“I enjoy reading, but I hate reading books for English classes,” a student wrote on a survey at the beginning of last school year. This comment, conveying a sentiment that I’ve increasingly encountered from students, lends itself to a few interpretations. Maybe Facebook posts and tweets have replaced newspapers and books as sources of information, destroying students’ attention spans necessary to concentrate on specific words and phrases in literary texts. Or maybe the dream of one day working at Google has made humanities courses seem irrelevant to job prospects. But these explanations, pervasive among commentators attempting to explain the record low number of humanities majors at universities across the country, are insufficient.
While the allure of Silicon Valley undoubtedly attracts students, I’ve come to believe that the declining interest in the humanities at both the secondary and postsecondary levels is primarily a self-inflicted wound. Many educators, myself included, often employ teaching methods that alienate students and make them feel as though the only reason for reading literature or studying history is to earn an A on dreaded analytical essays. Only by reexamining how and why we teach the humanities will students reaffirm their commitment to courses that have long played an integral part in a liberal arts education.
A brief turn to the history of literary criticism helps explain how we’ve arrived at the perceived crisis in the humanities. The type of analysis most commonly taught to middle and high school students emerged in the mid-20th century with the rise of New Criticism, an interpretative approach that focuses solely on textual evidence and excludes any exploration of authorial intention or historical context. Primarily a group of elite intellectuals skeptical of mass media and pop culture, the original New Critics attempted to elevate literary criticism to the level of a science, focusing on the function of patterns, motifs, imagery, and symbols that contribute to the structure of a text.
Many decades later, the New Criticism movement continues to influence how we teach literature. Here is a representative prompt from a recent AP English Literature and Composition test: “Select a novel or play, and focusing on one symbol, write an essay analyzing how that symbol functions in the work and what it reveals about the characters or themes of the work as a whole.” Adhering to the New Criticism tradition, this prompt requires students to focus only on the text itself and disregard any observations about cultural context, authorial intent, or historical relevance.
There is nothing inherently insidious about this prompt. In order to write an effective response, students must possess nuanced critical reading and writing skills and demonstrate knowledge of literary terms. The problem, however, is that when such prompts become our default method of assessment, we send the message to students that a sophisticated understanding of literature demands that they disregard their personal connections to a text or their curiosities about how a text might have influenced its readers.
These traditional academic prompts also obligate students to communicate their ideas in perplexing academic language that Gerald Graff in Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind describes as “Academese.”1 When we force students to only use formal literary terms in their essays, Graff suggests that we distort the world of academia “by making its ideas, problems, and ways of thinking look more opaque, narrowly specialized, and beyond normal learning capacities than they are or need to be.” If students believe that they must turn themselves into eggheads who communicate in an entirely foreign discourse, it is no surprise that many disengage from their humanities classes.
In order to reinvigorate the study of literature, and the humanities in general, then, we must acknowledge the shortcomings of the New Critics and recommit ourselves to the purpose of the liberal arts that the ancient Greeks proposed long ago: the cultivation of virtue, empathy, and character. The philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s concept of “narrative imagination” helps to illustrate this idea. In her book Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education, Nussbaum argues that when students possess a narrative imagination, they demonstrate “the ability to think what it might be like to be in the shoes of a person different from oneself, to be an intelligent reader of that person’s story, and to understand the emotions and wishes and desires that someone so placed might have.”2
Literature courses especially, Nussbaum proposes, equip students with these abilities. “Literary imagining both inspires intense concern with the fate of characters and defines those characters as containing a richer inner life, not all of which is open to view; in the process, the reader learns to have respect for the hidden concepts of the inner world,” Nussbaum writes.3 This framework prioritizes the development of empathy as a fundamental goal of humanistic inquiry. Yes, the analysis of formalist principles in a text is important, but educators must use the humanities to raise crucial questions about human nature, citizenship, and care for others.
What might this theoretical framework look like in practice? In an American literature course, students would read The Great Gatsby not only to analyze the symbolism of the green light or the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg but also to explore questions about the role of wealth and money in our pursuit of the American dream. Students might discuss if and how money leads to happiness, or they might discuss the similar economic disparities between social classes in the Gilded Age and in today’s society. Educators might ask students to write an excerpt from the perspective of one of the poor workers excluded from access to the glamorous world of Jay Gatsby. All of these exercises give students the opportunity to explore connections beyond the narrow confines of the text.
