Professional Learning

Humanities in the Twenty-First Century

The future will require critical thinking and a strong imagination.

July 20, 2011

Bill Smoot teaches English at the Castilleja School in Palo Alto, California. He is the author of Conversations with Great Teachers.


Two roads have diverged in our national debate about education. Should we educate students for the 21st-century job market (with an emphasis on STEM -- science, technology, engineering, and math), or does a broad liberal arts education, preparing students for all of life -- work included -- still make sense?

Why Study the Humanities?

The issue came alive for me recently when I watched President Obama's speech about the death of Osama Bin Laden. While I applauded the tone and substance of the President's speech, some of the subsequent blogging and crowd behavior gave me pause. There were cries of jubilation, pep-rally chanting, cursing, and expressions of glee that a man had been killed.

I thought of that scene from Homer's The Odyssey in which Odysseus, having just killed the suitors who dishonored his home, disrespected his wife, and plotted to kill his son, warns the old nurse Eurykleia to rejoice only inwardly. "It is unholy to gloat over the bodies of the dead," he says.  "These men the doom of the gods has brought low, and their own indecent acts."

And so it was with Bin Laden. He reaped what he sowed, and whether we believe the source of moral law to be man or God, Bin Laden violated it. In my opinion, his killing was a righteous duty. But however inwardly glad we might feel, the better part of ourselves is called to solemnity in our outward behavior. In Obama's idiom of a few days later, there is no need "to spike the football."

I have been teaching The Odyssey and other seminal works of the humanities to high school students for over thirty years. This year I asked students to write an essay on what relevance, if any, the story of Odysseus had for ninth-grade girls in Silicon Valley (their demographic) in the 21st century. One student wrote -- with that wise simplicity sometimes reserved for the beginner -- that the work gave her "advice for life."

"Advice for life." That phrase captures the value of the humanities in education. The lessons of the humanities are many and varied, and they do not comprise a unified worldview. There is no guarantee that they make us more moral. But they do speak to us, and they offer to our imaginations situations we have not yet -- and may never -- experience, the better to understand when -- and if -- we find ourselves confronting the choices faced by Odysseus, Antigone, or Hamlet.

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, 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.

Humanities in the 21st Century

What can the humanities offer students in the 21st century? Merely the possibility of teaching them 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 humanities teach us habits of critical thought and the historical perspective necessary for citizenship in a democracy. And they help us to think about how to use technology to make the world a better home for humanity.

This is not meant as a rallying cry for educational Luddites or to deepen the divide between the world of science and technology on the one hand and the humanities on the other. But it is meant as a reminder that the classics, from the ancient to the contemporary, became so because they endured, and they endured because their greatness in form and content transcends their time and place and thus speaks to everyone. The humanities speak to us, but the responsibility to listen is ours, and it is our responsibility to lead students into such listening.

The two roads -- STEM subjects and the humanities--should merge in education for the 21st century.

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