Monday, May 11, 2020

AV #210 - Teachers of the Humanities: Is your subject “relevant”?

You bet, even if the business community tries to tell you otherwise

Almost ten years ago Colorado College President Jill Tiefenthaler responded to the idea that states should direct taxpayer money to higher education specifically on those disciplines that lead to jobs.

Unfortunately, in this tough economy, these politicians are making the all too common mistake of confusing education with training. The idea that universities should simply be factories for producing graduates focused exclusively in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields is incredibly shortsighted. While getting a job that leads toward a fulfilling career is a great reason for going to college, it certainly isn’t the only one. A liberal arts education (including, for example, philosophy, art and sociology) educates the whole person and prepares students to excel in a range of careers and, even more importantly, live a life rich with meaning and purpose.”
“In defense of liberal arts education,” The Denver Post, Oct. 21, 2011

When President Tiefenthaler steps down this summer to become the CEO of the National Geographic Society, Colorado will lose its most articulate voice speaking up on behalf of the humanities. I will miss her voice terribly; I see no other academic leader in our state prepared to take up this cause. The prevailing view these days is exactly what she critiqued: “confusing education with training.”

Another View will continue to offer its own small voice to advocate for a liberal arts education, as opposed to training for the workplace, especially as it pertains to the purpose of our K-12 system. Past newsletters (eight published under the title, “The Business of Education – is Education,” Feb. 2018[i] ) have made this point.[ii] Here is my effort for 2020. Timed also as a thank you and a salute to President Tiefenthaler for her great services to Colorado College, higher education, and our state this past decade.


The business community often gives the back of the hand to those of us who teach (or have taught) courses in the humanities. Our subjects are dismissed as far less relevant (the operative word, it seems) than those with a clear pipeline (another favorite image) to a career. English, History, Philosophy, Art, Music, Drama—all so much fluff, not the “real-life learning” that comes in classes designed for “career-readiness.” Or so we are told, ad nauseum.

In her commentary, President Tiefenthaler quoted then Florida Governor Rick Scott to provide one such example: “Is it a vital interest of the state,” he asked, “to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.” What follows is my collection of similar slights these past five years, various shades of smug put-downs about what takes place in the classroom (a drab place, never an “authentic learning environment”) contrasted with apprenticeships and internships, where students “learn how business works”!  

Assume for a moment you spent a good portion of your life convinced that what you and your students explored while reading, discussing, and writing about—even much of it classified as “fiction”—was as true and as meaningful as anything happening out there in the marketplace. Imagine any humanities teacher who reveres his or her discipline as a way we can better express and discover and know ourselves. From our perspective, what you are about to read can sound, well, damn insulting. What is so troubling is that leaders today envision education in such limited terms. 


The focus on relevance has been prevalent for at least five years. Below, news stories in roughly chronological order. 
(Bold mine)

The Greater Waco Advanced Manufacturing Academy “offers a unique promise that’s unheard of even among a new generation of career and technical schools striving to make education more relevant and useful for today’s teenagers: a guarantee of a job after graduation.”
High School Reform - What if a high school diploma guaranteed a highly paid job?  A new vocational school in Waco makes an unheard-of promise to its graduates,” Sarah Garland, Hechinger Report, March 25, 2015.[iii]

“Another district worth recognizing is St. Vrain Valley, which makes education relevant to both students and local industry by connecting them in meaningful ways. The district created and hired a director of innovation, Patty Quinones, and focused education on STEM. …”
“Two Colorado districts' ideas of how school should work,”
Scott Laband, Guest Column, The Denver Post, March 4, 2016.[iv]

“Colorado’s Teacher of the Year [Sean Wybrandt] … teaches game programming at William J. Palmer High School in Colorado Springs … he switched to teaching CTE [Career and Technical Education] courses because they seemed more topical for his students. ‘CTE is a natural fit for relevancy,’ he said. ‘It is what’s going on in the industry right now and what’s going on in society around them.’”
        “Shop is window of opportunities,” by Monte Whaley, The Denver Post, Dec. 25, 2016. [v]

"The notion of moving from curricula to active learning is discussed a lot, but it really hasn't been accepted in K-12," said Jim Hendler, the director of the Rensselaer Institute for Data Exploration and Applications, who studies artificial intelligence and robots. "A lot of things happening in after-school clubs seem more relevant to kids' futures than what they do in the classroom."
“Students Earn Digital Credentials for Adding New Skills,” Schools and employers are taking a fresh view of digital badges (in Aurora Public Schools, Colorado) in preparing students, by Michelle R. Davis, Education Week, September 26, 2017.[vi]

