Wednesday, September 10, 2014

English Major and Humanities Education

At the start of each semester my students -- as all grad students -- introduce themselves to the class. In the class on Nonfiction and the Common Core I'm teaching at Rutgers, one theme quickly emerged: because nearly all of the students had been undergraduate English majors they  were well read in classic and contemporary fiction. Depending on their age, whether they were parents, or already working in a library, some also had a working knowledge of novels or fiction picture books for children, tweens, and or teenagers. But that also meant that many of them had not been asked to any close reading of nonfiction. Some had recently read Unbroken, or The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, others soon realized that they read quite a lot of nonfiction articles in various formats (online, magazine, blog, etc.). But it is striking that one can have a fine undergraduate education centered on reading text, and never hone the skills of reading nonfiction.

My own interest has always been in cultural history -- that is, how every aspect of creativity and life ways allow us to understand the worldviews of people in another time and place; and, in turn, how knowing a time and place gives us new insight into the ideas, creations, actions that were crafted in that period. I trace that back to my K-12 education where every year we had a Core subject, such that whatever period or subject we studied in Social Studies was echoed in the novels, plays, poetry from that period that we read in English. In Eighth grade our Core subject was science, so science, social studies, and English overlapped. This just seems logical to me. Why not use the arts of a period to help understand the people, politics, economics, wars, ideas of the time? Why not place the paintings, plays, poems, songs, novels of a time into the context in which they were created?

I think part of the problem we have with nonfiction and the CC is that so many of the well-meaning teachers and librarians who are tasked with implementing the standards come from an English Major background in which fictional text was never linked to time, place, culture, outlook. Thus while everyone knows about pairing fiction and nonfiction, the professionals asked to make those links do not have a strong background in seeing the intersection and interaction of art and history. Indeed, I suspect, too many see art -- fiction for example -- as an opportunity for empathic exploration: identifying with a character and thus simultaneously going on a journey with him/her and seeing oneself in a new light, while nonfiction is seen as cold, distant, a set of unchangeable names, dates, causes, and effects to be memorized. They do not have the experience of nonfiction as active inquiry that is as revealing and exploratory as fiction,

We need a national seminar in humanities education -- linking art, social studies, and science -- to get get both English Majors and Nonfiction fans out of their ghettos and into the playpen where really fun ideas are born. 

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