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Irrigating the Desert: Why We Need Humanities More Today than Ever Before

March 17, 2021 by Admin

by Susan Isaac, Middle and Upper School Assistant Principal and Spiritual Life Director

Recess and Rhetoric“So ‘humanities’…is that just a fancy way of saying you teach English and history?” 

This is a frequent question I have received over my career. In a way, I suppose you could say yes—after all, English and history are the two subjects supplanted by humanities departments. The real answer, however, is a resounding “No!”

“Humanities” is not merely  a pretentious title, nor is it a simplification for the sake of convenience—it is its own pedagogical philosophy that has lost its popularity but has not lost its relevance. In fact, one might argue that the American education system needs the humanities more today than ever before. Why? Glad you asked. 

Humanities fights false feelings of clarity 

I find it generally true that we—as rational, thinking creatures—love to have clarity. Notice I said clarity and not logic; it is often more important to us that things make sense empirically rather than that they make sense logically. While we have the capacity to dance in the gray areas of life, we often attempt to tie ourselves down to more concrete images and concepts.

In our efforts to understand why things are the way they are, we like to make categories to provide seeming clarity: we like our good guys and our bad guys, our victories and our defeats, our waxing and our waning. It helps us feel a sense of certainty about our pasts and our futures. 

Susan Isaac

Susan Isaac makes time for informal discussion with students outside the classroom. (Ashley Maddox photo, 2019)

In reality, the past, present, and future of humanity is much more complex than this sort of stark (though soothing) classification allows.

Take, for example, the study of history as it is often presented in schools today: a series of dates, names, events, details—all meant to teach us something about where we’ve been, instilling both a sense of pride and a sense of caution into our days. But if my eighth-grade history teacher is right and “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it,” then shouldn’t all this knowledge of our past help us transcend to new levels of peace and prosperity?

Students ardently study ancient wars, territory wars, civil wars—and, yet, we still find ourselves engaging in modern-day wars. Words like “plague” seem archaic, biblical even, and yet here we are, living through one that has touched the entire world. We see the rise and fall of kingdoms over the centuries, yet each country still pursues power in the present day. 

Providence School Egypt Study

Sixth-grade students study the history, literature, geography, and culture of Egypt. (Elaine Rottman photo, 2020)

It is true that, on the whole, there have been advances in society that created previously unknown levels of wealth, health, and security—but does it seem like those of us living through this age of prosperity feel the release of the burdens of our ancestors? Has being less agrarian and more suburban rid us of our anxieties as the seasons change? Does having Trader Joe’s up the street and virtual doctor’s appointments available 24/7 mean society is full of leisure, joy, and peace? 

Again—a resounding “no” seems to be the answer here. With the historical facts all lined up, we should be singing in the proverbial rain. We’re doing “better.” We’ve learned so many lessons. We’ve improved in so many ways. So why aren’t we happy? 

Enter humanities. 

Humanities teaches that knowledge is not the answer

The truth is that knowledge does not change our hearts, though we have advanced greatly in our knowledge of science, economy, government, and human development.

When we study humanities, we look at fact-oriented history, but we also look at the values of the time, the stories and music and paintings that came out of that history, and we acknowledge that the culture built around those major events helps us understand those events (and the people who lived through them) so much better. It also helps us see that the deep concerns with which our predecessors wrestled are not that different from the questions that we ask ourselves today.

Providence humanities texts

A Providence School student reads all of these books, plus some, over the four years of Upper School. (Elaine Rottman photo, 2020)

We read The Crucible not just because it is a compelling story, but because it shows us that the McCarthyism of the 1950s gave author Arthur Miller an eerie echo of the Salem Witch Trials of the 1600s that can be likened to our modern tendency toward various conspiracy theories.

We discuss William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, a novel about British boys stranded on a desert island, while also discussing the American Revolution in order to better understand our deep yet often disagreed-upon desire for “good” in our societies, both what that good looks like and how to achieve it.

The study of humanities pushes us to examine the bigger questions of life, forcing us to reconcile the fact that no amount of categorizing or classification will lead us to the intellectual, spiritual, or physical nirvana we so desperately seek. 

Humanities points toward Truth 

C. S. Lewis has a well-known musing on education, wherein he famously compares the task of teaching not to cutting down trees in a jungle (rooting out false concepts), but to bringing water to irrigate deserts (recognizing life-giving truth).

This gets to the very heart of humanities: a pragmatic, cutting-down-trees-in-jungle approach to education may make things more simple, and getting down to the deconstructed bones leaves you with a much clearer picture—but at what cost? What are you left looking at once the trees have all been hacked away?

Humanities, on the other hand, seeks to bring vibrancy to the climate of learning, allowing life-giving and color-enhancing streams of understanding to shade and brighten the variegated educational landscape.

Yes, the more growth that you have, the more tangled the vines and branches get—but who wouldn’t choose that sort of verdant oasis over a barren, bleak forest? 

Why we teach humanities

That, in a not-so-small nutshell, is why we teach humanities. By not segregating the disciplines of history and literature, we allow our critical thinking skills to dance in a whole glorious garden of what people saw and felt and thought and created during the ups and downs of human history.

By looking at both the facts and the culture, we acknowledge the paradoxical truth that while we are in some ways better off today, we really aren’t wholly better.

When we truly look at the human experience as a whole and not as mere knowledge to attain for the sake of self-improvement, we stand at the edge of the jungle, deeply aware of our need to be in the presence of the One who is simultaneously the architect and the gardener and the protector and the artist of the rich (but also terrifying) landscape looming in front of us.

The human heart still struggles to find what is good, beautiful, and true in a fallen world; praise the Lord that studying the complexity of human art and history has the intimidating but ultimately joyful effect of bringing us to an awareness of our ever-present need of a Savior. 


Susan Isaac is assistant principal and spiritual life director for Providence’s Middle and Upper Schools, teaches a Bible course at the school, and teaches an English course at Westmont College. She joined the Providence faculty in 2017 after teaching high school English at Oaks Christian School for eight years.

READ MORE:

A Blueprint for a Distinctly Christian Education by Soo Chang (2020)

The Abolition of Man: Reflections on education with special reference to the teaching of English in the upper forms of schools by C. S. Lewis (1943)

LEARN MORE:

For more information on humanities-based, distinctly Christian education at Providence School, contact Admissions Director Tawny Kilpper at tkilpper@providencesb.org

 

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