Learning to Be Human
Claudia MacMillan writes that what we call the humanities — literature, history and philosophy — have never been more needed in our society or more crucial to the American experiment.
By Claudia MacMillan
As grateful as we are to venture out these days, we are still mourning the loss—and suffering from the effects—of losing two years of natural human contact to a global pandemic not experienced in over a century. Sadly, the routines and education of school-age children were hardest hit. As far as I can see, the only good thing to come out of COVID-19 is that pretty much everyone now agrees that online learning cannot really replace in-person learning, especially for children.
School, we seem to have remembered, is a decidedly human thing.
The isolation we experienced during this pandemic has forced every meditative person to reconsider the role that human contact and human interaction play in a meaningful life. And although we were grateful for technology that kept our unnaturally hyperactive brains from imploding during this long pause, we, like the schoolchildren, yearned for real human contact.
“Among the humanities, the proper study of great literature from around the world is the most direct access we have to the full human condition. Literature is a particularly good source from which to derive an understanding of humanness because it’s generally about, well, humans.”
Yet even as we’ve longed for more interaction and been forced to confront challenging social and political issues, we’ve come to realize that many human beings are actually not very good at, well, being human. Two years of COVID-19 isolation only increased this dysfunction. Human community is a difficult dance, and it’s beginning to feel like we’ve missed some lessons.
So how does one learn to be human? The answer, of course, is in many ways. But one of the most important ways has long been through subjects called the humanities — literature, history and philosophy, to name the basic few. The humanities are those disciplines that seek wisdom concerning the human situation. They do so through the medium of words. Unfortunately, both these things — wisdom and words — are particularly hard to come by these days.
I should pause and say that this is not a hearkening back to the “good old days” when everyone was a poet and wise. We humans have always been what could only generously be called works in progress. However, in our culture, 50 years of an increasing emphasis on individualism over community, especially in education, have ill-equipped us with the psychic sturdiness needed to weather the storms of human community, or in some cases, it seems, even to be human. The pandemic only revealed the fault lines of our emotional fragility.
Among these fault lines are two of the important human casualties of excessive individualism, a claim I make because of their impact on healthy human community and our subsequent capacity to do democracy. These are the modesty to seek wisdom and the means to express ourselves with clear and meaningful language. Fortunately for us, both wisdom and words can be nurtured with the proper kinds of learning in the humanities.
Among the humanities, the proper study of great literature from around the world is the most direct access we have to the full human condition. Literature is a particularly good source from which to derive an understanding of humanness because it’s generally about, well, humans. However, since I started my work in 1981, I have seen misguided trends in teaching reading, trends that diminish one’s understanding of the human situation rather than enhance it.
I am going take an unpopular position here and first insist that the whole “it doesn’t matter what they read, only that they are reading” idea that has cycled through a few times in these last decades is nonsense. I have seen what becomes of students who have never been guided to read anything but what they already know. They grow into adults whose insights are limited to their own personal horizons (a dangerous boundary for anyone, but especially for one living in the hustle and bustle of a democratic society), and their access to language to express themselves is limited even more. No wisdom and no language make for very dull, even dangerous, community.
My teacher, Dr. Louise Cowan, once told us that we should only teach our students what they cannot read on their own. Save class time for the difficult, more challenging works. I hasten to add that these works must be difficult, challenging works from around the world and throughout history, not simply because they are diverse, but because they all comprise the human story, and the fullness of the complex human condition is what we are lacking.
But it’s also not as simple as reading the best books from cultures around the world. It’s how we read that counts. Simply “reading” is not enough, especially when reading is guided by one of the trends to which I’ve just referred. How one reads determines what one gets out of it, and at the risk of offending everyone, I want to say that for quite some time now, we have been reading literature wrong. This is not an insignificant misstep for those who live in a democracy, relying as we do on a mutual commitment to try to understand and communicate with one another. And this is my point. By reading literature incorrectly, we have deprived it of its unique power, its power to inform and deepen our understanding of human things.
Not surprisingly, we lost our faith in the imagination, in large part, when we undermined the power of the most human of the humanities — literature as well as history — relegating them, as we did, to the dustbins of propaganda in the early 1970s. It’s been a chicken-and-egg cycle ever since. Great literature can inform us about social, political, and philosophical matters. But it is much more than that when properly attended.
So, if we have been reading incorrectly, what is the proper way to read a novel, a short story, a lyric poem? Fundamentally, although my explanation here will be a shorthand description, it’s actually rather easy. Even children can do it, and perhaps their flexibility in this regard is the best model, because what we seem to be lacking most in our day are grownup hearts and minds flexible enough to bend and stretch to take in other people’s convictions.
To the point, if children are unmolested by trauma or uncorrupted by bad instruction, they approach a work of imagination openly and fully, giving it an imaginal embrace. They are open to the new things they discover, the new ideas and truths about being in the world. Their hearts and minds are open to the contradictions and complexities in the stories they hear and read. To nurture ourselves as human beings, we must cultivate this capacity for openness and wonder in ourselves once again.
If we approach a great work of literature whole, with hearts open and rational sensibilities in check, it can provide us with patterns of knowing and being that take in the complexities and contradictions of life.
For those who are concerned that this is a fluffy theory, I am not saying that we do not analyze and carefully scrutinize a work of literature if we are going to teach or write about it. The problem is that most of us have been educated to treat literature — from first encounter — as if it were a mathematical formula to be attacked and solved. This misplaced scientistic approach has deprived us of literature’s redeeming power. Our minds need to be educated for precision, but our hearts must be opened to beauty and wonder. For the true power of great literature is not in its capacity to refine our minds but in its power to educate our feelings, the humane wisdom we are lacking in the public square.
Our lacking the complexity of the literary imagination has cut us off from understanding one another, my teacher said. One does not have to look far to see that we suffer from a paucity both of wisdom about the complex human situation and the language needed to express our heart’s desires. These things the proper study of great literature cultivates and provides. An education never made anyone good, but learning can open the door. At this moment, we need to learn the humanities, particularly literature, more than ever.
What’s at stake? Nothing less than the human condition.
Claudia MacMillan is founding and executive director of The MacMillan Institute, a nonprofit that provides events, classes, and certification programs for Pre-K through 12 teachers and administrators designed to reawaken and sustain a sense of the human purposes of education and thereby foster the rigor and joy of the “spirit of liberal learning.” She is a contributing author and editor of What Is a Teacher? Remembering the Soul of Education Through Classic Literature.