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A Teacher, A Humanities Classroom, and the Real World

The public radio show Planet Money recently produced a feature on the highest and lowest paying majors from a four-year university. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the top ten majors were in the sciences, primarily engineering and energy-related fields. A 22 year old with a bachelor’s degree in petroleum engineering can expect a starting salary in the neighborhood of $120,000. Slightly lower on the pay scale, though not by much, you will find careers in electrical engineering, and mining and mineral engineering. By contrast and equally unsurprising, the least lucrative majors include careers in psychology, community and social work, the arts, and early childhood education: all majors with a heavy emphasis in the humanities.

Shocking, right? Economics is the primary reason for the enormous push in favor of STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and math) over the humanities. Unironically and irrefutably, careers in the STEM fields provide wages with more zeros at the end. The humanities are seen as less valuable from an economic standpoint, and thus high school and university systems are actively discouraging the pursuit of a humanities education. But this assault on the humanities isn’t about income alone. The value of the humanities is being questioned for its lack of quantifiable answers, a perceived lack of practical application, and even the very questions the humanities ask. In other words, an education in the humanities is portrayed as having no value in the real world.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. I’ve seen it with my own eyes in a middle school classroom.   

Corey Dugan, a teacher from Nature's Way Montessori School in Knoxville and one of Humanities Tennessee’s Outstanding Humanities Educators, began an eight week unit of study by proposing two essential questions to his students: What impact does energy creation, production, and consumption have on the people, culture, and land of Tennessee? How can we meet the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future? Such questions, commonly asked in debates among candidates for political office, are not easily answered, nor should they be. To answer them requires not only the application of scientific knowledge, but also a thorough grounding in history, culture, geography, and language. So how did Mr. Dugan’s class approach these questions?

Energy policy does not exist in a vacuum, so the class began by studying the students’ own local context: the people, culture, and land of Tennessee. Mr. Dugan’s students read the poetry of Nikki Giovanni; they read the novel Same Sun Here, they watched public television’s Heartland Series; they listened to the lyrics of Elvis, Uncle Dave Macon, and Dolly Parton; and they took a walking tour of Knoxville. These activities led to a greater understanding of the beliefs, customs, and traditions of the people of Tennessee. Next, the students learned about energy production and the multiple perspectives regarding energy policy. They studied TVA by watching the film The Electric Valley, and they visited Norris Dam and had discussions with retired dam workers. Students also visited the Kentucky Coal Museum, and they met with local miners as well as local activists advocating against the practice known as Mountain Top Removal. Students were exposed to the science of multiple forms of energy extraction and production, as well as a variety of social, cultural, and economic perspectives regarding each.

To process all of this, Mr. Dugan’s sixth, seventh, and eighth graders did poetry exercises based on cultural identity, wrote journal entries reflecting on their field trip experiences, and finally created a student art show with paintings, songs, and performances. They wrote essays explaining how their artistic projects interpreted multiple perspectives or advocated for one viewpoint or another. The result was simply astonishing. Mr. Dugan’s students demonstrated an understanding of their place in the context of energy consumption. They understood the need for conservation, energy sustainability, and the connections between energy production and place. But most importantly, Mr. Dugan’s students utilized a humanities-based approach to understand the various perspectives and implications of a complex issue. 

By its very nature, the study of the humanities is all about questioning. Why are we here? How do we connect with one another? How do our actions affect our communities? What does it all mean? Such questions are enormous, perennial, and perhaps unanswerable. But what we learn by asking such questions is, quite simply, invaluable. Humanities Tennessee provided $1500 for Corey Dugan’s classroom project; such a tiny investment for such great a return. Looking ten years into the future, most of Mr. Dugan’s humanities class will be finishing college with degrees in both the humanities and STEM disciplines, and that is a good thing. We need scientists and engineers in the world. But we also need humanists to help guide and understand the implications of their work. One of those graduates might earn less money, but their contribution to society will be no less valuable.