The Real Value of Education in the Humanities

(We apologize for the tardiness of this essay for the month of August. Technical difficulties with with Professor Metal’s robotic dog caused it to seek out and devour the philosophers homework!)

The Real Value of Education in the Humanities

S. A. Kehr

We have spoken at some length during the show about the value and role of philosophy to the modern world. Still we are constantly bombarded by the sentiment that nothing is “getting done”. It seems as if Professor Metal’s many decrees ,and mandates fall on deaf ears. So today I would like to address two points:

(for the sake of clarity I would like to point out that I have used herein the term subject in two different ways, one being that of the subject-object relationship in which the subject is the observer, and two being subject as American English speakers will find themselves familiar with from primary school referring to e.g. math, science, art etc. I have tried to mark out these differences but please be aware as you read on.)

    1. The humanities are not many subjects each with their own distinct spheres of influence as the natural sciences are. This remains a common misconception, the basis of which is the adoration heaped upon the natural sciences in our modern era. But let me say also that I do not by any means begrudge science the influence it has. I will address this in point 2 but for now just know that this essay is not anti-science. In the academic culture that has developed in the western world S.T.E.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields are seen as the core of academic rigor. This leads to the belief that the humanities should similarly break down into clearly defined categories of study. Where science is easily broken into categories like biology, physics, and chemistry (with some admitted overlap of fields but still clearly defined even in those cases) and math breaks down to arithmetic, geometry, algebra, and calculus (My apologies if I have confused these categories) the humanities do not break down into art, music, literature, and philosophy in the same way. While each defines a discipline used to study the totality of human experiences they do not refer to different objects or examine differentiated categories of experiences. Instead the humanities are a single toolbox holding many tools but all of which approach the same singular subject matter. When a painter paints, they are engaging the same subject matter that a musician, an author, or a philosopher might. Now there are, of course, differences between individuals and, as mentioned, the tools are different from method to method; this is less akin to the difference between biology and physics than it is to the difference between Louis Pasteur using a microscope and Stephen Hawking using a telescope (for clarification this is merely a hypothetical). We would not expect the two scientists to produce the same work nor would we expect them to use the same tools in that work. It is because of the vast contributions of the sciences to our current prosperity that we have organized our academic institutions in a way that suits them. This is not an issue until we come to people who are not educated in the humanities. Within academia those misconceptions are of little importance and to the segment of the populace who receive direct education in the humanities the distinction is clear. But to that portion of the population that has received little to no humanities education the only framework that they have to apply is the one found in modern academic institutions which is inherently biased in favor of a reductionist model of the world that traces its roots back to the sciences. Whether this lack of education is because of the failure to fund such programs during compulsory K-12 education or because they did not attend post secondary education programs that emphasised a broad education, e.g. vocational programs, the outcome is inevitably that the population sees the humanities as many different spheres of influence. More damningly each is seen as a frivolous waste of time because it fails to get anything done in a concrete way. This expectation of a tangible result is itself a byproduct of misunderstanding the project of the humanities as being many separate domains; the inability to see the totality of such endeavors renders each less significant. Failing to see the transmission of a car as essential to the project of driving makes its workings seem indescribably unimportant, which is clearly not the case. This is the impetus for my concern about this seemingly simple misunderstanding.
    2. I believe strongly in education. Full stop, no qualifiers, at its core education is vital to the progress of human beings. Don’t confuse this with endorsing anything that can be “taught”: education comes from a community of truth seekers not ideologues spreading their particular flavor of dogmatic belief. Here, I’m looking at you anti-vaxxers, and I humbly apologize to any of Professor Metal’s many propagandists; clearly I mean other ideologues. I believe that a fundamental education in the S.T.E.M. subjects can become the foundation for a broader understanding of the world. My problem is with the attitude that education should be a zero sum game (a zero sum game is one where, as with chess pieces, in order for one side to gain the other must lose in equal proportion). We must develop strong educational programs in S.T.E.M., but not to the exclusion of the humanities. While the fundamental building blocks of understanding our world are indeed nested within these subjects they do not compose the whole of it because they deal with only the object and not the subject. This is where the humanities should fit into our picture of a complete education. To know our world, we must also know ourselves and our relationship to it. Without the subject in our subject-object relationship we can not know of the relationship to the object and vice versa. But why should we care beyond just a more complete picture of the world (which I would argue is reason enough but fails to address the “getting things done” concern)? I submit that the S.T.E.M. subjects are like a tool which has the power to shape the world. I would also submit that the humanities are the technique for using that tool. It is only in both having the tool and understanding how it might be used that we become capable of utilizing that tool to its full potential. In this we see that both are vital and that without both we can not exercise our will upon the world (the relationship between them being our understanding).

If we continue cutting humanities programs from our educational curriculum in favor of an ever increasing focus on S.T.E.M. education we risk becoming a society of technicians capable of executing the operations of progress but lacking the creative vision to pursue what lies beyond our current stage. We risk becoming a rudderless ship adrift on an ocean of de-contextualized events. While the humanities alone do not correct this, their addition to the educational landscape allows for the possibility, if not the inevitability, of our future generations having the capability to proceed where we have fallen into stagnation. I said earlier that education should not be a zero sum game but in order to escape this we need to make changes to how we educate our populace. Firstly we need to be willing to pay for education. There is no magic bullet that prevents the need to raise more money to properly fund more education. We must fund education at all levels, including graduate studies, if we want a world that has room for progress. This means reversing course and undoing the system of higher education that turns students into debtors, it means paying higher taxes even if you don’t personally have children who benefit, it means paying teachers at all levels a wage that respects the value they add, it means more teachers and smaller classes so students aren’t lost in the shuffle, it means funding early childhood education. It means longer school years and the expansion of lunch programs to make sure students are able to learn, it means spending on development for better materials and curriculum, and it means investing in protecting children from violence and abuse so that schools can be a safe place to focus on learning. And what I’m sure will be the most controversial of my proposals, it means that education dollars and resources are distributed evenly between urban and rural schools as well as across socioeconomic groups rather than being based on the tax collected in that specific area; for this we will require a centralized agency to oversee both funding and curriculum. I know some of you will disagree with this because of concerns over the specter of bureaucracy but I ask you this: Is what we have now working? I don’t think it is and while we can disagree amicably about that, it remains my opinion, barring significant evidence to the contrary, that vast systemic change is required to fix our convoluted and antiquated educational system.

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