Teaching and learning the humanities (part 1)

We lack a convincing account of what it is to teach or learn anything. If we narrow the question to specific skills or factual recall, of course, it’s easy: consider teaching/learning how to ride a bike, or reciting the names of the U.S. presidents. We know what it is to teach these things, and how to tell if someone has learned them. But if we broaden our scope and ask generally about teaching and learning, we fail abysmally.

This is no doubt because we have general words like “teaching” and “learning” that we attach to very different things. We “teach” and “learn” both oboe-playing and Civil War history, though it’s hard to see anything the two should have in common. The only general formula we can provide is this: the student couldn’t do this before, but she can do this after. Call this the “pre- and post-test” formula, for obvious reasons.

There is nothing really wrong with the pre- and post-test formula, so far as it goes. It doesn’t go far: it only suggests that an episode of successful teaching and learning produces some change in the student. Well, one should hope so! But the harmless formula naturally encourages a more robust model of teaching/learning that is pernicious and stupid. The more robust model is the “bucket” theory, and it goes like this: Student enters the classroom with an empty bucket; Teacher does something causing the bucket to fill; Student leaves with filled bucket. I call this model “stupid” because it denies obvious facts in everyone’s experience. Do students ever forget what they have learned? Do students ever learn later on what the teacher was trying to say? Does it ever happen that both teachers and students are learning the same stuff at the same time? A “yes” to any of these questions should tell us that the bucket model is bad. Teaching and learning is not just a matter of getting a bucket filled.

Okay, so what is a better theory? I don’t know, and I bet no one does, because (again) the things we teach and learn are so very varied. So let me cheat a little and narrow the topic to teaching and learning in the humanities. I was at a conference recently where this question came up – “What do students learn in the Humanities?” – and the best answer I could devise was this: students gain an informed and articulate awareness of their own limitations. That’s just Socrates, of course, with his claim that he improves humans by rubbing their noses in their collective ignorance. But it seems to me that’s what the Humanities do: in matters of culture, history, philosophy, morality, religion, and the broad span of human experience, the Humanities remind us constantly that we usually do not know what we are talking about; that there are other perspectives we have not considered. A properly-educated Humanist can speak and write with clarity, precision, and intelligence about various forms of human idiocy.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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7 Responses to Teaching and learning the humanities (part 1)

  1. Mike says:

    What you articulated there with your bucket model of education sounds like Freire’s banking model of education.

    I like to think students gain not only an awareness of their limitations and an “articulate awareness” of what we don’t know but also a few approaches to dealing with whatever new shit life throws our way — problem solving skills for life’s problems.

    When I interview people I usually tell them a typical problem and ask them to solve it in detail. That’s how I test people. Bonus points if they come up with alternate solutions and clearly describe the advantages and limitations of various approaches.

    Of course, as a good phil I know no “ultimate” solution to life’s problems (death?); that doesn’t keep me from proximate solutions. That too has some futility to it, no one can see all ends and I’m blindsided more often than not, but whattayagonnado?


  2. Kleiner says:

    Like Mike, I immediately thought of Freire’s banking model with Huenemann’s bucket analogy.

    I have one amendment to the post. I am not sure that the purpose of the humanities is to create Huenemanniacs – unalloyed skeptics 🙂 If I could reword what you said, I would use the word “horizons” instead of “limitations”.

    Here was your line: “What do students learn in the humanities? – and the best answer I could devise what this: students gain an informed and articulate awareness of their own limitations.”
    This was then understood as something like rubbing our noses in our own ignorance and idiocy.

    My revision: “What do students learn in the humanities? – and the best answer I could devise what this: students gain an informed and articulate awareness of their own horizons.”
    This, then, can be understood as an apprehension of what it is to be human, both with our limits, foibles, and idiocy but also our capacities, our strivings, and our possibilities. This account allows for both the negative and the positive, and fits better with various traditional understandings of the liberal arts as being both a humbling set of disciplines but also disciplines that build men and women, shape citizens, develop moral and intellectual virtue, shape minds and hearts, etc etc.


  3. Huenemann says:

    Thanks for the comments. Yeah – limitations, horizons, tomato, tomahto. I can’t shake my skepticism. I admire those who advance their capacities, strivings, and possibilities. But the little voice in me keeps saying “there’s a very good chance you are on the wrong track, or at least don’t know what you’re doing.”

