The Humanities Keep Us Human

(Note: This essay was originally published in Education Week on January 6, 2015.)

President Obama’s announcement in the fall 2014 of an additional $28 million to bolster STEM teachers was great news and reminded me of my passion for science during those heady days of the Kennedy “Camelot” when the president announced the goal of reaching the moon. In a speech before a special joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961, he said: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project…will be more exciting, or more impressive to mankind, or more important…and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”

During those days, the Cold War—the state of tension between the U.S. and the Soviet Union—was in full swing. Several years before in 1957, the Soviets had leapt out in front us in the space race with the launching of Sputnik. There were fears of a “missile gap” by which the Soviets, leading the U.S. in missile technology, could intimidate, coerce, and—at worse—attack us with nuclear missiles, and we could not defend ourselves. Fallout shelters were all the rage.

Though the STEM acronym did not exist at the time, I was STEM through and through: Sputnik, Telstar, missiles, spaceships, those great missile-like fins on the ‘57 Chevy and the ‘59 Cadillac, and atom-smashing accelerators. Hollywood gave us all those great, corny, “B” science fiction movies. I was all in.

The president’s Educate to Innovate program is now five-years old. When Obama launched it on November 23, 2009, he described it as “a nationwide effort to help reach the goal this administration has set: moving to the top in science and math education in the next decade.” The White House has portrayed it as “an all-hands-on-deck campaign to help more girls and boys be inspired to excel in science, technology, engineering , and math (STEM) subjects.” The program has sought a synergistic effort, using the combined forces of government, education leaders, foundations, companies, non-profits, and scientific and technology professionals. Its major components have included such initiatives as the 100kin10 (seeking to prepare 100,000 excellent STEM teachers over the next decade), Change the Equation (a coalition of CEOs committed to expanding STEM programs to more than 1 million students by 2016), and Discovery Communications (launching a new show next year to inspire students in STEM fields, highlighting “All –American makers”).  Even though I chose not to become a scientist, I am all for this.

However, caution is needed here, a caution against imbalance. In our rush to emphasize the empirical sciences, we must be careful not to reduce too much the resources devoted to the Humanities, the mix of subjects normally including the language arts, history, philosophy, religion, and the visual and performing arts. (STEM in recent years has, in some circles, morphed to STEAM, integrating the visual and performing arts.) Science and technology have given us wondrous benefits and conveniences. I can imagine the relief in back pain when 5,500 years ago we invented the wheel. I relish the ability to communicate with ease with my friends in Germany or Skype with my grandchildren far away. Nonetheless, we should not place STEM on a pedestal too high. It brought us the wheel, the polio vaccine, and the Internet; it also brought us napalm, cluster bombs, and the atomic bomb.

STEM can give us the “what and why” of the physical universe, but not the “ought.” Beyond the molecules, fractions, and scientific laws that govern the physical universe, the Humanities, collectively, teach us about “human-ness” and our relationships with each other. They help us connect with each other, understand each other, and cooperate rather than conflict with each other. As the world gets smaller and as we are forced to share more of its fewer resources, it is the Humanities along with the social sciences that will help us cooperate, coexist, continue, and even flourish rather than cancel each other.

Artwork, Humanities Keep Us Human, 1-7-15

We need the language arts. When I decided in 10th grade to study German, little did I know that almost thirty years later, I would be using German to interview former communists of the East German army about German Unification (1990). As anyone who understands a foreign language appreciates, actually living in another language—rather than relying on translations–gives one a much richer and comprehensive understanding of that people, a larger and more nuanced window into the world of that society.

We need English and literature so that we can see and employ the beauty and utility of the spoken, recited, sung, and written word. We cannot think without words. The more sophisticated our vocabulary; the more sophisticated and subtle our thoughts, especially important as we increasingly rely on clipped and mangled English in the digital world. Also through reading about other humans, we can learn more of ourselves. Finally, in my first career as a professional Army officer, during the challenging times I faced, it was not the First Law of Thermodynamics or Newton’s Second Law of Motion that sustained me. It was Shakespeare, Beethoven, and Frost.

We need history. The historical method teaches us how to weigh carefully the credibility and reliability of the sources from which we derive our information and hence our picture of reality. Though I strongly disliked all the “curricular requirements” faceless, unnamed but clearly highly-credentialed educators from the College Board heaped on me as an AP history teacher, I appreciated how these forced me to teach my students such essentials as the difficulties of pursuing knowledge and causality in history compared to the STEM subjects. Crucial is also the skill of patiently and thoroughly asking questions—before the first word of the document is read—about the creator of the document (or visual).

We need philosophy and ethics. More here than in the other Humanities, especially for students who prefer rationality and linearity, is where we can learn to deal with ambiguity and irrationality, where we can grapple with essential questions which have no right answers. In my “War & Morality” course, we deal with such questions as: When is it right to use violence against other human beings? Who is to judge whether there is “just cause” to begin a war? How many alternatives must a state attempt before it is using violence truly as a “last resort”?  My students role-play a post-World War II commission, examining whether the British-American fire-bombing of Dresden in February 1945 was a war crime. We end the course with the political, military, legal, and finally ethical implications of using drones in warfare. Moreover, in a world where so much emphasis is placed on “metrics” to measure, these subjects can force us to deal with factors that resist quantitative measurement: trust in Ferguson, Missouri; mistrust with Iran; the fundamentalism and hatred of ISIS.

And finally, there is religion. Whether one is a believer or non-believer, understanding the history of the world’s major religions, their role in societies, and their influence in shaping our world today is crucial to any educated person and engaged citizen. Religion also can give us words and ideas for our celebrations as well as for our commemorations and memorials.

