Monday, June 26, 2017

The Humanities Treatise

Few would argue with the statement that teachers shape the courses they teach, but I would add that this is a reciprocal relationship: the courses shape the teacher, too. Indeed, teaching the 11th Grade Humanities block has profoundly shaped me as a teacher. Combining history and literature has challenged me to recognize that true learning extends beyond a single classroom subject. History and literature are not ends unto themselves, but means to understanding more fundamental themes and truths. This coming year will be my eighth teaching Humanities. Over the past eight years, and through no shortage of trial and error, I have sought out the “fundamental”. However imperfectly, I have molded my curriculum from a disparate collection of ideas and activities that I find interesting, to a cohesive whole with a clear sense of purpose. My biggest breakthrough happened prior to the 2014-15 school-year when I chose “Becoming People of Justice” as my central course theme. With that theme at the core, the past three school-years have been good ones.

This said, I fully recognize my need to keep developing my curriculum, and to that end, I am writing this treatise to better encapsulate and articulate my goals. Our mission at CAJ is “equipping students to serve Japan and the world for Christ”, a mission which we assess through our Senior Comprehensives. I view myself as the set-up before the serve--the Senior Comprehensive process is as valuable as the level of investment the students bring to it, and I need to make sure they are in the right place to make the most of the experience. To prepare students not only for their Senior Comprehensives, but for life beyond the walls of CAJ, I desire for my students to become critical consumers, effective communicators, and thoughtful problem-solvers who feel a personal responsibility to do justice.

My goal of critical consumers stems in part from my responsibility to teach AP English: Language and Composition, which emphasizes argument analysis. I never want argument analysis to seem like a purely academic exercise--instead, I hope my students will understand that the news they keep up with, the songs they listen to, the books they read, the movies and TV shows they watch all make an implicit (sometimes explicit) argument for a particular way of seeing the world. Essentially, everything is an argument, and it is vital for students to be aware. They must avoid passivity and resist the temptation to let information wash over them. To this end, my students must be aware of the influences that make up their own worldview, and know how to identify the worldviews at play in the media they encounter. They must strive to put themselves in the shoes of the speaker, author, essayist, director or producer and consider where he or she is coming from.

Recognizing worldview is only half the battle, though. My students must also be able to dissect the ways in which authors, speakers, etc. structure and support their argument, and the effects of these structural, substantive or stylistic choices. Students must know what constitutes a sound argument, and distinguish between genuine persuasion and manipulation, honesty and dishonesty, truth and fallacy. This will serve them well, of course, in their research for the Senior Comps, but the value extends far beyond school. These skills are particularly critical in our current media landscape, where news is fragmented as never before and the Internet enables people to remain in echo chambers in which bias is presented as objectivity and opinions are presented as facts. In a world where consumers far too easily decry information that doesn’t align with their political beliefs as “fake news”, I want my students to be brave enough to cross no-man’s land, to dare to listen to and evaluate viewpoints other than their own. My hope is not that they will change their minds on every issue, but that they will understand the context, the reasoning and the emotions at play on the other side. Only then, can my students facilitate real dialogue.

Opening channels for honest discussion will be a vital skill in the coming decades, and such a skill requires effective communicators. While I certainly want my students to hold fast to their values, I also want their first instinct to be to ask questions and listen carefully, rather than talking just to hear themselves talk. This is a skill I strive to impart in both class discussions and debates, and it takes practice. My students also need to have a firm awareness of how they are communicating--what their purpose is, who their audience is, and how best to achieve that purpose. They must seek to communicate with integrity, avoiding manipulation and fallacies. They must utilize and cite credible evidence. They must embrace clarity and organization, not merely as lines on a rubric, but as an obligation to their audience. They must be on the lookout for places in which their communication may be disrupted, or perceived differently than they had intended. They must approach communication with humility, and be the first to try and repair understanding when it does break down.

One major temptation is to assume that these skills only apply to students for whom English is their “thing”--the future authors or journalists in the class. That is simply not the case. I like to tell the students that Humanities is really for those who feel more at home in math or science classes, who hope to one day become engineers, doctors, nurses, physicists, chemists, or programmers. My students who already feel at home in humanities courses likely do not need convincing, and they are likely to invest out of a pre-existing love for the subject. However, there are many students for whom English and History courses may seem like a waste of their time--time that could be spent taking that extra science or math AP that they just cannot fit into their schedule. These students are my target--Humanities is for them. I want them to understand the value of communication skills in contexts beyond the English or History classroom. I want them to feel equipped to write an analysis of their Comps issue and present their topic to the community as Seniors, but again, this is only the start. My hope is that regardless of the field my students will one day work in, they will distinguish themselves as confident, clear, precise and engaging communicators. In fields in which communication skills have not traditionally been emphasized in the past, I hope that my students will find opportunities to lead and shape their fields by virtue of their communication skills.

Shaping the world in which they live--that is perhaps the ultimate goal. Problem-solving sounds like a skill that belongs in a math course, but I want my students to be able to apply their problem-solving skills to other arenas, and to constantly work to develop and sharpen those skills. One of the fundamental truths in Humanities class is that there’s a gulf between “what ought to be” and “what is”. Certainly, this is the crux of American History: one of the few nations in the history of the world to be explicitly founded on the ideals of freedom, equality and justice has consistently failed to live up to its own lofty ideals. I don’t mean to target America, because this is, in actuality, the story of humanity: we were created in God’s image, part of a Shalomic network of relationships with ourselves, others, creation and God that was wholly good, but sin has disrupted and distorted that perfect peace. The world is not as it was meant to be, and our task as those who bear God’s image is to serve as agents of restoration.

This is a task I want my students to take seriously; to hear clearly the call to participate in restoration. This requires a desire to see justice done, as well as a capacity for thoughtful problem-solving. I hope my students will come away from my class bothered by injustice--bothered by poverty, bothered by oppression, bothered by the exploitation of others or the earth itself. Throughout the year, my aim is to expose my students to a number of issues in the hope that at least one will needle their sense of justice to the point where they can say without my prompting, “that’s not right!” Perhaps they will even decide on an issue for the Senior Comprehensives before the end of their 11th Grade year.

Getting my students upset about injustice cannot be where my class ends, though. I need to provide a framework for action. I want my students to develop a thoughtful approach to addressing injustice, one which presses on, even as it accepts that the process will not be easy, and that human solutions will always be imperfect or incomplete. I want my students to develop an understanding of what citizenship, and participation in civil society will mean for them, considering what action a problem warrants. I do not want my students to automatically assume every issue in the world is the government’s responsibility to fix, nor do I want my students to automatically assume that every issue in the world is the responsibility of the individual to fix. I want my students to engage in the arduous and complex task of considering how the efforts of individuals can complement the actions of communities, churches and organizations, and the role that policy plays in all of this. Throughout all of this, I want my students to look for opportunities to take personal action so that pursuing justice is not simply an intellectual ideal, but a practical reality.

If my students leave my class with nothing else--even if they don’t remember the symbols in The Great Gatsby, or the difference between the First and Second Great Awakening--I hope that they will leave with a greater capacity for critical thought, effective communication and thoughtful, justice-driven problem-solving. I don’t think I would have dismissed any of these qualities as unimportant eight years ago, but over time, they have emerged as truly essential to why I teach, what I teach, and how I teach. I look forward to planning with these goals more squarely at the center, and to being shaped myself, even as I continue to shape my Humanities course.

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