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Monday, April 28, 2014

the NY Times and Nick Kristof are hysterical about the humanities again, but this time the argument is absurd

I must say I am getting used to reading ridiculous columns about education on the NY TImes op-ed page, but yesterday Kristof’s took the cake. He made up a paragraph to test reader’s knowledge of the Bible, that was intentionally full of nonsense. It started like this:

Noah of Arc and his wife, Joan, build a boat to survive a great flood. Moses climbs Mount Cyanide and receives 10 enumerated commandments;

He then asserts that most Americans wouldn’t be able to spot the errors he deliberately made, which might well be true. And then he says:

All this goes to the larger question of the relevance of the humanities. Literature, philosophy and the arts have come to be seen as effete and irrelevant, but if we want to understand the world around us and think deeply about it, it helps to have exposure to Shakespeare and Kant, Mozart and Confucius — and, yes, Jesus, Moses and the Prophet Muhammad.

So because Americans are generally ignorant and think Joan of Arc was married to Noah we should teach them Kant, Mozart, and Shakespeare. Wow!

First I’d like to point out to Mr. Kristof that we do teach Shakespeare, and most Americans get a lot of information about Jesus. Many of the Americans who would not spot the errors Kristof made have indeed learned about Mozart.  

And that is the point. All that teaching didn’t work to do what Kristof imagines school does. Students don’t remember what they are taught for the most part.  Yes, the more intellectual students remember some of what they learn, but the more intellectual students are not confused about Joan of Arc. If the people who have trouble with Mr Kristof’s paragraph were taught to think more clearly, it might help. But that is not the point.

The issue here hasn’t changed for years. “Americans don’t know where the Ukraine is and if we only told them more about the Ukraine we would all be better off.” This is a tragedy but is not the concern about what Americans know that is the tragedy and the real tragedy will not be fixed by more humanities study.

The real tragedy is that most students find school so unappealing that they just work to pass the course and immediately forget everything they learned. The second tragedy is that even if they remember what they learned (how to balance a chemical equation: what Hamlet said about Yorick, or what Beethoven’s Fifth sounded like, it would make no difference. This information does not make them better thinkers, more capable of earning a living,  more capable of making well thought out voting decisions, or more capable of having better and more meaningful relationships with other people.

Having more of the Great Books crammed down one’s throat just makes one resentful of the cramming. Not everyone wants to be an intellectual or is likely to be an intellectual, something that curriculum designers tend to ignore.

I am glad Kristof wants to learn about all the religions in world. He should do that.   But the four he refers to are just four of many. Why not learn about every religion? 

If a student likes Shakespeare let him read (or better yet see) a play or two. We simply have to stop this idea that we must decide what everyone needs to know and then ram it down their throats. Students have been resisting that ramming for as long as there have been schools, which is exactly why Kristof is correct in assuming grown up don’t know much.

School has to change radically, but the Times keeps wanting more of the same. The subjects we teach were decided in the Middle Ages. A lot has happened since then. I don’t notice Kristof demanding more computer science, or more psychology, or more biotech. Those subjects help people think too you know. He promotes the humanities because that is what he knows I assume. There is nothing wrong about learning from the humanities, but the argument for it would have to be stronger than that made in Kristof’s column. 

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