“Colorado schools are rewiring classrooms with courses heavy in science and technology in a bid to stay relevant in a rapidly changing world.”  
      “Schools put emphasis on mathematics, technology,” The Denver Post, Monte Whaley, Jan. 29, 2018.[vii]

“If Colorado students are to thrive in the Age of Agility, then schools must help them become life entrepreneurs… Fortunately, an increasing number of schools in Colorado are moving in this direction. In Salida, for example, a building trades apprenticeship program enables student to work directly with local businesses to build affordable housing for local teachers. Students gain marketable, real-world skills while local industry builds a sustainable talent pipeline.”
“And learning must be experiential, occurring outside school walls as much as within. Educators and business leaders will need to work together to create relevant and engaging work-based learning opportunities, from apprenticeships to job shadowing.”
“Education in the age of agility,” by Scott Laband, America Succeeds, Denver Business Journal, Aug. 1, 2018.[viii]

"There are so many ways that the world of work can intersect with the classroom and vice versa. I loved the innovative approaches to learning that directly tied to relevant career pathways. And, speaking with the students at STEM School, you could feel the pride they had in their work knowing that it was directly relevant to an industry or pathway of interest to them." Mark Tapy, Pinnacol Assurance
“The Business Perspective: Innovative School Models and What We Can Do to Support More,” Colorado Succeeds, Nov. 15, 2018.[ix]

“78% of apprentices find the content they learn ‘on the job’ to be ‘very’ or ‘completely’ relevant to their future career. When asked the same question about content learned ‘at school,’ only 34% found it to be ‘very’ or ‘completely’ relevant to their career.” (p. 8)
“Why Apprenticeship? To gain real world experience
“TESTIMONIALS - Quinn, one of the apprentices working at Pinnacol Assurance in an IT role, reflects on his experience compared to his peers, many of whom work in more typical teenage after-school jobs. ‘Compared to them…it’s a lot different to come to a real company. When I come to Pinnacol, I learn real things, do real work, and meet real people.’ (11)
“… Students can attain industry credentials, perform real work for their community — like building tiny houses for people experiencing homelessness — and interact with adults who are committed to preparing them for the real world, not just an end-of-semester exam. “(15)
CareerWise Colorado, Annual Report, 2019.[x]
21st Century Apprenticeships
“What does a 21st century apprenticeship look like? Much like apprenticeships of old, modern apprenticeships still combine paid, structured, on-the-job training with relevant classroom instruction.”
“The Case for Apprenticeships in 2019,” by Dawn Lang, Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) [xi]
#3   More College ≠ More Prosperity, by Nassim Taleb
   “This is not to say that knowledge is unimportant. Practical knowledge is closely connected to economic progress. But the record shows that formal education is a poor transmitter of practical knowledge—which is much more often accumulated by doing things, on the job, out in the real world. It is academic, commoditized, organized education that needs to be viewed skeptically.”
#4   College Should be More Useful, by Naomi Schaeffer Riley
   “We know that students today want their degrees to be relevant to their employment and promotion path. Many fault colleges for doing this poorly. They say there is a big disconnect between what college trains them to do and what they actually take up after graduation… 
   “… Ted Mitchell is president of the American Council on Education…. [He] mentions two ways that colleges can respond to student hunger for better occupational preparation. First, all varieties of instruction should try to be relevant and applicable to daily life. ‘We need to give students hooks to hang their theoretical work on, to connect them with the real world.’”
“Benefactors Beware-Seven hazards donors to higher ed need to avoid,”Philanthropy Magazine. Summer 2019. [xii]

“Pushing all students to concentrate on core academic classes at the expense of vocational study, advocates say, takes the focus off the occupationally relevant skills and credentials graduates need for a smooth transition to adulthood.”
“Depth Over Breadth,” by Daniel Kreisman and Kevin Stange, Education Next, Fall 2019.[xiii]

“The Pathways in Technology program was established [in Colorado] in 2015 with the signing of HB 15-1270 and works by establishing cooperation between school districts, community colleges, and local industry partners. Upon completing secondary schooling, P-TECH students transition into a community college where their education is meant to be a seamless continuation of the technical and academic training they had received in high school. Additionally, by working with industry partners, students gain relevant work experience that may include internships, shadowing, or apprenticeships.” 
“Power Technical: Preparing Educated and Ethical Leaders in the Trades,” Education Policy Center, Independence Institute, Jan 2020.[xiv]

“WHY BECOME AN APPRENTICE - Through an apprenticeship program, you can obtain paid, relevant workplace experience while acquiring the skills and credentials that employer’s [sic] value.
“EDUCATION - Gain workplace-relevant skills in the field of your choice through on-the-job learning.”
Apprenticeship.Gov, an official website of the United States government.[xv]

Literature, history, art, music – the humanities – not relevant?

