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Studying the humanities greatly enriches our lives

At Erie Community College, our faculty recently considered the importance of general education competencies as they draw from the humanities. Consider these opposing viewpoints:

“It is the greatest good for a man to discuss virtue every day … for the unexamined life is not worth living.”

- Socrates

“When life gives you lemons, suck citrus; lemonade is for children and humanities majors.”

– George Saunders

Why study the humanities? Don’t we know instinctively how to be human by virtue of birth? The answer is no, and, like Socrates, good teachers should argue in favor of the importance of the humanities even after retirement.

Everything that is important in education is grounded in the humanities. Without our humanness, we would have no need for math or science or computer repair technology. Without our humanness, we are reduced to the mere machinery of corporate America, passively assisting the store patron with that ubiquitous customer service response: “I don’t know; can I put you on hold?”

A recent faculty retreat illuminated the human questions of the ages: Why am I here? And what am I supposed to be doing?

It takes a lifetime of study to begin to answer what Sir Thomas Malory affirmed from his prison cell: that after all the battles have been fought, the king of choice is on the throne, and the kingdom expanded to the edges of the landscape; what’s left to occupy the survivors is service to others.

Good teachers know this instinctively. They realize that in order to encourage the Prince Hamlets of ECC, especially in a poor economy, they must welcome them into the vast conversation of formally educated people who say “yes” to the progress of human understanding.

True educators raise the consciousness of students through great literature. They fire like the great and powerful Oz to inspire the knowledge, heart and courage already kindling within each student, They use the words of Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, John Steinbeck and Kurt Vonnegut. They give students the tools to unlock poetic mystery; they acquaint them with the passion of Edna St. Vincent Millay, or the self-effacement of Emily Dickinson, or the self-deprecating humor of Dorothy Parker. They might find humility and the rewards of service in the works of Willa Cather or Lorraine Hansberry. Good teachers introduce their students to heroes and to losers; they invite them to choose which to become, and they try not to preach.

At ECC, we have discrete programs: degree and certificate. A training program guarantees licensure. A degree program implies education in the sense of its root word, i.e., “to lead out of,” or another definition, “the free and disinterested pursuit of knowledge.”

Recently, the economist and current president of Brown University, Christina Paxson, reminded educators that, “we progress in the humanities with ‘constructive irreverence.’ That means listening to dissent, questioning authority, following one’s individual conscience, but always within a framework of respect for the community.”

That is why we will never have complete agreement about the contents of any course in the humanities. We should teach according to our individual strengths, and we should be vigilant about strengthening the content of our courses. Why? Because doing so increases the value of education and contributes to the possibility that the essence of human life will continue.

Good stewards of the humanities understand the sacredness of class time and the immeasurable value of meaningful, face-to-face human exchange. They encourage their students to leave their egos, their problems, their cellphones and their chewing tobacco at the door; and to enter into the privilege of uninterrupted intellectual focus.

Let’s protect what could be a student’s only chance for immersion into the concentrated study of the mind of man and woman. Let’s not readily relinquish our opportunity for face-to-face persuasion to the sirens of monitors that have dominated the mental lives of most of our students. Those born in the 1990s – the “Wild West” of online education; the gaming and Facebook generation – are sometimes tired of being passed off to a screen. They need living and breathing role models to talk to them. Yes, yes, the screens are here to stay, but let’s keep the human in the humanities.

This semester, a hero at ECC South is a young student named Thomas Kujawski, who will graduate soon. The owner of a local car dealership offered him a job right out of high school, but he said he wanted to go to college, so the man is paying his tuition with the guarantee that he will work for two years after graduation. Kujawski appreciates poets of the auto-tech major, e.e. cummings and C.K. Williams. He is front and left for every class. He wants to work on cars, but he wants to understand more than machines.

It is our great privilege to introduce William Shakespeare to students like Kujawski. He may never get another chance to compare couplers to rhyming couplets. He is talented with a wrench, but his membership in the human race is what makes him want to learn what courses in the humanities have to offer.

Indeed, we do not always know the future benefit of what we study. Kujawski is wise enough to realize that there’s something about the outcome of college that means more than a job. It means he will become a valuable runner in the race that is human.

Rosemary Tomani is a professor of English at Erie Community College South Campus.