More humanity in the humanities

We need more humanity in the humanities.

I recently attended a conference at which the teaching of undergraduate music students was a core focus. I was heartened by the many voices who advocated for building communities of trust, and for empowering students to be mindful agents. But I was also disheartened by the many who seem to view their students as the objects of their teaching, rather than subjects who act in their own right. As immature “kids” who need to be spoon-fed content, and watched like a hawk come assessment time. As ignorant beings worthy of derision, rather than adults with a diversity of brilliances—all of which could be harnessed in service of the class’s intellectual and musical growth.

In a word, these attitudes are dehumanizing. And these attitudes are all too common. Most of our students have experienced this dehumanization in some form. It should come as no surprise, then, when some of our students enter our classes predisposed to anxiety, suspicious of our aims as teachers, and with defenses in place. When that is the case, I believe our job as teachers is to rehumanize—to restore the agency of our students, to equip and empower them to use it wisely, to awaken them to awareness of this power, and to help them feel society’s need for more people to wield it well.

For some time now, I’ve seen this (re)humanization project as the proper work of the critical pedagogue. But I’d like to offer that it is the proper work of every teacher, particularly those who dare call themselves humanists.

For ages, we “humanists” have studied the artifacts of humans long departed. And we have done so primarily in scholarly isolation. In that sense, I believe that humanists, and the humanities, are inappropriately named. Those whose primary interest is the artifacts of dead humans should be called “artifactists.” The word “humanist” should be reserved for the one who sees the humanization of others as their primary goal.

In this sense, the humanist focuses on the development of students’ intellect more than the presentation of content. The humanist studies the abilities, knowledge, and passions of their students more than the activities of dead celebrities. The humanist helps students to develop their own social technologies rather than requiring them to use pre-determined digital or paper technologies. The humanist cares more about the legacy of the humans in front of them than the legacy of the humans behind them.

I’m sure my proposed redefinition of “humanist” will not gain much traction. Maybe none at all. But I hope that in whatever context we teach—the arts, the sciences, the “humanities”; the academy, the faith community, the family, the soccer pitch—we can take our minds off of the content for a time, discover the brilliance of those around us, help them cultivate it, and send them off to use it to change the world.