After a Western Civilization lesson on the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire, one of my Chinese remained after class. She was curious about Jesus Christ and the broader subject of religion and society. I asked her about religion in China. She indicated that she was never really taught religion, and followed by saying that if there was any “religion” in Chinese education, it would be “science.”

In ancient Greece even wealthy, aristocratic non-Greeks would journey to the famous Oracle at Delphi to seek guidance on their most pressing questions. One of the most common responses the oracle gave was: Meden Agan (Moderation in all things.) STEM must be complemented with an ample ration of the Humanities rather than displace it. Giving too much emphasis to STEM may cause us to lose too much of our HUMAN-ness.

(A retired Army officer, Fred Zilian teaches history and political science at Salve Regina University, RI.)



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7 Responses to The Humanities Keep Us Human

  1. Daniel F. Meucci says:


    Mr. Obama’s program STEM is a step in the right direction. Yet, I can’t help but feel the 28 million dollars spent on STEM could have been used to create more Charter Schools. Our inner city schools are undisciplined and destroy the environment in which to teach. As a former teacher at Carnegie Abby, you understand the importance of discipline in the classroom. Please read the WJL article, “Orderliness in School-What a Concept” by Ms. Moskowitz dated March 15, 2016…So yes I enjoyed your article about the STEM program but feel we need to work in the inner cities to help children overcome their ghetto values which include fighting, drugs, disrespect for authority and bad role models…Charter Schools are giving hope to many minority families in the inner city.

    Thank you for your article.

    Best Regards,

    • Fred Zilian says:


      I fully agree that values and principles remain the core of education. Without such character education and formation, educational content and methodology and the type of school structure and governance will not have their full effect. The question is how much of this core character development we should ask our schools to accomplish. I feel that we have come to ask too much of our schools. Character formation and development should be accomplished primarily by social institutions starting with the family and the community.

      • Fred,
        I feel we have not asked enough of our Public Schools in the formation of character. Instead, we have abandoned our minority children to the chaos of the inner city and dysfunctional the family. In the 20s, 30s, 40’s, and 50’s the school was the only place all children were in a safe disciplined environment where basic learning took place. Today we have replaced our traditional values for a politically correct (humanistic-key word like social justice) for an undisciplined group of minority kids who terrorise anyone who wants to learn anything but ghetto values. Hence, role models become the drug dealers and social deviants with their own language and practices which uphold the welfare state.
        Public Education could put a big dent in bad behavior if discipline was restored and academic honesty was held in high regard instead of social pass and get them out the door as fast as possible. The money is spent on politically correct curriculums instead of core courses. They are told how white America has held minorities back much like slavery did…liberal teachers create environments where undisciplined kids are free to express (yell and scream in class) and disrupt the learning process…(Socialist Authors like Howard Zinn used in classroom)
        Children need discipline and a little fear to help them do the work necessary to be successful in later life. To, much emphasis is put on cheerleading and sports, which takes away from their basic understanding of reading, writing and math. Many RI high schools score in
        the low 35% to 40% level on basic reading and tests. Charter schools with less money and fewer sports and cheerleading reach 89% to 99% on the same test? Why? BASIC DISCIPLINE
        Summary either we change Public Education to the voucher system where families have a choice to either sent their kids to Public Schools or Charter schools or watch as the level of intelligence continues to go down.

  2. Fred Zilian says:


    Thank you for your extensive comment on this.

    We agree on the need for discipline. We may disagree on the role that public schools can and should play in instilling discipline. I feel social institutions outside the school–such as the immediate family, the extended family, the godparents, the sports coaches, the church leaders–must provide the foundation of discipline. Schools should then have a reinforcing role. Overall we ask too much of our schools and not enough of the other components of society.


  3. Robert Jones says:

    Fred – Not sure if you read Harvard President’s speech at USMA.

    Dan – Many RI high schools score in the low 35% to 40% level on basic reading and tests. Charter schools with less money and fewer sports and cheerleading reach 89% to 99% on the same test? Why? BASIC DISCIPLINE.

    Factually, it is not correct that all charter schools do as well as publics at a lower cost. The sad reality is in her ideological zeal to push charters, RI created charters in areas (such as in South County region) that actually underperform and cost more than the traditional schools they take kids from, despite the fact the schools are primarily (overwhelmingly in fact) taking white, middle/upper class students. I fully concur that some charters, like Blackstone Valley, that take minority, lower income students from urban schools are showing improved educational results; unfortunately, I believe the former Commissioner violated the “first do no harm” rule in proliferating charters without understanding the second and third order impacts of such expansion. They have little oversight and accountability to taxpayers and in some cases are hurting schools that have outperformed (at least by metrics like test scores, chronic absenteeism) the charters.

    For example, the “sibling rule” (while I understand the point of making it easier for families) reinforces the initial conditions – that is, schools that started off drawing white, non low-income students become increasingly homogenous. Take Kingston Hill and Compass near URI. This year, 65% of the openings at Kingston Hill went to siblings (from white, non-low income households; Compass is 96% white and less than 10% low income) — how is that system creating “opportunities for the most disadvantaged students in traditional public schools”?

    The charters have also impacted private, especially religious, schools where arguably character is a central component of education (note even the Diocese came out with comments about the impact of charters on catholic schools).

    I must also disagree; sports along with other co-curricular activities are wonderful opportunities for leadership, character development, and enriching educational experiences. I worry with charters that in operating on shoestring budgets in some cases, there are no sports and heavily curtailed co-curricular and related (music, arts, etc.) programs.

    I do agree though that our government leaders increasingly see societal problems and believe the school system is the place to address those, piling on unfunded mandates or more requirements that compete with lots of other requirements for a limited amount of time, talent, and money. I feel we have lost sight of what economists would say is the “comparative advantage” of schools in making them the substitute parents for children instead of the harder task of holding our social institutions as Fred noted accountable.

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