Where are the Humanities in our Schools?

Where are the Humanities in our Schools?

It is an honor to be a part of this celebration of Ed Wilson’s life as a teacher, a university provost, and an advocate for the humanities, both within the university and outside it. Tonight’s Caldwell medal carries on the classical tradition of striking and bestowing a medallion to confer honor, a tradition which has been responsible for some of the most beautiful art produced in the Western World.  Historically, medals can honor many different things: an individual (often in splendid profile) an art (with symbolic iconography) or an institution (often with an architectural image).  A medal is solid as well as beautiful; it testifies to the permanence of the achievement it honors, and to the eminence of both the person it commemorates and the person to whom it is awarded.  On this occasion, as the Caldwell medal—named after its first recipient, the late Dr. John Tyler Caldwell, the chancellor of North Carolina State University and a founding member of the North Carolina Humanities Council, is awarded to Ed Wilson, we might recall, in honoring him, the twelfth chapter of the Book of Daniel: “But they that are learned, shall shine as the brightness of the firmament: and they that instruct many to justice, [shall shine] as stars for all eternity.” [Daniel 12:3 RHE ;Douay-Rheims]

I was asked to say something tonight about the Humanities.  Rather than respond to the current discouraging disregard of the humanities in both public and governmental circles, I thought I would draw up a Utopian scheme for education in the humanities in American schools.  The vague and imperfect notion of “The Humanities” is in part administrative (“studies that are neither sciences nor social sciences”), in part historical (“studies of the ancients”), in part moral (“elements of a liberal education”), in part social (“a luxury for an êlite”).  These cloudy definitions have not persisted very well, nor have they ever played a role in elementary and secondary instruction in our country.

Most countries want students to know about their own national achievements:  strangely, America is silent, in its elementary and high schools, public and private alike, about its own cultural glories.  As I’ve said elsewhere, American students graduate from secondary school knowing the names of hardly any American authors and, of those authors, hardly any works; they rarely can name even one American painter or architect; they know of no American philosopher, no American composer.  The vacuum in the schools abandons our children to contemporary pop culture. We have deprived students of their own cultural heritage:  we are not giving them much of anything to be proud about.

When America, with an understandable Whitmanian self-assertion, dropped classical and European languages and humanistic works from secondary school instruction, it lost the languages, poems, novels, and philosophical works on which our own earlier American authors drew without replacing them with strong works produced in the United States themselves.  The vacuum was complete.  And the cultural vacuum has recently revealed itself in the proposal that students should read, for the most part, factual and informational prose rather than works of art.  There have been efforts, by E.D.Hirsch and others, to create a viable cultural curriculum, but it seems more informational than aesthetic. Our schools have not adopted any broad instruction in American culture.

The humanities are usually considered material for college education.  But students enrolling in college tend to pursue what they already know—and there is, in the schools, no preparation for the study of the humanities as they are commonly conceived.  We think of the humanities as studies reacting to philosophical and religious texts, doing critical and scholarly investigation of the arts (in musicology, literary criticism, art history, theater studies).  There are no SAT subject tests of these pursuits.  And we cannot expect these subjects as such to enter the primary and secondary school curriculum, yet there are no more delightful and provocative areas of study.

At present the humanities are a blank space in our younger students’ intellectual maps:  how can we change that ignorance so that students will come to their post-secondary studies eager for more of what they have already found arresting, unsettling, and beautiful?

The National Humanities Center took a step in the right direction by creating “toolboxes” for use in secondary schools:  these were supposed to provide integrated study of history, the history of ideas, literature, and art. I had great hopes for the tool boxes, but when I viewed several of them I was disappointed.  Literature and art were brought forward chiefly in utilitarian and instrumental ways, as illustration of some historical person or affair or epoch.  History was the subject into which the humanities were to be fitted, era by era.

What emerged was not an integrated interdisciplinary survey of the arts and humanities of America. The portraits and photographs in the tool boxes were chiefly those of political figures--Washington, Lincoln, or of notable authors—Whitman, Douglass, with brief summaries of their historical importance.  Where was the rest of the great American portrait tradition:  Eakins’ portraits of women, of boys at a swimming hole, of a cello player? What conventional history didn’t notice, the tool-boxes ignored. Where were our American still lifes?  Where were our nineteenth-century landscapes of sunsets and icebergs and hayfields?  In their place were newspaper illustrations of the Civil War and other such topical material.  Historically relevant, yes, but not peaks of American representational art.  And literature, too, was chosen for its historical allusiveness; Whitman, yes, but for his Civil War poetry more than for his sensual poems.  Since Dickinson illustrates almost nothing historical, she fades into relative insignificance.  It was several years ago that I saw some of the toolboxes, and the production of them subsequently ceased in favor of other methods for the instruction of teachers.  How, then, can our elementary and high-school students now acquire an unprejudiced exposure to the history of ideas or the history of the arts of America?

