How Humanities Teachers Can Save Humanity | Liza Garonzik | 9 Min Read

The other day, I looked at the back of a box of cereal and saw a word search: Annie the bunny asking kids everywhere to hunt for “friendly words” … community, communicate, forgive, hug, share, cry, laugh … first, I smiled, but then my throat caught: are things really this bad? 

Then, I got in my car, and heard another ad in a series by iHeartradio / NAMI / Child Mind Institute: this one was different from yesterday’s—which raised awareness about suicide hotlines. It encouraged listeners to practice talking about emotions and offered questions to ask someone who is struggling to help them find the words they need to tell you what’s going on. When I heard it, I didn’t smile. Yes, I thought—things are this bad. 

The next day, I went to a conference where Thomas Friedman was a keynote speaker with a clear message: we live in an age of “dizzying acceleration” and need new coping strategies. Our collective mental health crisis is but one sign. His solution? Per the title of his most recent book: embrace your humanity—and be late. Specifically, he makes a case for us all to learn to be “fast (innovative and quick to adapt), fair (prepared to help the casualties of change), and slow (adept at shutting out the noise) and accessing [our] deepest values).” His call to “slowness,” of course, picks up where Daniel Kahneman left off in delineating the power of deliberative, rational, systems-thinking and the quicker emotional response.

My question is this: how can schools teach students to be fast, fair … and slow? I would argue that much of the recent innovation in K-12 focuses on fast and fair—but what about slow? “Slow” is where students actually experience friendly words—instead of searching for them on a cereal box two years later. “Slow” is where students have space to practice processing what it feels like to be human, to build muscles for self-expression and relationship-building. “Slow” is what students have gotten even less of during the pandemic. And yes—“slow” is certainly social-emotional learning—but it’s more than that too. 

I think Humanities classrooms—and thus, Humanities teachers—have incredible power when it comes to teaching today’s students how to be “slow.” In today’s world, there’s perhaps no more important work in schools. Here’s why. 

HUMANITIES CONTENT IS A SOURCE OF MEANING

Humanities syllabi stand ready to help today’s students name and sort through big questions about society and self—and today’s world presents plenty of big questions! Whether we are talking about sixth-graders captivated by The Outsiders or eleventh graders digging into World War I in AP History class, Humanities content is fodder for teaching students to be slow, to “shut out noise and assess deep values” as Friedman says. 

The classic defense of the relevance of the Humanities—that studying literature and history can help us make sense of present, lived experiences—feels especially compelling in a moment when young people are struggling so mightily (religious engagement, another source of meaning in times of struggle, is at historic lows). Roosevelt Montas, former Director of Columbia College Core Program, writes of his own experience: “the Core Curriculum [at Columbia College] helped me make sense of the adult world into which I was entering.” Maria Popova, the author of Brainpickings, recently asked famous people to write about why they read. Some favorites:

  • “I’m filled up with pages [I read]. Those pages give me my thoughts and my wisdom and my dreams. Without them, I’d be so much more alone. If I ever have a problem, those pages are there to help me.” 
  • “Sometimes big ugly stuff happens to people you love and running away doesn’t really work. Sadness follows you around like a hungry dog who won’t leave you alone until you pay attention to it. [But my Dad taught me] books are talismans. They protect you. They pick you up when you’re frightened, teach you what you need to know and set you back down again when you’re ready.” 
  • “Books are my friends. They open doors to new worlds. […] if you learn to love books, you’ll never be lonely. They are like video games you can never ever get to the end of, but better because you are the programmer, not just the player.” 

For me, personally, history is a better tonic than literature—something I always used to share with my students. And I can remember exactly when in middle school I realized its relevance! Growing up, my Dad made us listen to historic speeches when we drove in his car; so it was that one Sunday afternoon I found myself listening to Churchill’s appeals to the U.S. to join the Allied Front. I didn’t have all the context, but it didn’t matter. What I heard was a man standing up for what he believed in and making a case for why he should not fight this fight alone. It made me think about my own life where I was being a bystander in some mean girl drama … and quietly resolved to invite others in to help stand up for the friend who needed it. In the decades since that moment, I have of course come to appreciate Churchill as more than chicken-soup-for-the-preteen-soul … and I’ve come to depend on history to help me make sense of the present.

Still, today, when I get overwhelmed by what Friedman terms the “dizzying acceleration,” I will listen to historic speeches. Why? They humble me. They slow me down and show me how humans have triumphed in truly dark moments. When I listen to Churchill or MLK or Lincoln, I am transported (and not by a Netflix show where each line of dialogue is optimized to evoke a sequence of emotions that will ultimately make me click “next episode”). When the podcast stops and I return to my own life, things seem more manageable. I always have a new turn of phrase to help me name and navigate what I’m feeling (and deep gratitude for the lives that predated mine).

Such is the power of content in Humanities classrooms.

