I Turned Off News Notifications and Realized the Importance of the Humanities

Douglas Ray
March 13, 2017
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Just after the winter break in 2012, when I was teaching English at Indian Springs School in Alabama, I had a new student join my class. The social and political upheaval in Damascus had made it difficult for him to go to school in Syria, and so he joined our community. We’ve stayed in touch since I’ve moved to Western Reserve Academy, since he’s made his way through college, and as the world has shifted into a world where I wonder if that passage from Syria to America today would have been as seamless.

In late January, as protests were happening in airports and the media were doing their best to report what was happening to people looking to enter new lives in America—looking for the comfort promised in Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus”—I turned off news notifications on my phone. I was in a massive room in Philadelphia with my colleague Kate Mueller at Carney Sandoe & Associates’ Diversity Forum, part conference and part hiring fair. One purpose of this particular hiring fair was to facilitate candidates from diverse backgrounds connecting with independent schools, which are (with few exceptions) Predominately White Institutions. Part of our aim in attending was to diversify our faculty to match the diversity of our student and family population.

Diversity, difference, and a range of ideas and experiences enhance education. That did not have to be spoken at the Diversity Forum. It was axiomatic. I always tell my students that reading and writing are social and political acts—that we do not read and write in a vacuum that avoids the difficult questions. When reading Macbeth with my sophomores earlier this year, they saw what the unbridled pursuit of power does to one’s humanity and one’s capacity to rule. When reading Athol Fugard’s “Master Harold”…and the boys, set in the early days of South Africa’s Apartheid, they realized the dangers of classifying people and limiting them according to classification, of having people of the same experience and ideas in power, of marking people as “other” and the quickstep to “lesser than,” of not seeing clearly or listening with interest. The problematic practice of marking someone (entire groups, actually) as “other” and thus unworthy crystallized further when we read Camus’ The Stranger and “The Guest.”

This distance between the ethical concerns of these works set in Scotland, South Africa, and Algeria and today’s America is short. My students see the connections in questions: Who do we mark as worthy and welcome? Who holds power and how does power make decisions? How are borders crossed and constructed and with what implications? What does difference mean with regards to community values? No, these questions are not new, but today they seem all the more urgent. They are the questions that are essential in the humanities classrooms, in the halls of power, on the streets, in our homes, in and between borders. Maybe that’s what keeps those who write and teach doing so: stumbling with questions aching in our throats, these questions breeding others, ever more urgent and now, now, now.

We were interviewing for positions in the humanities, and I think we both felt a heightened sense of urgency with what our mission was. Maybe that urgency was due to the fact that Dr. Cornell West had spoken to us moments before and reminded us of the difficult and necessary work of reading, writing, and thinking in such a way that we live, love, work, and build together—all of us, across difference. We thought of the “beloved community” that Dr. King imagined, and we think on those intentional communities, where living and learning together happens, that independent schools aim to be.

As we talked to candidate after candidate, I felt myself reaffirming my own belief in the importance of the humanities in education to encourage the development of humane consciousness, to relish in freedom. Jean Paul Sartre writes in Literature and Existentialism:

For, since the one who writes recognizes, by the very fact that he takes the trouble to write, the freedom of his readers, and since the one who reads, by the mere fact of his opening the book, recognizes the freedom of the writer, the work of art, from whichever side you approach it, is an act of confidence in the freedom of men.

To build on Sartre’s words: those who dedicate their lives to opening books, to writing books, to sharing ideas with students and fellow teachers and learners celebrate and insure the freedom of men. If educators lack that sense of importance and personal-social mission, then what happens to the praxis of teaching? More important, what happens to the experience of freedom?

One of the reasons beyond the practical politeness while interviewing that I shut off news notifications was my understanding that I can get weighed down by an onslaught of facts without time to consider and contextualize. I need to engage with facts with my full brain and being—imagining what’s possible. I side with Maxine Greene wholeheartedly:

I put great stress on imagination as I work to move students to learn how to learn. Imagination is the capacity to reach beyond where we are, to open towards possibility. It is the consciousness of possibility—perhaps the shared consciousness—that moves people, to reach towards what should be, what might be, if an acceptable choice or action were to be found. (“Some Words on Learning”)

It’s when we lose consciousness of viable possibility that the work of education becomes routine, rote, and lifeless. That’s when education perpetuates rather than transforms. That’s when education reproduces and doesn’t innovate or inspire.

The acts of reading, writing, discussing, teaching, learning, and hiring might not all seem explicitly linked together, but then again neither do the notions of justice, inclusion, and landing in an airport, necessarily. But I see all of these things as profoundly human and urgently now. Tomorrow, like today and yesterday, I still believe that catalyzing the imagination is the practice of freedom. Tomorrow, like today and yesterday, I will welcome students, their experiences, and their narratives of difference. Tomorrow, like today and yesterday, I will be grateful for intentional communities of difference and humane possibility.

I think back to my student, who was new to me and our community in January 2012, and how he awakened us to things we did not consciously think about before he shared his story. And again I know the power of the humanities classroom. I think on the conversations during interviews with other educators in Philadelphia, and I know that my own sense of purpose is widely, passionately, and imaginatively shared.

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