I want art and literature to be given the same independent interest as history.  What would the narrative of American art look like as it went from Copley’s shark to Whistler’s nocturnes?  What would the narrative of American literature look like if it ascribed an importance to Emily Dickinson and Wallace Stevens comparable to that ascribed to Thoreau and Harriet Beecher Stowe?  A different representation of America would arise from such humanist “toolboxes”--a national story not dominated by history, but rather one reflecting the wider view of what the humanities are.

Philosophy—long considered the central study among the humanities—is largely missing from our secondary education.  Emerson is present, but no William James, nor the ideas of Marx and Freud, which have been as influential on American historiography as on the other staples of the humanities, from the study of religion to literary criticism to choreography.  We need more large-minded curricula for our secondary schools, giving equal eminence to historical events, the history of the arts, and the leading intellectual (not merely political) ideas of successive  American eras.

Since the humanities as they are studied in college are absent as subject matter or test-matter in our educational systems, the cultural silence in our schools needs to be countered by some means.  I would like to see, in every school, on every corridor, in the gym, in the cafeteria, anywhere, reproductions of American painting, sculpture, architecture, photography, dance.  For each image there would be a simple caption:  “Night Hawks by Edward Hopper.”  It wouldn’t cost very much to hang laminated copies all through the schools, tailored in part by region. The superb volumes of The Black in Western Art, edited by Henry Louis Gates, are a rich source for the depiction of blacks in American art, and the Oxford History of Native North American Art offers reproductions of arts in many different media.

The other cultural manifestation in the schools, in my pedagogical Utopia, would be musical.  American music, from Sousa to jazz, would be there, as would Stephen Foster and spirituals and Woodie Guthrie.  Somewhere in the school day there would be a half-hour of music—choral singing for the first period, perhaps. The reproductions on the walls, the half-hour of music, would not be “taught” at all;  my Utopian school would merely create an environment where there was always some impressive American art to look at wherever the eye would rest, always some American music to be listened to in a lunchroom or an assembly.  American film loops could run in the school library, just so students could realize that American film has a long experimental history; they could laugh at Buster Keaton or watch a part of a Balanchine ballet.  In short, our children would no longer be deprived of a sense of pride in American cultural monuments.  My utopian school would give them humanistic pleasure when they looked at a wall, sang a half-hour of choral music, or watched a loop of Charlie Chaplin.

Since American school teachers are themselves not trained in philosophy, art or art-history, in choreography or musicology, my utopian school would simply present, not teach, American painting, sculpture, music, film.  In my utopian high school, there would be humanistic electives, some of them scholarly (literature, the history of religion), some of them practical (drawing, music).  There are already public school districts where every student learns to play two musical instruments:  they are already utopian places.

My schools would teach an articulated curriculum:  there is no rhyme or reason, for instance, in the way a poetry “unit” is thrust into the middle of a school year, with poetry never seen in the months before or after.  Since there is, as we know, no real learning except a learning in some depth, poetry “units,” as they now exist, are depressingly superficial.   To be presented with one poem by Dickinson, one poem by a negligible contemporary poet, and one poem by a foreign poet in translation teaches a student very little about poetry (or about the American language as it is renewed in poetry).  To see instead, running through the year, a group of poems by Dickinson or Robert Hayden with some drafts illuminating their stages of composition would be a true poetry “unit.” Such an articulation enables intellectual authority in students:  by April, they can say of Dickinson, “In the landscape poems, she is hardly ever doing something active,” or “In the early love poems, she is much more starry-eyed,” or “The later poetry is more difficult,” and so on.  Students would be speaking of what they know, and they would gain intellectual confidence from that accumulation of evidence.  Their instruction in science is sequential, coherent, progressive, and intellectually involving:  their scattered instruction in literature is not.

With some notable exceptions, the humanities derive from the arts.  (As a wit said, “When you do them, they’re the arts: when you study them, they’re the humanities.”)  The art of literature gives rise to literary criticism, literary history, literary theory, comparative literature, linguistics; the instant pleasure of music generates musicology, music history, music theory; the graphic and plastic arts generate art history, iconography, historical themes and contexts.  Missing from my list are philosophy and the history of religion. The nature of the American public elementary and secondary schools, controlled by local and community authorities, probably precludes the teaching of those humanistic studies.   They will have to be taken up later by students lucky enough to find themselves in college.