    Mike, do you award points for fessing up to one’s own ignorance, or alluding to all the complications that are likely lurking about that we don’t know of? I hope you’re hiring huenemanniacs!


    • Mike says:

      I often call that little voice my inner Vonnegut.

      It’s hard to classify various ignorances (and ignoramii). I guess I go for situated ignorance or something like that, the more you know the less you know sort of thing.

      As a candidate for various jobs I may have gotten into trouble a few times for being too quick to say I don’t know or being too comfortable with ambiguity but I still prefer to express that posture up front.


  4. birdbath says:

    From the layperson: What I learned in my humanities classes was how to create worlds with words and the joy/frustration of the process. I learned how complex language is and how difficult it is to convert thoughts/ideas into words. I envy those who coined terms (i.e., sublime), whose systems of language and thought have lasted (i.e., I think therefore I am) yet I joy in the act of adding/subtracting to what they have created and watching others do the same. I create my own worlds daily and maintain the worlds of others that I find agreeable. Humanities taught me how to build, it taught me how to destroy, it taught me how to keep house.


  5. Michael D. Thomas says:

    I like the bucket theory, but I think what is missing from that is a theory of purpose. I remember being a 18 year old (or more accurately I have a convincing account of what my current self likes to think I was like when I was 18). I wanted to get that fabled piece of paper that would signal my worth to the world of employers. These employers would then knock the door down to have me share my brilliance with their firm for: profits, goodness and a vague etc. …

    I then thought about my skill set. I liked theatre, so I accepted a theatre scholarship (See, I really get theater because I spell it like the English do, Shakespeare was English you know). Then I realized that wearing black and living hand-to-mouth was simply not enough compensation for being able to interact with the fascinating people. (To tell you the truth, it turns out there are plenty of drama queens in drama…) So I went to history, I like history, but what I didn’t like is that no one agreed on anything (anything). I found it very difficult to create a theory of social interaction because I couldn’t figure out how to judge the accuracy of anyone else’s claim in history. So, I turned back to what really stood out to me in High School, Economics. Economics seemed to reduce everything down to causal claims. X happened because of Y. More restaurants are serving catfish because Vietnam has been converting rice paddies into catfish farms and the price of the fish has plummeted. I saw connectivity and had a tool to determine order, to determine function in society, create a theory of change, and develop a theory of error. This instantly appealed to me because I could see how the questions in my head could be understood, using a tool.

    I have since learned to suspect the simplicity of the tools which first brought me to economics, but I remember the joy of discovering a whole literature of people reducing things to cause and effect relationships. I always know I am home in that world, for whatever twisted neurological reason.

    This autobiographical sketch, I think, helps to explain why students need education. Some of them will love the ideas. Some will look for a job. Some just want to get their parents off their back so they can do what 18 year olds want to do for a few more years. I strongly reject a one-size fits all mold. I think that there is a positive and significant amount of experimentation required to find what it is that people want to do. I imagine a doctor thinks about the world and says, “Gee wouldn’t be great to fix people? What could be better than that?” For those of us who like the humanities, why is it that people say: “Gee, I love the humanities, but what can you do with it?” The doctor doesn’t really face this problem. She knows that if she works hard and learns the trade then there are ample applications of the art.

    I think that we have to return to an appreciation of apprenticeship. What I mean by this is not the labor restrictions and exploitation, but the idea of taking on a craft and striving continually for excellence. I find that this exists in the Humanities. I have tremendous respect for those of you who work to master the art of philosophy. I know plenty of people who cannot stomach the effort, the pain, and the existential crisis that comes with that path. However, I assume the rewards are worth it. This theory of purpose allows for: Plan, execution, and reward. I wonder if our 30 year old selves would tell our 18 year old selves to go into IT or computer engineering instead? I hope that our 50 year old selves would reject this notion outright!

    For people, perhaps more rational, who want to do something other than teach, how do we convince them that the tools humanities provide are inputs into being a more complete person. The Socialist Robert Owen critiqued capitalism by saying, “Why don’t we take care of our human machines as well as the physical ones?” What I get from this discussion is that we are trying to deliver on Owen’s question. From 1813 to 1825 Owen revolutionized industrial production by taking the human being seriously, he made a profit as well. His later failures are as likely due to the wider imitation of his methods as much as his overconfidence, but the lesson persists. We can make great progress by understanding our own and other’s humanity. To me it seems more than an argument about academic morality and what should be. It seems like the correct understanding of history.


  6. maybe a look at the way the tool functions, would be useful…


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