Friday, October 21, 2016

More on St. Midas, Part 2: Three Suggestions for a Return to the Humanities

In Part 1 of my follow-up to my recent article in Commonweal, I attempted to explain how Catholic high schools encourage the achievement culture without perhaps realizing it. Online gradebooks, I argued, play a major part in fostering an “education-as-consumption” mindset, in which students are made to understand their classes as opportunities for them to gobble information in order to receive accolades. I think that most Catholic educators would agree that this is not what a Catholic school culture should be. So what should we do?

I don’t think that answers will be found in technical solutions. Adding programs, increasing service-hour requirements, or requiring more professional development won’t help much here. Bureaucracy itself contributes to the problem, so it cannot be a conduit for the solution. Instead, I’d argue that what we really need is a return to and a reinvigoration of the Humanities.

Like its relatives the “Liberal Arts” or the “Great Books,” the “Humanities” means different things to different people. What I mean to suggest by the term is the study of human nature, usually accomplished by a guided tour through Literature, History, Philosophy, and Theology that has as its goal an ongoing conversation about the soul (or self, if you prefer) and its relation to the world.

I realize that literally “returning to the Humanities” is impractical for most schools, if not impossible. Very few colleges have a coordinated Humanities curriculum, and even fewer high schools do. So I suppose what I really mean is a return to the spirit of the Humanities, a return to the study of subjects for their own sake. A Catholic school, I think, should be a place where students should get the sense that whatever they’re studying, whether Biology or History or Doctrine, they are doing so because it helps them understand themselves and their relationship to the world.

What would this vision actually look like? It is a nice thing to wish for, and easy enough to say. Most school mission statements already say it, or something similar. But how would a school go about making it happen? That is, how would this spirit of the Humanities manifest itself in classrooms? I have three concrete suggestions:

1) Expose students to great art
Beauty comes before expediency. Literature textbooks need to go, and be replaced by actual books. Anthologies of poetry; novels, plays, etc. If a student is not moved by what he reads he will automatically treat it as so much information to be learned, and the game is lost before it has had a chance to begin. Students know this intuitively, I think. For several years I required my students to purchase a paperback copy of Dante’s Inferno rather than read the small selection in our World Literature textbook. Reading through all 34 cantos with them was difficult, no doubt, but there was a palpable difference in their demeanor when they were holding the real thing rather than looking at a chopped-up snippet in the arranged-for-them textbook. That difference, I think, was respect—respect for what Dante had created and for what they were called to do in reading his work. Without beauty there is no Eros, and without Eros there is nothing beyond the self, and without anything beyond the self we are in the territory of St. Midas.

See my post on textbooks and Catholic schools for more in this line of thinking.

2) Put the reins on online gradebooks
I covered this topic in my first follow-up to the article, so I won’t try to argue the point again. I know that online gradebooks are very difficult to avoid, especially in large schools strapped for resources. They are convenient, efficient, and transparent. But the downsides outweigh the benefits, and I think there is a way to mitigate the effect of their poison, even in large schools with high student-teacher ratios. They key would be to eliminate the 24/7 fluidity of the grades. Rather than have teachers uploading grades every week or two (and at all times in between), it would be more effective to set dates for grade releases, when the online spreadsheets would be sent out to parents/students, much like paper progress reports were in the days before the internet. Perhaps this would happen twice a marking period, definitely no more than three times. But the hope is that it would help re-direct the students’ focus from the symbols of their achievement (grades) to the actual subject matter of their study, from what they consume to what they are called to be consumed by.

It would be necessary, of course, to have a system in place that would notify parents more speedily when their child is struggling, rather than waiting a month for the grades to be released. But this is good practice anyway, and is the kind of communication that teachers/schools need to make space for when they make their personnel and workload decisions.

3) Encourage teachers to be masters of their subjects
Perhaps the most important suggestion I can make is that teachers need to be great. Trite, I know. But they do. And I think that while no one would advocate for bad teachers, or incompetent teachers, the trend in education over the last few decades has been to de-emphasize the importance of the teacher’s knowledge. Teachers are told to avoid being the “sage on the stage” and are encouraged instead to be the “guide on the side,” facilitating student progress and taking a less-central role in the classroom.

I know where this advice is coming from, and it’s responding to real problems—teachers who drone on and on without any real awareness of the yawning gap between what they’re saying and the interest of those in the seats; teachers whose classes are really about them showing off how much they know. Both of these are situations that are destructive to a classroom environment.

Yet in the attempt to avoid being a “sage on the stage” bigger problems often arise. Classes tend toward strings of activities and group work—anything to keep them occupied!—which discourages deep thought and contemplation. Teachers tend to be good managers but not necessarily scholars. And, just like with the issue of literature textbooks, beauty is lost. Students are not moved by a good manager. Students are moved by witnessing a master of a subject, and are drawn to those teachers who seem themselves to be eternal students, always curious, never tiring of discovering. If a teacher sidesteps his students’ questions about Shakespeare because he either does not know the answer or where to direct them, students get the message that Shakespeare really isn’t worth asking too many questions about. Again, beauty is key. By teaching well, teachers do something beautiful in their very attempt to reveal the beauty of the world to their students.

Why is there such a disconnect between the expectations for a college professor and those for a high school teacher? Issues with the “publish or perish” culture aside, a college professor is expected to have a deep knowledge of her field, and to be able to create her own syllabus and figure out her own method for giving notes and discussing readings, etc. Her mastery of her subject matter is paramount, and all of her academic preparation for teaching (i.e. a Ph.D program) is content-driven. But if you talk about pedagogical preparation for teachers of students just a few years younger, almost all of it is process-driven (i.e. how to assess, how to manage a class, different learning styles, etc.) Why? Are students suddenly inspired by different things when they pack up and go to college? Is a teacher’s knowledge of her subject area not relevant if her students happen to be under 18? It doesn’t seem to make any sense. Why not require, instead of education degrees, that high school teachers have at least a bachelor’s degree in the subject they’re going to teach?

I realize that my tendency in these kinds of prescriptive posts is to stay abstract and make very broad suggestions, and hopefully those I have given here have been more concrete. Overall, I would argue that the best way to combat the St. Midas phenomenon is to do everything we can to help our students to see the object of their study as worthy in itself, and ultimately, that study is an enterprise they undertake for the sake of understanding their own place in the bigger world. That is, we must help our students see the world with eyes of wonder.


  1. I am incredibly grateful for this post. I pursued a position in a Catholic School because of my Catholic upbringing which stressed the Humanities. Why the humanities? They made me more human, more humane, less concerned about upper-middle-class status markers.

    I have just finished reading the Winter Edition of Independent School magazine, in which the humanities are examined. I recommend it.


    1. Thanks for reading. Actually that magazine is sitting on the coffee table in our faculty room right now. I glanced at it other day and have been meaning to look at it more I have another reason to! Any articles in particular you recommend?