now serve an identical purpose.
Growing up in the 90s, such factories existed. They were many, in fact, and found in every town across the United States of America - these factories were called schools. The operators? The teachers. The raw material? The students. The purpose of the assembly line? To produce the next generation of investors and technological innovators.
Education in the 90s was not education for education’s sake. Education in the 90s was education for America’s sake, to ensure that it remained the wealthiest and most technologically advanced country in the world, the by-product of this scheme being a high-paying job for the worker. America would not progress through developments in its culture, it was argued, for its culture already reigned supreme.
The education system of the 90s was one in which students were commodities, investments from which positive returns in the form of a high-paying career or breakthrough technological innovation were expected. Brighter students were constantly pushed to enroll in advanced math and science courses with the expectation that they would one day become bankers, accountants, engineers, doctors, or computer scientists. Rarely was a student pushed to enroll in an advanced humanities course, of which there were significantly fewer.
The focus on math and science resulted from two deeply entrenched beliefs in modern America. The first, that studying math and science leads to job security and financial stability. The second, that in a modern world still bound by the legacy of the industrial revolution, a society can only progress through technological innovation. Excelling at humanities’ subjects furthers neither of these two beliefs. Therefore their emphasis was considered counterintuitive to the goals of education.
America is in crisis, and one must wonder whether the education system that had a hand in leading to the present state of affairs can be the same system that will bring about a brighter future. Will America’s continued success come from future generations of investors and technological innovators, or will it be continued by generations of socially aware critical thinkers? Maybe, just maybe the time has come to treat the humanities with the same respect as math and science.
Math and science are important to education. This is unarguable. At the same time, it is important to recognize that neither contributes anything beneficial to a society engulfed in a moral crisis. 8th graders can multiply and divide. They can explain the water cycle, memorize sections of the Periodic Table, understand the processes of evolution, even construct small models of buildings and cars. But do they know the true story of America complete with all its greatest accomplishments and failures? Do they understand not only that racism is wrong but from where racism stems? Can they comprehend why some are poor and some are rich? Do they know that media outlets and politicians sometimes stretch the truth? Do they realize the way the world is right now is not the way it always has to be?
What’s frightening about a radical focus on math and science is that these are two subjects based entirely on facts. They do not require a consideration of abstract concepts. Answers to questions in the humanities however are rarely straightforward. The humanities are subjects that require critical thinking, formation an opinion, consideration of another’s viewpoint, and commencement of debate. The humanities force a child to ask “why” and “what-if.”
America in its present moral crisis would be well served by a revision of its school system, a revision that would provide students with more of an opportunity to think complexly not just about their community but about the entire world around them. For when it comes time to make the difficult decisions that will determine the future of the country, the students who excel in critical thinking, those who question everything they see and hear, those who understand the causes and effects of happenings in society, will be the ones to save the country from internal destruction.
“The Humanities are academic disciplines that seek to understand and interpret the human experience, from individuals to entire cultures, engaging in the discovery, preservation, and communication of the past and present record to enable a deeper understanding of contemporary society.” – The Humanities Matter!