In favor of Humanities

In an engineering curriculum crowded with plug-n-crank, Drama was one of the few humanities courses I took in college.  I don’t know how I ended up in the course, it must have fit in my schedule and looked easy. 

When I saw Dr. Hogan at lunch today, I told him that 30 years later I still vividly recall leaving his class, walking to the Student Union and experiencing something very unusual—an original thought.  It struck me as odd, shocking in fact, because it had not happened during the accumulation of my first 60 engineering credits. 

You have to understand, in engineering school there was (at least 30 years ago) a right answer to every question and it went on green graph paper on the right hand margin with an arrow next to it—in every class.  You weren’t asked to think, you were expected to solve—the right formula applied in the right fashion and in high volume. 

Dr. Hogan introduced us to Ibsen, Brecht, and Miller, and encouraged us to visit funky theaters to see way-off Broadway productions.  It was certainly the most memorable and, in a different way, challenging courses of my engineering curriculum.   It launched what has been a 30 year self-taught course in remedial humanities.

Dr. Hogan beamed bright when I told him my story, “I just wanted students to think differently; not how I think, just differently than when they walked in the door.”   I suspect millions of students have been struck by similar bolts of lightning as a result of his career and humanities teachers like him—teachers passionate about finding the hook and flipping the switch.

Fortunately there are more required humanities courses at my alma mater and more ethics and application woven throughout the curriculum than was the case 30 years ago.  This appears to be true at many engineering schools.   

There’s evidence that the humanities are being squeezed out of the middle and high school curriculum by standardized testing.  Good schools teach us that this does not have to be the case—that measurement and thought can coexist (e.g., visit—but it is sad to see ‘drill-n-kill’ replace literature and art and the ‘having of wonderful ideas’ (Expeditionary Learning).

The keynote speaker at graduation told the graduates that they needed to learn to live in the present and future simultaneously—that nearly every action has a future effect.   In some respects poetry is the opposite—an acute awareness of the present and a deep connection to the past, but what a great way to learn to inhabit multiple dimensions!  Theater, film, and fiction transport us—a temporary avatar—to other dimensions, deepen our sense of empathy, and train our brains to be aware of cause and effect separated in space and time.   The humanities teach us the multidimensionality that the keynoter encouraged.  The humanities make us human.  

(first appeared on HuffPost)

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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