This approach to subject material can benefit students in other humanities disciplines as well. In history, teachers have traditionally felt pressure to cover extensive amounts of information, requiring students to memorize a disconnected series of historical figures, events, and dates. In Why Don’t Students Like School?, Daniel Willingham notes that this practice undermines students’ interest in a discipline such as history “by making students miserable and by encouraging the belief that school is a place of boredom and drudgery, not excitement and discovery.”4 Rather than a pedagogy that demands rote memorization, a teaching approach in history that encourages students to make connections between the past and present increases the likelihood that students will engage in the material.
If students believe that they must turn themselves into eggheads who communicate in an entirely foreign discourse, it is no surprise that many disengage from their humanities classes.
To use an elementary school civics class as an example, students would study the Bill of Rights not only to improve reading comprehension skills and learn new vocabulary terms but also to consider how the Bill of Rights applies to children’s everyday experiences. Students might draw a picture representing the amendment that guarantees the right to protest against school lunches consisting only of Brussels sprouts and broccoli. (Protests would certainly ensue.) Or educators might ask students to identify whether the state or federal government is responsible for repairing damage on the local playground.
In a middle school U.S. history course, students would study the Civil Rights Movement not only to evaluate arguments about the causes and effects of protests in the 1950s and 1960s but also to discuss the efficacy of nonviolent resistance in the pursuit of social justice. They might compare the strategies of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to the tactics currently employed by the Black Lives Matter movement. Or students might write a speech from the perspective of Malcolm X that conveys how he would propose pursuing social change in the United States today.
And in a high school art history course, students would not only analyze how line, shape, color, contrast, and space function in a painting but also discuss how a painting reflects the values of its historical and cultural context. Students might compare the worldview depicted in a Renaissance sculpture to our modern values and beliefs. Or educators might ask students to discuss which groups of people were historically excluded as subjects of art.
These exercises, and the many others like them, provide students the opportunity to make connections between historical developments and contemporary events. Students are also exposed to perspectives different from their own. Rather than requiring that students assume the role of detached observers who speak only in the language of Academese, these exercises place the cultivation of character and virtue at the forefront of a humanities education.
Some educators express skepticism about this pedagogy. One common objection is that teachers sacrifice academic rigor when they encourage students to consistently make personal connections to texts or historical events. We have all been witness to student discussions in which every comment seems to begin with “This story reminds me of the time when…,” followed by a long digression that feels totally irrelevant to a learning objective.
Admittedly, such moments can be frustrating. However, while it is tempting to blame students when these tangents occur, we need to assume responsibility for the success or failure of these discussions, especially when students are sharing their own experiences. “Like a fine tapestry, a productive discussion does not just happen; it results from planning and skilled craftsmanship,” write Beth Sattes and Jackie Walsh in Questioning for Classroom Discussion. With intentional techniques and strategies, including the use of protocols, teachers can ensure that students offer their personal connections to materials while remaining cognizant of the broader topic presented.
Finally, some educators caution that we reduce texts into a series of sound bites, self-help clichés, and even political polemics when we emphasize how the humanities can inform one’s philosophical and moral convictions. But this valid concern usually has more to do with the selection of the text or subject itself, rather than the choice of pedagogy. By choosing literary texts or historical dilemmas that lend themselves to complex examination, educators create a culture that invites dissent and multiple perspectives.
One would be naive to expect that the current drift away from the humanities will change overnight. New technological discoveries will only make Silicon Valley more attractive to students, and foundations will continue to pour money into STEM initiatives at both public and private institutions. These trends make it all the more imperative that we engage in the rigorous self-reflection that we expect of our students.
The current political and social climate in our country adds a layer of urgency to this work. As unprecedented levels of polarization sweep the nation, a rich humanities education can provide students with the habits of mind and dispositions required to counter the prevailing divisiveness, including the ability to listen carefully to others, the willingness to embrace new perspectives, an appreciation of pluralism, and a commitment to social justice. By integrating these capacities into our curricula, we will fulfill a critical responsibility — putting the “human” back into the humanities.
Mike Kalin is a history and English teacher and dean at Noble and Greenough School (Massachusetts). He is a former Pforzheimer Fellow in the School Leadership Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His writing has appeared in the Boston Globe, WBUR’s opinion page Cognoscenti, and elsewhere.
1Gerald Graff, Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003, p. 1.
2Martha Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997, p. 11.
4Daniel Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009, pp. 50–51.
5Beth Dankert Sattes and Jackie Acree Walsh, Questioning for Classroom Discussion, Alexandra: ASCD, 2015, p. 16.