And now for another view: recent newspaper and magazine articles that connect our current situation to literature, film, drama, history…They even dare to use the r word, stressing the relevance of works and events as distant as ancient Greece. Examples, perhaps, where our study and understanding of the humanities provides perspective and insight on our own challenges and fears in this strange time.

Our reading this spring included a review of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel, The Fatal Eggs, under the heading, “Disaster fiction”: “… as a parable of bureaucratic bungling, avoidable disaster and drastic countermeasures, it is horribly relevant.” An appreciation of Alfred Hitchcock’s murder mystery, Rear Window, noted how it “capture[d] the mental state that results from being stuck in a room for an extended period of time … In its carefully honed study of limitation—and dangers—of life lived inside four walls, Rear Window turns out to be as relevant as ever during the age of coronavirus.” And who hasn’t seen one of the references this spring—well, yes, for the past few years—after White House briefings, to George Orwell’s warnings about doublethink … well, just google 1984 – relevance.

Drama? James Shapiro’s new book, Shakespeare in a Divided America, is the latest exploration of what plays written four centuries ago can say to us: “His writing continues to function as a canary in a coal mine, alerting us to, among other things, the toxic prejudices poisoning our cultural climate” (The Denver Post, March 29, 2020). Sculpture? “Albert Giacometti’s figures,” The Economist wrote, “are as compelling today as when they were made… they have succeeded because his work still resonates. A master of vulnerability, Giacometti offers solace in an age of doubt.” Speaking of solace - Music? What is Colorado Public Radio playing each Friday evening to “honor Colorado health care workers and first responders”? Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. (For fun, cross the globe and watch this:

The humanities include the study of history. In “How to survive a plague – Disease and Democracy” (The Economist, March 28, 2020), professor Josiah Ober of Stanford University reminds us of Athens’ experience in 430 B.C. “The key to [the city’s] resilience, thinks Mr. Ober, was the ‘democratic advantage’ enjoyed by Athenians, in common with other societies based on free speech and a broad franchise. ‘We are a democracy,’ Angela Merkel reminded Germans last week. ‘We don’t achieve things by force, but through shared knowledge and co-operation.’ Much the same went for ancient Athens, which at its finest cherished truth-telling and held that good information drove out bad.” 

In that same vein, I just re-read Albert Camus’ The Plague. If you care to, read on: quotes from just the first 100 pages … eerily familiar. Relevant in a deeper sense too: on finding meaning amidst tragedy.

On that note, I leave the final word to a college senior, Robert Bellafiore Jr., at the University of Oklahoma, writing about the course, “Fate and the Individual in European Literature.” (So much for career prep!) To Bellafiore, that he and his classmates “would voluntarily submit themselves to Goethe, Melville and Dante suggests,” he stated, “that young people crave meaning… Too many students are seeking clarity and purpose and finding only cacophony and aimlessness. The Western canon offers the challenge of a lifetime, and it is one I believe my generation is willing to accept.”[xvi] A rare perspective, perhaps, but he is certainly not alone in seeking meaning and purpose from his studies. It is fundamental to the vision of a liberal arts education. It is fundamental, many of us will argue, to why school matters. More inspiring, we believe, than to proclaim that we are “building a skills-based workforce.”


From The Plague, by Albert Camus, published in 1947
Quotes from just the first 100 pages.

… But it was merely a matter of adding up the figures and, once this had been done, the total was startling. In a very few days the number of cases had risen by leaps and bounds, and it became evident to all observers of this strange malady that a real epidemic had set in. (33)

… Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise. (34)

   In this respect our townsfolk were like everybody else, wrapped up in themselves; in other words they were humanists: they disbelieved in pestilences. A pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure; therefore we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn’t always pass away and, from one bad dream to another, it is men who pass away, and the humanists first of all, because they haven’t taken their precautions. Our townsfolk were not more to blame than others; they forgot to be modest, that was all, and thought that everything still was possible for them; which presupposed that pestilences were impossible. They went on doing business, arranged for journeys, and formed views. How should they have given a thought to anything like plague, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views…. (35)

