The English Teacher / The Social Network

Something — I don’t know — Troubling, This Way Comes

For parents, for educators, for the learner in us all:

 

I am not writing to spark a political debate, nor even a purely ‘educational’ one, though political and educational ideologies help inform our positions. I write, because I read something earlier that keeps poking at me, and I am hungry for a conversation about it; meanwhile, Jack (my dog) is taking a nap, and even when he’s not snoozing he’s more of a listener than a contributor. Thus, I turn to this forum, only read by some — a submission into something more than a void, but less than I’d prefer.
I’ve been an English (such a broad spectrum of instructional responsibilities, really) teacher for over half my life — not by years in the classroom, merely, but by degree, devotion, and desire. I found my place in studying the ‘humanities’ — literature, language, history, philosophy, music, art — in a nutshell, the culture of ‘us,’ the human race. Invariably, I’ve been enriched. I’ve been sometimes enraged, but inevitably and always I’ve been engulfed by ideas, by questions, by pursuit. To what end? To understand more than I presently do. To meet others — sometimes just where they are(or were) and for my own enlightenment. To meet still others, in an effort to draw them closer to where I stand. I value these studies(such an understatement), and realize, every day, that my rich life is richer still for them.
I’ve been married to an engineer for over half my life. He solves problems, thinks linearly and analytically, understands how things ‘work.’ THINGS. This is not to say that my husband lacks awareness or understanding of culture, of humanity, of ideas. He possesses those awarenesses, often more clear-headedly than I do. But he delights in fixing problems. He prefers to make firm foundations, to erect supports, to move from point A to point B with cost-effective efficiency. He manages projects. He gets things done. He understands and enjoys physics, for cryin’ out loud! He works (and thinks) far differently than I do. I value his abilities(another understatement), and tell him nearly every day that I can’t live without him. While this is not quite literally true, the figurative sentiment is more accurate than even I rightly comprehend.
STEM — the ‘wave’ of our successful future. President Barack Obama declares it an essential priority, saying,
One of the things that I’ve been focused on as President is how we create an all-hands-on-deck approach to science, technology, engineering, and math… We need to make this a priority to train an army of new teachers in these subject areas, and to make sure that all of us as a country are lifting up these subjects for the respect that they deserve.” (Educate to Innovate)

 Humanities studies — the essence of our nature. Brown University President Christina H Paxson (an economist, by the way) argued  the “Economic Case for Saving the Humanities” in 2013, concluding,

“Let’s educate all of our students in every discipline to use the best humanistic tools we have acquired over a millennium of university teaching—to engage in a civilized discourse about all of the great issues of our time. A grounding in the humanities will sharpen our answers to the toughest questions we are facing.”

