George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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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Clyde M's picture

I, too, was inwardly glad the man was dead (not that there aren't other monsters out there, but it was a relief to know my daughter would grow up in a world devoid of that one), but I never reveled in it and found myself extremely disgusted by the behavior, comments, and celebrations of those who were. It struck me as perverse to be so happy a man, ANY man, had been killed.

But I never thought that maybe my background in English lit may have contributed to my preferred way to handle the situation--an inward relief, an outward grim nod of approval at a thing that had to be done even if distasteful and then moving on.

Keith's picture

Thank you Bill. I really appreciated your blogpost. I am currently working on my Ph.D. In Digital Humanities. My focus is on Walter Ong's Secondary Orality which speaks to what you are speaking to here.

I think what you are saying is right on. Technology and education, arts an sciences, orality and new media need to merge or we will all pay a cost. I am reminded of Ben Franklin's advice to the Constitutional Convention, "We must all hang together or we will most assuredly all hang separately."

Lynette Quintana's picture

President Obama's encouragement of the STEM program is good, but quite possibly will not be as successful without intertwining it with humanity courses. One cannot completely succeed without reading and writing. In order for success in technology and science, one must be able to visualize and interpret images. It is humanity courses such as reading, writing, literature, art, and history that teach these types of skills. Employers are not only looking for the math and science majors, but are seeking graduates who possess a broader skill set. They want to hire employees who can think creatively. Overall, humanity majors are able to enter a wide variety of jobs, including sales, business, management, and even the health industry. All of these skills need to be integrated in our children from a very young age. Music, foreign language, art, and technology, are just a few humanity classes that shouldn't be left out of their daily curriculum. The humanity classes remain an important part of the educational system because they teach children how to understand each other through language history and culture, they teach children how to think creatively, and they help to prepare children for their future in the business world.

Nicol R. Howard, PhD's picture
Nicol R. Howard, PhD
Educator, Researcher, and Tech Enthusiast

I recall a colleague once asking how the arts entered the STEM equation (STEAM), but not Language Arts or Humanities. Another colleague responded saying they would actually prefer to do away with the letters altogether and would much rather go with interdisciplinarity. Seems as though their conversation was headed in the right direction - down converging roads to meet in an effort to educate our 21st century learners. Thank you for your reminder, Bill, that we should focus on offering students the best even if it means merging in education.

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