A few weeks ago I was at a gathering and noticed a woman in the crowd with a campaign button declaring she was running for school board, so I asked her for her thoughts about being on the school board.
She launched into an explanation of how she intended to save money and keep property taxes low. I listened and then said, “That’s great, but what I really want the school board to do is make sure we teach the students to think.”
I fear that one of the chief reasons we have a gridlocked, hyperpartisan government, and one of the chief reasons voters are misled by demagogues (both left and right), is that we are forgetting how to teach ourselves and students to think and critically evaluate arguments.
Much has been made in the educational community of the acronyms STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math). I do not know where to fit it cleverly, but let not the need for mere cleverness get in the way of necessity. To these acronyms I would like to add the letter “H” for humanities.
What does it profit us if we can build the tallest buildings, the fastest computers and cure every disease if we cannot live together as a civilized society; if we cannot understand what makes us human and how we relate to one another and the world around us?
The humanities allow us to explore the world from a myriad of perspectives, learning from the ideas reflected from individual experience, cultural values and shared history.
How can we teach students to think? We begin by making sure they are exposed to those who provoke thought and were or are successful in communicating their ideas.
Do that, and our students will one day themselves provoke thought, both in themselves and in others.
Admittedly, it is a personal bias of mine, but much is to be learned about human nature and the way the world works from studying the characters created by Shakespeare.
From Macbeth and Richard III we understand that absolute power corrupts. From Othello we understand the corrosive power of jealousy and possessiveness as well as the dangers of treachery.
From Benedick and Beatrice we learn the folly of a willful stance, taking ourselves too seriously; and from Romeo and Juliet, the tragic effects of a long nursed feud.
But we need not rely on 450-year-old playwrights to teach us to think. Consider the lessons in leadership that can be gained by studying the debates over the great issues and challenges our country has faced – the Civil Rights Movement; the Great Depression; the Americans With Disabilities Act; the Transcontinental Railroad. Consider the cultural understanding springing from the study of languages and cultural traditions.
In order to develop leaders, we need an emerging generation that can evaluate policies and argument; a generation that can distinguish between demagoguery and sound judgment, and between the trendy and the visionary.
To accomplish that we need to provoke thought, and for that we need the humanities. Use a shoehorn if you must, but find room.