HUMANITIES SKILLS ARE DURABLE SKILLS  

Humanities classes teach skills students need for success in school—and in real life. As every article about starting-salary statistics reminds us: humanities majors aren’t learning coding or engineering skills. But Humanities classes do, in fact, teach skills that any good coder or engineer needs for maximizing the value of their work. Fundamentally, Humanities classes teach students how to communicate, integrate, and reflect: pre-requisites for “being slow,” indeed. 

America Succeeds is on an overdue mission to re-brand the kind of “soft skills” taught in a Humanities classroom as Durable Skills, a term that better honors their lifelong relevance and makes them relevant to teachers, not just guidance counselors. They explain: 

In an era when technical skills are evolving at an unprecedented pace, there is an important set of durable ‘soft skills’ that last a lifetime. Durable Skills include a combination of how you use what you know—skills like critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity—as well as character skills like fortitude, growth mindset, and leadership.

Durable skills are what great citizens, professionals, leaders and parents are made of—and they are key to learning to “be slow.” They include the self-regulation skills necessary to “shut out the noise” and the reflective muscle to “process what matters.” 

When I taught middle and high school humanities, I was hellbent on cultivating self-efficacy and helping my students recognize the transferability of the skills they were learning in my class. On Monday mornings, I would ask students where they saw REAL skills (an acronym we used to describe fundamental discussion skills we practiced in our classroom: relate, excerpt, ask, listen) in action over the weekend. Their examples would come fast and furious: Someone heard a clarification question at the grocery store! Someone used active listening on a date! Someone said their grandma was to provide a citation for an article she referenced (and then helped everyone realize it was Fake News)! Someone else had a conversation with his Dad about how he leads discussions at work and what he does when people disagree! The joy and pride they took at learning skills that helped them navigate real life was palpable. Sometimes, I’d go even further—inviting a friend to speak with students about how they use “humanities skills” in their non-humanities career: as a start-up CEO, a product manager, a GI doctor, a district attorney. Students were enraptured—motivated to engage in my classroom in a whole new way and empowered in their lives beyond it.

Such is the power of skills in a humanities classroom. 

HUMANITIES CLASSROOMS CAN BE COMMUNITIES 

Humanities class may well be the only time in the life of a Gen-Z student when she is expected to engage in a sustained, face-to-face, device-lite group conversation. This used to be a daily ask of children—think about dinner tables, Sunday schools, phone-free pizza parties after soccer—but in today’s world, it isn’t. This means that Humanities classrooms have unique responsibility and potential when it comes to teaching students how conversation works and what belonging feels like, especially in a context where there are likely diverse viewpoints.

Most humanities classrooms already aspire to model conversations where all voices are heard and create communities through student-led discussion. These aspirations are a tactical necessity for today’s kids.

The mechanics of discussions—expressing yourself, hearing others, and feeling heard—are the building blocks for belonging in any community. To return to Roosevelt Montas, the Director of the Common Core program at Columbia University: he sees the Humanities core as “a powerful creator of community, equipping students who come from different backgrounds with common vocabulary with which to talk across differences” (Montas, 218). 

Certainly, in my own work as a teacher and administrator, I have seen how discussion helps students recognize the power of their words and the inherent limits of their personal perspectives; I have watched students wince when they see that a comment didn’t have its intended impact and dig deep to offer alternative way of thinking. I have watched students relax when they discover the relational short-hand of conversation: the power of eye contact, of pausing-after-paraphrasing to give a moment for alternative summations, of offering shout-outs where they thank each other for new ideas. I have seen how teaching face-to-face conversational skills can help students build relationships, re-discover community, and for at least a class period a day, move away from their baseline existence of being at once hyper-connected and totally alone.

As students wrestle with resonant content and practice communication skills, they build trust and relationships: the very context to practice what Friedman calls “being slow.” 

Such is the power of community in a Humanities classroom.

HUMANITIES TEACHERS DESERVE HUMAN-FOCUSED TOOLS 

Humanities teachers’ work may not be high-tech in the traditional sense of the world—but I would argue that it’s too high-stakes not to be higher-tech.  I don’t necessarily mean apps (though: find me a human who teaches vocabulary as efficiently and effectively as Membean!). I do mean that Humanities teachers deserve tools that do justice to the complexity of their daily work. In this case, they need research-backed methods for scaffolding “durable skills” development, meaning-making, and community-building.  

In classrooms across the world, Humanities teachers are helping adolescents make sense of our accelerating world and develop intellectual frameworks and communication skills they need to navigate it. Let’s make sure they have tools for the task—and thank them for saving humanity, one adolescent, one ancient, one class discussion at a time! 

Liza Garonzik

Liza Garonzik is the Founder of R.E.A.L. Discussion, a program that trains faculty to (re)teach Gen-Z students the discussion skills they need for success in learning — and real life. Her work is informed by an interdisciplinary research base and experience as a student, teacher, administrator, and trustee in diverse independent schools. Get in touch at [email protected] — there's little she loves more than a great conversation!

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