the humanities as civic education

Heads bent over copies of the same text, young people discuss how the author presents matters of high moral import. Their teacher is a facilitator who asks thoughtful questions and demonstrates reading with attention and care.

This is how I was introduced to college, through the Directed Studies “great books” program at Yale in the 1980s. Similar methods persist and are being revived at institutions like Stanford, which has recently enacted a Civic, Liberal, and Global Education requirement.

The approach dates back at least to 14th-century Italy, when Cicero’s phrase studia humanitatis became the name for a curriculum and pedagogy designed mainly for future political leaders. We might render his phrase (from Pro Archia 2:3) as the “studies appropriate for making people humane or urbane.” Gradually, a humanista became the word for a tutor–often a layman–who helped gentlemen read literature, history, and moral philosophy in order to become eloquent and virtuous. This is the origin of the “humanities,” a word that has been closely associated with notions of civic leadership and civic virtue.

I appreciate this humanistic style of civic education and would support using it more widely. By the way, there is no good reason to restrict the assigned texts to a portion of the world labeled “The West” or to label the curriculum “Western Civilization” (using a phrase that’s not very old). Texts can come from anywhere, although it makes sense to choose traditions or dialogues that extend across time. For example: from the Bhagavad Gita and the Gospels to Thoreau, Tolstoy and Gandhi. Or from the Republic to al-Farabi to Utopia to Rousseau to the Communist Manifesto to the Ayatollah Khomeini.

However, this version of humanistic civic education conflicts with several other plausible educational theories.

One rival idea is that the humanities are cumulative research programs that benefit from specialization. On this account, we don’t want a person who wrote a thesis about Plath to teach Plato. Plato should be taught by a scholar who knows Greek, the original context, and the recent literature and its interpretive problems. Reading texts from across time and space is amateurish. It extracts the texts from their contexts and teaches students that they are free to form opinions without doing much homework.

Another rival idea assumes that citizenship is really about addressing current social problems. In that case, the most important intellectual skill is understanding and applying relevant empirical information. Instead of reading Plato or Plath, students should create literature reviews of recent social science and learn how to assess abstracts, methodology sections, and results critically. Quantitative skills become more important; interpreting texts, less so.

A third idea is that people should prepare for responsible civic engagement by learning a set of concepts. We can debate the list, but it might include separation of powers, opportunity costs, social stratification, and habeas corpus, among (many) others. Maybe students won’t remember long lectures or textbook assignments about these topics, in which case a more engaging pedagogy would be more effective. But the point is to transfer such concepts to the learners.

A fourth idea is that civic learning must be deeply experiential because it is primarily about interpersonal relationships, practical knowledge, and an appreciation of one’s specific communities. It cannot come primarily from books. Alexis de Tocqueville and John Dewey are famous proponents of the idea that we should learn the arts of citizenship from civic engagement outside the classroom.

It’s tempting to endorse all five of these ideas, but they trade off, especially given limited time and resources.

See also: core curricula without the concept of the West; “The world wants the humanities”; the public purposes of the humanities (a brief history)–from 2013;