A Plea for Humanistic Education

By Curtler, Hugh Mercer | Modern Age, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

A Plea for Humanistic Education


Curtler, Hugh Mercer, Modern Age


IN ONE OF THE LAST THINGS he wrote before he died in 1961, Carl Jung worried about the likelihood that America would succumb to a "collectivist belief." This would occur because of our "materialist and collectivist" character and our lack of a sense of history. In Jung's words, America "is perhaps more vulnerable than Europe, since her educational system is the more influenced by the scientific Weltanschauung with its statistical truths, and her mixed population finds it difficult to strike roots in a soil that is practically without history. The historical and humanistic type of education so sorely needed in such circumstances leads, on the contrary, a Cinderella existence." (1)

I want to echo Jung's concerns and suggest that our educational system is steeped in the scientific Weltanschauung, and, further, that it is struck dumb by the seductions of vocationalism and over-specialization. I would like to suggest that we do, in fact, need to return to a broader and more "historical and humanistic" approach to education. The problem is compounded not only by the confusion of purpose within the academy itself--currently focused upon cultural battles that divide teaching faculty into warring camps and render curriculum development haphazard at best--but also by the lack of preparation of our students. I will address each of these issues in turn, beginning with a quick look at the data that suggest that Robert P. George, of Princeton University, was not exaggerating when he said that "our students come to us already profoundly miseducated; we simply complete the job." (2)

According to U.C.L.A.'s Higher Education Research Institute, American college students are "increasingly disengaged from the academic experience." (3) This claim was graphically demonstrated in the case of Peter Sacks, who recently found out that the students in his classroom in a California Community College

  do not read the assigned material. They avoid participating in class
  discussions, they expect high grades for mediocre work, they ask for
  fewer assignments, they resent attendance requirements, they complain
  about course workloads, they do not like "tough" and demanding
  professors, they do not prepare adequately for tests or class, they
  skip opportunities to improve their class performance and grade, they
  are impatient with deliberate analysis, they regard intellectual
  pursuits as "boring," they resist the intrusion of course requirements
  on their time and they are apathetic and defeatist in the face of
  challenge. (4)

Not only are they disengaged, as Sacks attests, but they do not seem to be very well informed about rudimentary facts, either. As Benjamin Stein noted in a Washington Post story, in his work with Los Angeles focus groups made up of high school and college students,

  none could place the date of the Declaration of Independence. I could
  not find one single student in either high school or college who could
  tell me the years when World War II was fought. Nor have I found one
  who could tell me the years when World War I was fought. Nor could I
  find one who knew when the Civil War was fought.... (5)

These anecdotes are confirmed by research done for the National Education Progress Report of 1976 that shows a drop in general knowledge among college students of 11 percent between 1969 and 1976. That drop has continued and was confirmed by a N.A.E.P. study conducted in 1985 which shows that, by 1984, 56 percent fewer students scored above 600 on the SATs than in 1972 and 73 percent fewer scored above 650. The problem became so serious recently that the College Board found it necessary to raise the SAT scores. "This was accomplished by a 'non-linear transformation' of the verbal SAT from 425 to 500." (6)

According to the report Nation At Risk, published in 1983, American students do not compare favorably with students in other industrialized nations of the world, failing to come in first or second on any of 19 academic tests and coming in last seven times. …

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