As I think more about "World Canonical Texts" as part of a "World Humanities" curriculum, I was alerted to the big discussions since mid-2013 as people in US try to defend (funding for) Humanities. Summarizing arguments I see (from simple Google search):
1. John Horgan (Jun 20, 2013): Because our dominant culture is science-based; humanities help students to be skeptical and question authority.
Note: This does not address why this needs to be done through reading the Western canon.
2. Daniel Schwarz (Oct 7, 2013): (primarily on arts) Joy and pleasure; makes us more perceptive and sensitive human beings; improves "quality of life". Utility-wise, helps us think, read, write and speak better.
Note: Joy and pleasure is real enough - the issue though is why government should fund this rather than movies-going? "Better" human beings argument is very general - but rooted in the Renaissance concept of humanity I guess. On the utility part, sounds like every topics that requires writing essays will work - but maybe that training only comes from humanities anyway.
3. Stanford "The Human Experience": Defines humanities as the study of how people process and document the human experience. Benefits? 1) Gain insight by thinking better; 2) Obtain knowledge about our past, present to help imagine the future.
Note: This is actually quite well thought-out I have to say.
4. Verlyn Klinkenborg (Jun 22, 2013): "humanities ... a set of disciplines that is ultimately an attempt to examine and comprehend the cultural, social and historical activity of our species through the medium of language." The argument is that humanities help writing, because "writing well isn't just a utilitarian skill. It is about developing a rational grace and energy in your conversation with the world around you."
Note: This focus on the output rather than the input is interesting, and clearly writing is a skill that is useful for many careers.
Some responses to Klinkenborg's article are also interesting:
5. Stephen Kass (Jun 24, 2013): "The problems facing our country have ... to do ... with the failure ... to understand the values, institutions and reciprocal commitments that bind a society together and link the future of our democracy to the dreams, welfare and rights of people throughout the world." And humanities is essential for that understanding.
Note: This linkage of humanities to "understanding" (a form of knowledge) for the sake of a political future is intriguing.
6. Joshua Pederson (Jun 23, 2013): "the values the humanities promote -- clear expression, deep engagement with difficult texts, the importance of function and aesthetics, the power of imagination -- are valuable everywhere."
Note: What does not tie for me is how clear expression is integral with "difficult texts." It seems the "writing" advantage is external to the canonical texts - one can teach writing with clear expression using any content.
7. Marke Rubenstein (Jun 23, 2013): he argues that only humanities can teach "critical thinking skills."
Note: Now THAT is a strong claim.
8. Susan Seidman (Jun 24, 2014): "If you'd like to be a writer one day ... learn some of the fascinating things in our great wide world that you may want to write about."
Note: It is a great complementary statement that you learn something (like history) in humanities, and at the same time get training in writing.
9. Harvard: "we seek to understand, interpret and enjoy significant forms of human expression." "we transmit an understanding that enables the active, questioning, engaged attitude to life in society we consider essential to good citizenship, good living, and professional success."
Note: The "enjoy" and "good life" parts stand out. The linkage to "good citizenship" is again a political vision or belief.
10. Laurie Zierer (Aug 4, 2013): "Through humanities ... we develop critical thinking skills, empathy for others and a sense of purpose in our lives and our power to make a collective difference. Humanities are the heart of the matter, animating our democracy and making us better citizens of the world."
Note: Again a link to "democracy" and "citizenship."
Ok now, looked at 10 opinions - I am sure there are more out there, but let's just stop here. It is well noted that all these are opinions in the US.
What is my personal take on these?
A. I like a narrower definition of humanities - should not be lumped with arts and social science (with the exception of history).
B. Benefits have at least two levels - firstly personal for the student, and secondly for the "society" if enough of these students are exposed to humanities.
C. Benefits for the students: taking a narrower view of humanities (i.e. exclude social science), I would reject the claim that humanities is unique in helping students write better, read better or think better. Studying humanities have those effects, but these skills can be obtained by studying say sociology or psychology.
D. So for the benefits of the students, studying humanities need at least a justification based on what is actually learnt (the knowledge piece). I would say humanities have been a factually significant -- and perhaps historically dominant -- form of human's intellectual pursuit, and thus a student without exposure to at least the basics of humanities is as "under-educated" as a student who has not understanding of the basics of science or the basics of economics. The bolded statement helps justify the significance of both the knowledge and the mode of (critical) thinking involved.
E. Studying humanities are enjoyable for some - but I think this argument is not a good reason why societal resources (funding) should be spent in this area (why not spend on free movie nights for students instead?); rather, this is better targeted towards arguing that exposure to humanities should be done using texts that have withstood the test of time - generations of prior teachers and students have found the canonical texts significant and rewarding for those who study them. And of course, if the initial reason to even consider being exposed to humanities is because of their actual historical significance, then starting with canonical texts make all the more sense.
F. If the justification of humanities is based on its actual historical significance for "humans" collectively considered, it makes sense to rethink the right "balance" of the texts selected. I notice that in the comments I have listed above, no one is making the claim for (western) humanities because it is "our" (however defined) heritage.
G. Benefits to society - or benefits to the student to become "good citizen" - is often mentioned, not least because the discussion has revolved around societal funding for teaching humanities in undergraduate level. I find these argument less convincing, in that if something is critical to societal functioning, then one could argue that those should be included as part of compulsory education -- why only for those we can attend some sort of undergraduate education (no matter how prevalent undergraduate education has become, it is not compulsory). On the other hand, if it is so important, why shouldn't this be taught to all graduate students also? Something in the argument assumes the role of undergraduate education within the whole education system, that is not quite explicitly articulated.
In summary, this is how I think humanities can and should be defended on the undergraduate level:
- Humanities have been a factually significant -- and perhaps historically dominant -- form of human's intellectual pursuit. Thus exposure to humanities is important for undergrads who upon obtaining their Bachelor degrees are expected by society to be "reasonably well-educated."
- Canonical texts are the materials in humanities that are most factually significant, and considered rewarding / enjoyable to study - thus they are great components in any curriculum targeting to give undergrad a meaningful exposure to humanities.
- Upon going through such a curriculum based on world canonical texts, undergraduates would obtain better knowledge and understanding of the human past and present in its unity and diversity.
- As with all courses with significant reading, writing and discussion components, such courses would as a side benefit contribute to the development of the students' writing and critical thinking skills.
- Humanities / world canonical texts are important in every stage of education, both before and after undergrad. The reasons why society may provide the most support for such curriculum at the early undergraduate level could include: a) most students at that point start to have language capability to read scholarly translations of world canonical texts (after SAT); b) some (limited number of) undergrads may actual enjoy humanities so much that they would like to concentrate on some forms of humanities as their major and/or graduate degree, thus intro at early undergrad level makes sense; c) for a good portion of students, they would still have 2-3 years of remaining undergrad years plus 1-3 years of grad years to go through (these later years can be devoted to fields of vocational training / specialization), thus spending time at early undergrad for "general education" such as exposure to humanities, especially at a time when grades do not matter as much (compared w/ high school), is a "luxury" that at least the "better" undergrad programs could/should accomodate.