To center humanistic study in the schools on American culture—because to teach the European heritage seems politically impossible—is of course sad:  our children deserve the world-heritage of the humanities.  Perhaps there could be another set of teaching materials directed to non-Western art and literature, and on the walls there could be pictures of a mosque and a temple as well as a cathedral.

Pride in one’s own culture, past and present, is a powerful motivation to know it better.  I want to see students coming into college already proud of Winslow Homer and Mary Cassatt, loving the repertoire of spirituals and of musical comedy, should be interested in Frank Lloyd Wright and David Smith, longing for more Willa Cather and more Eliot.  And once they have found pleasure in their American composers and sculptors and poets, they will be aware that huge areas of such pleasure exist in other countries, other centuries.  Pleasure is the most reliable avenue into the humanities for young people; and all the arts promise pleasures.

Can anything practical be done to bring about such a utopia in the schools?  Perhaps the National Humanities Center could create and distribute supplementary “toolboxes” of American art and American literature, forms of instruction undistorted by subordination to political or historical imperatives.  I wish the toolboxes would emphasize the biography of authors less and the work of making art more.  I wish the toolboxes would feature video-clips of living sculptors or writers or film-makers talking about their arts, and would present as well a music critic or a historian of ballet who could say a few words about current critical or scholarly pursuits in their field. American culture should seem an ongoing and living expression, supported by both makers and audiences.  As Whitman declared, “To have great poets, there must be great audiences too.”

The humanities take a long time to affect human thought and human personality, and an even longer time to affect national and international culture.  Short-term results are inherently impossible in the humanities; the humanities are not a technology or a method.  Just as a child soaks up the nature of the surrounding region—and becomes, almost insensibly, over slow years, a “Californian” or a “New Englander”—so attention to the arts and the studies of the arts makes the resulting person different in sensibility from one brought up without such an environment.  The arts and humanities are pervasive influences, but subtle ones.  Evidence for immediate “public impact,” so affrontingly demanded now by funding bodies, is simply not available as a defense of the humanities.  But just as the long-term “public impact” of basic science is undeniable, so is the long-term public impact of critical and scholarly work on Mark Twain or William Faulkner, revealing how their writings combine—with all the other creations of art since our founding--to give us our lasting ideas of our American selves.

Humanistic studies broker art, thought, and pleasure to the larger public.  As earlier intellectual systems yield to later ones, each large reframing of thought—scientific as well as philosophical and artistic—requires a new formulation of what we find valuable in works of culture.  “The scholastic philosophy of the wilderness”—one of Marianne Moore’s witty remarks on American culture—merely murmurs that Thomas Aquinas might not be the best guide for Lewis and Clark.  Intellectual upheavals—from Nietzsche to Marx to Freud to Martin Luther King—recreate all humanistic study.  It is often said that in the humanities we study what makes us human.  That seems to me an exaggeration:  the sciences also make us human, as do the social sciences and the arts.  But the humanities are the study of human subjectivity, the study of human expressiveness and its fabrications in the arts, the study of consciousness bent on self-understanding.  These are difficult areas of study to defend these days, because they do not admit of either progression or demonstration.  But we know we no longer respond as a nineteenth-century citizen might have done:  the larger humanistic culture, through its seismic intellectual and artistic motions, slowly but profoundly, changes us in ways that can be measured only by a long look back.

It is because the ideas and ideals of the humanities have been dropped from primary and secondary schooling that Americans have almost no sense of what the humanities offer. The current waning of public support is understandable, since most Americans have never experienced the pleasures of the humanities, year after year, from kindergarten through high school.  We cannot expect people to support what they hardly know.  So we need more—and more adequate—cultural materials for all levels of pupils, from the very young to students approaching graduation, from the more naive to the more sophisticated.  The Humanities Center toolboxes were attractive in themselves:  they did many things that a teacher cannot, presenting original documents and eye-pleasing graphics and illustrations, and they were well articulated in their historical efforts. If American arts and the studies associated with them could be offered in independent toolboxes, we might begin to educate our teachers and our children to become, in the long run, supporters of what they have already deeply enjoyed.

In our universities, exemplary figures such as Ed Wilson emerge, and write, and teach, and lead; they make others want to follow in their footsteps.  We badly need comparable intellectual leaders in our schools, where earnestness is always present but both intellectuality and training in the humanities are still lacking.  And we must begin a close mutual effort by schools and universities to create, in the schools, young humanists-in-the-making.  When our American culture, so rich and rewarding, receives its due in every school, in every grade, our students will at last be able to feel an authentic pride in their own country’s creations.


A transcript of Helen Vendler's "Where are the Humanities in our Schools?" address at the John Tyler Caldwell Award Ceremony for the Humanities held at Wake Forest University on October 30, 2014.