   “People in town are getting nervous, that’s a fact,” Dr. Richard admitted. “And of course all sorts of wild rumors are going round. The Prefect said to me, ‘Take prompt action if you like, but don’t attract attention.’ He personally is convinced that it’s a false alarm.” …
   “Do you know,” Castel said when they were in the car, “that we haven’t a gram of serum in the whole district?”
   “I know. I rang up the depot. The director seemed quite startled. It’ll have to be sent from _____.” (44)

… For most of them it would mean going to the hospital, and he knew how poor people    feel about hospitals. “I don’t want them trying their experiments on him,” had said the wife one of his patients. But he wouldn’t be experimented on; he would die, that was all. That the regulations now in force were inadequate was lamentably clear… The only hope was that the outbreak would die a natural death; it certainly wouldn’t be arrested by the measures the authorities had so far devised. (56)

… The Prefect took the responsibility, as he put it, of tightening up the new regulations. Compulsory declaration of all cases of fever and their isolation were to be strictly enforced. The residences of sick people were to be shot up and disinfected; persons living in the same house were to go into quarantine; burials were to be supervised by the local authorities — in a manner which will be described later on. Next day the serum arrived by plane. There was enough for immediate requirements, but not enough if the epidemic were to spread…. (58)

   From now on, it can be said that plague was the concern of all of us. Hitherto, surprised as he may have been by the strange things happening around him, each individual citizen had gone about his business as usual, so far as this was possible. And no doubt he would have continued doing so. But once the town gates were shut, every one of us realized that all, the narrator included, were, so to speak, in the same boat, and each would have to adapt himself to the new conditions of life. Thus, for example, a feeling normally as individual as the ache of separation from those one loves suddenly became a feeling in which all shared alike and — together with fear — the greatest affliction of the long period of exile that lay ahead.
   One of the most striking consequences of the closing of the gates was, in fact, this sudden deprivation befalling people who were completely unprepared for it. Mothers and children, lovers, husbands and wives, who had a few days previously taken it for granted that their parting would be a short one, who had kissed one another good-by on the platform and exchanged a few trivial remarks, sure as they were of seeing one another again after a few days or, at most, a few weeks, duped by our blind human faith in the near future… (61)

   Thus the first thing that plague brought to our town was exile….It was undoubtedly the feeling of exile — that sensation of a void within which never left us, that irrational longing to hark back to the past or else to speed up the march of time, and those keen shafts of memory that stung like fire. Sometimes we toyed with our imagination, composing ourselves to wait for a ring at the bell announcing somebody’s return, or for the sound of a familiar footstep on the stairs … when a traveler coming by the evening train would normally have arrived … (65)

… And thus there was always something missing in their lives. Hostile to the past, impatient of the present, and cheated of the future, we were much like those whom men’s justice, or hatred, forces to live behind prison bars. Thus the only way of escaping from that intolerable leisure was to set the trains running again in one’s imagination and in filling the silence with the fancied tinkle of a doorbell, in practice obstinately mute. 
   Still, if it was an exile, it was, for most of us, exile in one’s own home. (67)

… Nevertheless, many continued hoping that the epidemic would soon die out and they and their families be spared. Thus they felt under no obligation to make any change in their habits as yet. Plague was for them an unwelcome visitant, bound to take its leave one day as unexpectedly as it had come. Alarmed, but far from desperate, they hadn’t yet reached the phase when plague would seem to them the very tissue of their existence; when they forgot the lives that until now it had been given them to lead. In short, they were waiting for the turn of events. (85) 

… The only thing gained by all this expenditure of energy … was that it served to keep his mind off his predicament. In fact, the rapid progress of the plague practically escaped his notice. Also, it made the days pass more quickly and, given the situation in which the whole town was placed, it might be said that every day lived through brought everyone, provided he survived, twenty-four hours nearer the end of his ordeal. (99)

The Plague, translated by Stuart Gilbert, The Modern Library, New York, 1948.


[i] “The Business of Education – is Education” (Feb. 7, 2018) - A collection of eight newsletters examining the purpose of K-12 education.
Is it to prepare young people for jobs?
Are schools and community colleges expected to serve business and adopt training for the workplace as part of their mission? 
Do academic expectations come first—before we start to send our juniors and seniors out of the classroom much of their final two years—to work?
Most of us still believe, do we not, that public education has a more noble and ambitious purpose than career prep?
[ii] AV #156 included an Addendum with quotes from over 10 men and women advocating for the liberal arts.
[xvi] “Millennials Hit the Great Books,” by Robert Bellafiore Jr., Wall Street Journal, April 26, 2018.