Since when did ‘science and math, engineering and technology not feature prominently in ‘the academy’? Pythagorus. Plato. da Vinci. Newton. (I could — probably should — go much further back. I thought about the pyramids at Giza. Who designed them? I thought about the far eastern world, and realized I know so little as to be foolish to try to name a someone… more to learn!! )
Since when did the study of us not matter? Solomon? Sophocles? Shakespeare?
Today, STEM includes ‘technology’ on a scale that I cannot fathom. In the 1960s, American technology sent men to the moon and brought them back with slide rules, which I also cannot comprehend (and yes, I know that a room-sized computer also featured in the 70s NASA years).  My husband would look at the ‘progress’ of the age — the STEM progress — and cheer. I would look at the more human side of the equation, and marvel at the creativity, resilience and drive of the human race. Behind every engineering fete a story lurks. You know it does.
Some of you teach children who romp through stories and math problems and rudimentary skills with the same enthusiasm that they romp on the playground at recess. Some of you teach older children who attempt to balance academics, athletics and other after-academics activities so that they can amass enough distinctions and numeric values that universities and colleges will not only admit them, but offer to foot the bill for the ever-rising price of the ‘college degree.’ Some of you teach young adults who view undergraduate degrees as pragmatic ends to financial means. All of us encounter students from a wide spectrum of familial and cultural realities. What MUST they learn? Ah, the crux of the matter…
Today, I read a brief blurb about a gubernatorial candidate (Greg Abbott) running for office in Texas. This commonchapters post is not about that one man’s political agenda, nor is it an invitation to wax political about Texas in particular, or conservatives and liberals in general. I readily acknowledge that the guy is a conservative, and his aim might be to whack liberals where they stand. My niggling unsettledness is not about his Republicanism. It’s what he seems to think concerning higher education. Here’s a bit of summary about Abbott’s position regarding STEM (and the humanities if I’m reading rightly):
[Abbott is] also methodical in the way he hopes to outflank liberalism among college faculties: He said if students gravitate toward what’s practical and productive, the ideological problems will become less severe. He said students will be in position to run a fast lap of their educational race if, early on, they learn the basics of what’s needed to major in STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering, math. Then they’ll be able to make a six-figure decision, choosing $100,000 in annual income or $100,000 of debt and waiting on tables” (Marvin Olasky)
What is the value of studying us,the great long train of humanity? What is the worth of knowing our past, exploring our complexities, considering possibilities? What we have striven for and what we strive for still — relational creatures, all — we seek to know and be known. We want to know that we have meaning and purpose. Is that ‘practical and productive’??? Emphatically, and in all caps because I’m yelling — YES.
What are we doing? Where are we headed? Flying into the stars, diving to the bottom of the seas, curing diseases, designing sophisticated communication systems. ‘Educate to innovate.’ Okay. I can get on board. I like getting on a plane and flying to see the world. I like being healthy. I applaud eradicating hunger, polio, AIDS, cancer. I like good roads, aesthetically pleasing architecture and the structural design that keeps buildings standing. I love skyping with my far away kids. Practical? Productive? Again, yes.
 Science, technology, engineering and math. Well, human beings — who speak multiple languages, compose and play music, write arguments and poetry and story, sculpt, paint, study the world its people and its origins, make history — are always the innovators. We don’t see kangaroos solving the quadratic equation or pondering morality after all.
We, who live presently, look to the future. We wonder what might come next. Will it be war? Yes. Will it be new discoveries? Yes. Will it be gut-wrenching, heart-warming, cold-blooded? Yes. Will it be valuable? Will it last? Will it be ‘progress‘? I return to my favorite definition of the concept, presented by CS Lewis in the midst of the second world war:
“Progress means not just changing, but changing for the better.” (Book I Ch 2 Mere Christianity)
and

“We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.” (Book I Ch 5 Mere Christianity)

 

Have we taken a ‘wrong turning’? Many a time. Is the expensive emphasis on STEM a wrong turning? How could we possibly say ‘yes’? I write and post these thoughts quickly (compared to pen & paper and a search for a publisher) and with ease. Thanks Apple. Thanks WordPress. Thanks, engineers and technologists.  But note: I WRITE, so that others might READ. I’m not a kangaroo, after all.

I study literature, matters of faith and religion, philosophy, apologetics. I listen to music, watch movies, go to art museums. I listen to varied arguments. I laugh and cry and worry and hope.

I write this because there ought to be more to a person’s ‘education’ than to become a wage earner or contributor to the ‘machine.’ Lest you think I wax existential, fear not. I sort of understand the nihilistic, absurdist notions of the existentialist philosophy, but that’s because I read. 🙂  I write this because learning — all the way from math facts to Where the Red Fern Grows to astro-physics and beyond — promotes human flourishing. Human flourishing means that we’re making progress. ‘Progress means not merely changing, but changing for the better.’ We can’t be ‘better,’ if we eliminate the study of the humanities from our shared humanity.

 

I’m troubled that anyone would think otherwise.

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2 thoughts on “Something — I don’t know — Troubling, This Way Comes

  1. I’ve been meaning to read this for weeks, Becky. Thanks for writing such a thoughtful, reflective post, one that poses questions and tries not to get into two-sided controversy. I too love what STEM contributes to our lives and our world, but without the humanities, STEM is just as dangerous as anything else human beings get their hands on. We have to study ourselves, our history, our values, our creative and destructive potential. Because humans are very dangerous animals.

    • Ahhh… Steve. Thanks for reading! I rather abhor the polarizing nature of ‘either/or’ (STEM or Humanities) when ‘both/and'(STEM AND HUMANITIES!!) can and should exist in our classrooms, our communities, our nation, our world…

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