Oh the Humanities!

Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo . . .

–       Allen Ginsberg, Howl

Is there anything left to study outside of the sciences? Are we ready to forsake the humanities? If educational development and funding are any indications, then it seems inevitable we will robotically quiver beneath a STEM society. As a lifelong learner, who has always appreciated scientific wonderment and the poetics of algebra, I find it unusually alarming how easily this transition is taking place. The government continues to push STEM to the forefront of education while depleting humanities funding and witling away a humanistic curriculum with great academic and civic benefits. The humanities have always been to evaluate and value our own humanity: as the discipline disappears, so too will our humanity.

When the conversation regarding diminishing humanities comes up, many academics and critics cite the lack of interest in humanistic majors and the negative repercussions for a society that lacks these kinds of college graduates, but the problem runs deeper than that, it goes down to high school, middle school, and even elementary school. The federal government’s proposed education budget outlines nine items that have special funding allocations: College Access, Affordability, and Completion; Equity and Opportunities in Education; Skills for the New Economy; Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Education; Strengthening the Commitment to Native American Communities; Supporting English Language Learners; Supporting Individuals with Disabilities; Supporting Rural Education; Teachers and Leaders; Investing in Early Learning. While each of these nine items are important to educational development in this country, specifically those targeted at increasing equality, access, and affordability, complete ignorance of the humanities, specifically in secondary schooling, poses unquantifiable problems. Despite nine different targeted areas for funding, the funding for STEM is the driving focus.

An estimated $450.2 million is going into beginning and promoting STEM programs and teacher training for STEM. Why, can’t the humanities be afforded a fraction of that? Are we such a neandrathalic country that we believe the humanities mean non-substantive inquiry? More and more, high school English, History, Art, Music, and other humanistic classes are pushed to the side and, in some cases, eliminated all together. Many schools are going even as far to say content in these subjects no longer matter. While there is no arguing the importance of developing STEM programs that doesn’t mean we shun the humanities.

This is a particular problem in high school education because students develop and refine their foci in high school. However, if the humanities dwindle as an option in secondary schooling, the effects will move to colleges and universities, then to everyday life. The more students become out of touch with the humanities, the more society grows out of touch with its own humanity.

Instead of diminishing the humanities, shouldn’t we teach our students how to analyze society to improve it? Wasn’t John Dewey on to something when he promoted a progressive education that not only called for extended voting privileges, but also better educated students to make well-informed decisions? That type of thinking is inculcated through rigorous analysis of the human world, not just the governing systems of the physical world.

To put this in perspective, I teach at an almost entirely African-American school in Detroit specializing in STEM. Of the 120 students I have this year, two know about the Detroit Riots of ’67. My students often talk about their desire to improve the city and help it grow, but how can they plan for the future when ignorant of the past? Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it, right? One look at Detroit, and the mass gentrification taking place represents a failure to understand Detroit’s racially charged past. Yes, there may be some neuroscientist that can unveil the part of the brain lurking with racist undercurrents, but what ethical solution does that provide in fixing the racism impaling this country’s contradictions and disconnect on a once great city? I would argue that study of human relationships provided by literature, history, art, music, and psychoanalysis avail themselves to investigations fruitful in uncovering possible solutions. However, our students lack the tools to analyze these social movements and currents because they are ill equipped with the tools the humanities provide for investigation and insight.

Instead, the federal government intends continually to push the country towards a STEM nation educationally and economically. In addition to the money allocated for the startup of STEM programs, there is also a portion for STEM under the educational budget for skills for the “new economy.” A proposed $110 million will go towards ‘STEM Innovation Networks,’ which plan to ‘provide competitive awards to LEAs in partnership with institutions of higher education, nonprofit organizations, other public agencies, and businesses to transform STEM teaching and learning by accelerating the adoption of practices in P-12 education that help increase the number of students who seek out and are effectively prepared for postsecondary education and careers in STEM fields.’ The new economy is something that this nation has control over, and its intended focus in STEM as well as the intended creation of STEM government jobs may be an indicator of the move towards a more militant country.

Without a delicate balance of STEM and humanistic education, this push forward may be the death of a nation that becomes too militarized to check itself. As government education expenditures increase in the STEM fields, military spending also increases. Interestingly, these increases disproportionately favor research and development, nuclear programs, and construction – the type of jobs filled by workers fostered in a STEM based curriculum. Since 1962, the amount spent on military personnel and housing has only increased around 50% from $ 100 billion to $150 billion. However, research and development, nuclear programs, and construction expenditures have increased drastically; R&D has doubled since ’62 from $250 billion to over $500 billion. Similarly, funding into nuclear programs has increased from approx. $270 billion to over $500 billion.


Source: Office of Management and Budget, Graph: Dylan Matthews

In conjunction with the rise in research and development is a meteoric rise in military spending on operations. The amount spent on operations, including war conduct, has doubled from over $200 billion to over $400 billion. For this to occur, weapons need to be made, intel needs to be collected, and a certain ambivalent disposition is needed to order and carry out such attacks. As I once learned in a college science class, correlation does not mean causality, but there is something interesting to see the rise in military spending mirror the rise in STEM spending in schools.

In a similar vein, it seems reasonable to consider education devoid of humanities and concentrated on STEM will be more subservient and less critical. Take for instance, China. Helene Gao, a journalist based in Bejing, laments how many in her country have fallen prey to the party’s political weight since Tiananmen Square: “If the previous generations learned the cost of political transgression through persecutions and crackdowns, today’s youth, especially those from elite backgrounds, instinctively understand the futility of challenging the system” (Tiananmen Forgotten). In a country where humanities fall by the wayside to promote efficiency and science, there is a loss of critique and civilian protest. Schools, starting as early as elementary school, indoctrinate the idea that there is always one tangible, hard answer; therefore, students are taught the government is always picking the best answer, so why bother challenging it?

