Teaching Humanity

We live in a world that is dominated by the profit motive--which suggests to concerned citizens that education in science and technology is crucially important to the future success of their nations. I have no objection to good scientific and technical education, and I don't wish to suggest that nations should stop trying to improve it. But I worry that other abilities, equally crucial, are at risk of getting lost in the competitive flurry. The abilities associated with the humanities and the arts are also vital, both to the health of individual nations and to the creation of a decent world culture. These include the ability to think critically, to transcend local loyalties and to approach international problems as a "citizen of the world." And, perhaps most important, the ability to imagine sympathetically the predicament of another person.

This essential ability can be called the narrative imagination: it leads us to be intelligent readers of other people's stories and to understand their emotions and wishes. The cultivation of sympathy was a central public task of ancient Athenian tragedy, and thus a key element in ancient Greek democracy; it has also informed the best modern ideas of progressive education in both Western and non-Western traditions. (American John Dewey and Rabindranath Tagore in India had very similar ideas about the importance of arts education.) One of the best ways to cultivate sympathy is through instruction in literature, music, theater, fine art and dance.

Each culture--indeed, each student--has blind spots: groups within it or abroad that are especially likely to be treated ignorantly or obtusely. A good arts education will select works specifically to promote criticism of this obtuseness, and a better vision of the unseen. Ralph Ellison, in an introduction to a new edition of his 1952 novel "Invisible Man," wrote that such a novel could be "a raft of perception, hope, and entertainment," on which American culture could "negotiate the snags and whirlpools" between us and our democratic ideals. Through the imagination we can have insight into the experience of another group or person that it is difficult to attain in daily life--particularly when our world has constructed suspicions and divisions that make any encounter difficult.

To cultivate our students' "inner eyes" we need carefully crafted instruction in the arts and humanities, which will bring students into contact with issues of gender, race, ethnicity and cross-cultural experience. The arts also instruct students in both freedom and community. When people put on a play or a dance piece together, they learn to cooperate--and find they must go beyond tradition and authority if they are going to express themselves well. The sort of community created by the arts is nonhierarchical--a model of the responsiveness and interactivity that a good democracy will also foster in its political processes. And, not least, the arts can be a great source of joy. Participating in plays, songs and dances fills children with happiness that can carry over into the rest of their education.

Moreover, this element of joy--of sheer fun--can help the arts to offer a venue for exploring difficult issues without crippling and counterproductive anxiety. As radical artists have often emphasized, the arts, by generating pleasure in connection with acts of cultural criticism, promote an endurable, even attractive, dialogue with the prejudices of the past, rather than an argument fraught with fear and defensiveness.

Education in sympathy is doing quite well in the place where I first studied it: namely, the liberal-arts curricula of U.S. college and universities. (This part of the curricula particularly attracts philanthropic support, since wealthy people remember with pleasure the time when they read books they loved and considered issues with open minds.) Outside the United States, many nations whose universities do not include a liberal-arts curriculum are now striving to build one: they acknowledge its importance in crafting a public response to the fear and suspicion in increasingly pluralized societies. I've been involved in such discussions in the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany, Italy, India and Bangladesh.

But liberal education has high financial and pedagogical costs. Such teaching needs small classes, where students get copious feedback on frequent writing assignments. European professors are not used to this idea--and would now be horrible at it if they did try; they've come to expect that holding a chair means not having to grade undergraduate writing assignments. (This is also true in parts of Asia.) And even where faculty are keen on the liberal-arts model, bureaucrats can be unwilling to support enough teaching positions required to make it work. The University of Oslo, for instance, has introduced a required ethics course for first-year students, but it is taught as a lecture to 500 people, with a multiple-choice examination at the end. This is worse than useless. It gives students the illusion that they have actually had some philosophical education, when they have had only a gesture toward such learning.

At Sweden's new urban university, Sodertorn's Hogskola, where many students are immigrants, the faculty and the vice-chancellor badly want a liberal-arts curriculum based on preparation for democratic citizenship. They have sent young faculty to U. S. liberal-arts colleges to study and practice small-class teaching, and they have constructed an exciting course on democracy. As yet, however, they do not have enough teachers to run the small sections that are crucial if the class is to succeed. Only in small idiosyncratic institutions, such as the Utrecht Institute for Humanist Studies and the European College of Liberal Arts in Berlin, is the liberal-arts idea a reality in Europe.

Democracies have great rational and imaginative powers. Yet they also are prone to irrationality, parochialism, haste, sloppiness and selfishness. Education based mainly on profitability in the global market magnifies these deficiencies--to the point that they threaten the very life of democracy itself. We need to favor an education that cultivates the critical capacities, that fosters a complex understanding of the world and its peoples and that educates and refines the capacity for sympathy. In short, an education that cultivates human beings rather than producing useful machines. If we do not insist on the crucial importance of the humanities and the arts, they will drop away. They don't make money. But they do something far more precious: they make a world worth living in.