Defining the role of the humanities may be one of the most difficult parts of designing a general education curriculum, for the humanities have played differing roles in the undergraduate curriculum over the past two hundred years. Originally, of course, the humanities were the foundation of the liberal arts curriculum. In 1824, the Yale College faculty defined the goal of this curriculum as “the discipline and furniture of the mind.” As the 19th century advanced, research took a dominant role in the lives of faculty and the university began to organize itself around disciplines. At the same time, the university became focused on preparing students for an increasingly broad range of professions. The result was the “distribution” approach to the undergraduate curriculum, with humanities being taught largely through a series of introductory courses in literature, history, and philosophy. In the 1930s, the “Great Books” attempted to make the humanities the center of a general education program that focused on the cultural heritage of great works of western civilization.
The latter half of the 20th century saw other experiments with approaches that took different approaches to the humanities. I discussed several of these in detail in The Meaning of General Education. Here are some snapshots:
* Contemporary Civilization at Columbia University began as a response to the state of society at the end of World War I. Its purpose, as stated in the 1920-21catalog, was to enable the student “to understand the civilization of his own day and to participate effectively in it.”
*The Experimental College, created by Alexander Meiklejohn at the University of Wisconsin in the 1930s, with the goal, as Meiklejohn described it of “the building up of self-direction . . . trying to create or cultivate intelligence, capable o f eing applied in any field of scholarly work.” The primary task, he wrote, was “the education of comment men . . .in terms of the kind of thinking which all men are called upon to do in the enduring relations of life.” The freshman year curriculum focused on ancient Greece, the foundation of classical humanism, while the sophomore year focused on 19th century (and, later, 20th century) American culture, with the idea that the program would help students understand how different people in different times approached similar problems. One can argue that problem solving was the underlying goal of the curriculum.
*The Great Books Program evolved out of what John Maynard Hutchins described as a “permanent studies” program based on the idea that “it is impossible to understand any subject or to comprehend the contemporary world” without understanding the ideas contained in the great books of western civilization.
Over the past few decades, however, the humanities have seen rough times. As the demand for humanities graduates has declined, so has the central role of humanism in the curriculum. At the same time, as the distribution system has re-asserted itself, the institution’s role of teaching the humanities has declined as institutions increasingly encourage the transfer of credits from high school and community college curricula to meet general education requirements.
That said, institutions recently have made some interesting experiments that may point the way. For instance, in October 2015, Tania Lombrozo wrote about two University of California-Berkeley faculty who offer the humanities as a way to “open our eyes to the distinctive ways that people in different places and in different times, in different cultures and in different groups, have imagined what it means to be human." Their interdisciplinary approach “is the study of the different ways that human beings have chosen or been able to live their lives as human beings.”
What, then, should be the role of the humanities in a 21st century general education curriculum? As the Berkeley innovation suggests, the answer lies, in part at least, in an understanding that the basic role of the humanities is to help students understand how people understand what it means to be human—to live in a human community in particular times and particular places. At the same time, we need to acknowledge that, in the global information society, the experience of ancient Greece is no longer the sole source of inspiration. We no longer live within a culture defined by the traditions of western civilization, but in a diverse global society. As William Irwin Thompson noted in Transforming History: A New Curriculum for a Planetary Culture (Landisfarne Books, 2009), “Humanity is now experiencing the release of heat in a phase change because our whole matrix of identity is shifting, from a culture of economic acquisitiveness and patriotic fervor to a new planetary culture in which science and spirituality are the diploid parents of a new matrix of consciousness” (p. 24). The goal of the humanities in the general education curriculum must be to prepare students to live in a multi-cultural global society in which the actions of individuals are shaped by and connected to the community by technology.
With that in mind, the humanities component of a general education curriculum should provide students with an understanding of how people from different times and cultures addressed similar problems and, then, have the student use those understandings to address current problems facing society today. The specific course design would vary based on the institution’s mission, the student population involved, and other factors. However, several key elements should be presents: The program should be problem-centered, with a problem statement providing a context for reading key documents; the program should be inquiry oriented, giving students an opportunity to explore documents to find ideas that can be used to address the problem; and the program should be interdisciplinary, allowing students to see the issue of multiple perspectives (i.e., historical, philosophical, social).
For example, a humanities course might use historical and philosophical studies to help students understand how people from different cultures in history reacted to similar problems—the rise of agricultural communities, for instance, or the emergence empires due to territorial conquest. Then, the students could work on how those experiences might inform how our culture could best respond to a current issue, such as mass migrations due to political revolution or climate change. Some institutions may be able to partner with peers in other cultures to use online technology to allow students to interact across cultures to find compatible solutions.
Ultimately, the key issue is that a general education curriculum should incorporate an active, collaborative, research-based, problem-centered approach to the humanities as opposed to simple survey courses on western philosophy, history, etc.