A New Model for Teaching Humanities

The humanities are a complicated subject. They are much more vague than the sciences, relying more on notions of what things ought to be rather than how things actually are. Because of this, they’ve always been a sore spot in traditional modes of learning. Is there a way of improving it?

The traditional, institutional examination practices revolve around four different categories: multiple choice, problem sets, essays, and projects. Multiple choice and problem sets can work for STEM-related subjects because it’s more about ingraining a subject that is already known to be true to the reader. For the same reason, it’s a modality that doesn’t work well with humanities. This leaves us with essays and projects.

Now, this isn’t anything super revolutionary. Essays and projects already have been the foundations of most humanities classes. But I still feel like these examinations haven’t been great. It mostly revolves around the content.

When you write an essay, you’re writing an essay on something you’ve read. If you’re doing a project, it’s a project on something you’ve been assigned. Once again, logic here works perfectly well if we’re talking STEM. But the problem with humanities is that this isn’t really the point. Humanities knowledge doesn’t revolve around whether you “got” The Great Gatsby or whether you can recite Bertrand Russell’s most acclaimed work. It instead revolves around the more ephemeral concepts the works provide: love, loss, society, the individual, etc. These are the learning principles of these subjects.

So, how do you test these concepts? Well, we just take a more roundabout method:

  1. Take a set of works on a given theme. For literature, works on the death of a loved one. For Philosophy, some takes on aesthetics. For history, a few (preferably conflicting) examinations of an event.
  2. Have the student read and analyze these works on their own. Don’t bother testing them on their knowledge at this point — this will come out later.
  3. At the end of the module, have the student create an essay or a project on their own examination. Tracing back to the examples: have the student write about the psychology one faces in the death of a loved one, about their views on aesthetics, or about what they believe was the fundamental processions of that historical event. They can cite other authors, but preferably the work is wholly their own ideas
  4. Grade based on cohesion. Does it logically follow? Is the student using the opinions of the other authors without addressing them (a sign they didn’t actually read the content)? Is it reasonably complex? Is it reasonably simple?

When we test people in STEM, it’s to see if they comprehend a subject. If a student claims to know about particle physics, you can give them a problem set of questions related to particle physics, and they should be able to answer. The difference is that, with particle physics, there is a correct answer. There is no correct answer in literature, or art, or philosophy, or music, etc. etc. You can only test a student based on how well they can do it themselves. 

It also becomes hard to test because it’s subjective. We are naturally biased towards what we think is a good take, and what we think is a bad take. Humanities material is, almost exclusively, made up of takes. For this there’s no great answer. But at least for now we can get students to think about these things for themselves.

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