Although it may be unfair to compare China and the United States, it is still interesting how the U.S. mirrors China in this regard. The amount of political demonstration on college campuses promoting free speech has decreased since the famous Berkeley Riots’ ‘conclusion’ in 1974. Since the late 70’s funding for the humanities has decreased. Although it reached a peak of almost $460 million in 1979, funding has drastically decreased to less than $150 million in 2013. Isn’t it more than coincidence that as the humanities have continually lost their esteem in the university so too has the provocation to protest for free speech?



Source data: for years 1966 through 2007 were compiled by the National Humanities Alliance, at the request of the Humanities Indicators, from documentation supplied by NEH’s Office of Strategic Planning. Data for subsequent years were provided directly to the Humanities Indicators by NEH’s Office of Planning and Budget. Funding amounts were adjust for inflation using the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U; January, 2013) produced by the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics.

As we continue to cut humanistic instructional time and funding, specifically in high school, we lacerate our own humanity and deplete the realm for creativity. The humanities influenced and indoctrinated many of the greatest scientific thinkers to push their understanding of the world beyond what is scientifically possible. In essence, the humanities have always promoted, even if subliminally, Keats’ Negative Capability, a student’s ability to transcend his or her normative state of consciousness and understanding to some new or original idea: high schools have always been a particular hotbed for this transcendence because of students’ psychological and academic development.

Some, like Steven Pinker, argue the humanities lack objectivity and the necessary rigor for substantive analysis. He writes, “In making sense of our world, there should be few occasions in which we are forced to concede ‘it just is,’ or ‘it’s magic!’ or ‘because I said so’” (Science is Not Your Enemy). Now, as someone who studied the humanities throughout college and has taught English and History for the last three years, I seemed to have lost touch with these disciplines because I never knew, “it just is,” “it’s magic,” or “I said so,” were acceptable answers for inquiry. When I think of the humanities, the study of humanity (or lack thereof), I think of Michel Foucault’s analysis of the prison system in Discipline and Punish and how he illuminated the refinement of societal power by creating a panoptic prison that reinforces and is reinforced by crime in society to maintain bourgeois ideals. Or, how Theodor Adorno elucidated the inability of art to be non-political, how even the aesthetics of a given artist engage in political query and debate – opening a new lens for investigation into construction of art and its implication in society. To me, the humanities have always analyzed and evaluated the abstract and incalculable perceptions and actions permeating human life that bend, disregard, and violate natural laws. In essence, the humanities have always been the measure of immeasurable human life.

In addition to Pinker lambasting the humanities, he crucifies religion and other belief systems on his alter of science, “We know that the law governing the physical world have no goals that pertain to human well-being, there is no such thing as fate, providence, karma, or answered prayers.” Obviously, it is important we continue to separate Church and State, but when we discount religion, karma, and other belief systems, we disregard their followers – a supposed equal society quickly begins to favor those without religious beliefs. Furthermore, I wonder about the effects of the totality of science in education. I may have been instructed incorrectly in my science class, but I was always told over and over again nothing could be ever proven with perfect certainty because there are too many variables to know the answer, but Pinker’s argument seems to solidify science as inarguable fact. The same religious dogma Pinker lambasts for controlling people, he replicates with scientific dogma, which will be indoctrinated into students as long as we ignore the humanities.

If that is the case, then how will students stretch the bounds of thinking? How will students critique a militarized country routinely engaged in multiple wars? How will a fatherless child maintain hope as he waits for dad to return from warzones? Since when did the discipline become the great decider of what students can and cannot believe? The goal of education has always been to create students who can think and challenge outdated systems to improve them; the first order of the humanities has always been to provide the forum for humanizing society, the one that exists beyond the calculable world.

That being said, I do not disagree with Mr. Pinker that “The promise of science is to enrich and diversify the intellectual tools of humanistic scholarship,” but the way he presents the argument, the way the government has funded its educational practices, and the militarization of the country speak opposite to this.

Many argue that students have lost interest in the humanities, and they do not major in the humanities in college, but couldn’t the reason be there is limited to zero exposure to true humanistic studies in primary and secondary schooling?

STEM has its place, and so too do the humanities. We no longer teach our kids to feel, be human, or wonder at the impossibility of the world. Instead we teach kids to know, be productive in a “new economy,” and consider the world a trite object for experimentation. Humanity keeps society together, allows it to be chronicled, and improved. It is not without its faults, but those faults sometimes spurn the greatness of mankind.

More times than not, we neglect the lessons of history and repeat our same mistakes – we move from public execution to lethal injection; we move from de jure segregation to de facto segregation; we move from Atomic Bombs to nuclear proliferation. However, recognition of past faults can begin as early as late elementary and be refined through middle school and high school providing humanistic scholars at the doorsteps of college and universities to engage in deeper dialogue with American society and also deploy high school graduates, who are more conscious about America’s precarious place in history to inform the future.

About mkautz10

I was born and raised in Punta Gorda, FL. My life changed when going into eighth grade I moved to Charlevoix, MI. Four years later, I would move back to Punta Gorda, relax in Indianapolis in a school for three semesters, then finish at the University of Michigan with my Bachelor's; the same spring I graduated I began a Master's program. Now, I teach in Detroit at Medicine and Community Health Academy at Cody. My jobs include teaching 9th grade English, writing curriculum, head of Instructional Leadership Team, creating standardized rubrics and literacy assessments for the school, ACT tutoring, driving students to and from school, developing literacy programs, and other educationally productive things!
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