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The Humanities Keep Us Human

(This essay was originally published abridged in print as “Remember that the Humanities Keep Us Human,” by Education Week, January 7, 2015.)

President Obama’s recent announcement of an additional $28 million to bolster STEM teachers is great news and reminds me of my passion for science during those heady days of the Kennedy “Camelot” when the president announced the goal of reaching the moon. In a speech before a special joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961, he said: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project…will be more exciting, or more impressive to mankind, or more important…and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”

During those days, the Cold War—the state of tension between the U.S. and the Soviet Union—was in full swing. Several years before in 1957, the Soviets had leapt out in front us in the space race with the launching of Sputnik. There were fears of a “missile gap” by which the Soviets, leading the U.S. in missile technology, could intimidate, coerce, and—at worse—attack us with nuclear missiles, and we could not defend ourselves. Fallout shelters were all the rage.

Though the STEM acronym did not exist at the time, I was STEM through and through: Sputnik, Telstar, missiles, spaceships, those great missile-like fins on the ‘57 Chevy and the ‘59 Cadillac, and atom-smashing accelerators. Hollywood gave us all those great, corny, “B” science fiction movies. I was all in.

The president’s Educate to Innovate program is now five-years old. When Obama launched it on November 23, 2009, he described it as “a nationwide effort to help reach the goal this administration has set: moving to the top in science and math education in the next decade.” The White House has portrayed it as “an all-hands-on-deck campaign to help more girls and boys be inspired to excel in science, technology, engineering , and math (STEM) subjects.” The program has sought a synergistic effort, using the combined forces of government, education leaders, foundations, companies, non-profits, and scientific and technology professionals. Its major components have included such initiatives as the 100kin10 (seeking to prepare 100,000 excellent STEM teachers over the next decade), Change the Equation (a coalition of CEOs committed to expanding STEM programs to more than 1 million students by 2016), and Discovery Communications (launching a new show next year to inspire students in STEM fields, highlighting “All –American makers”). Even though I chose not to become a scientist, I am all for this.

However, caution is needed here, a caution against imbalance. In our rush to emphasize the empirical sciences, we must be careful not to reduce too much the resources devoted to the Humanities, the mix of subjects normally including the language arts, history, philosophy, religion, and the visual and performing arts. (STEM in recent years has, in some circles, morphed to STEAM, integrating the visual and performing arts.) Science and technology have given us wondrous benefits and conveniences. I can imagine the relief in back pain when 5,500 years ago we invented the wheel. I relish the ability to communicate with ease with my friends in Germany or Skype with my grandchildren far away. Nonetheless, we should not place STEM on a pedestal too high. It brought us the wheel, the polio vaccine, and the Internet; it also brought us napalm, cluster bombs, and the atomic bomb.

STEM can give us the “what and why” of the physical universe, but not the “ought.” Beyond the molecules, fractions, and scientific laws that govern the physical universe, the Humanities, collectively, teach us about “human-ness” and our relationships with each other. They help us connect with each other, understand each other, and cooperate rather than conflict with each other. As the world gets smaller and as we are forced to share more of its fewer resources, it is the Humanities along with the social sciences that will help us cooperate, coexist, continue, and even flourish rather than cancel each other.

We need the language arts. When I decided in 10th grade to study German, little did I know that almost thirty years later, I would be using German to interview former communists of the East German army about German Unification (1990). As anyone who understands a foreign language appreciates, actually living in another language—rather than relying on translations–gives one a much richer and comprehensive understanding of that people, a larger and more nuanced window into the world of that society.

We need English and literature so that we can see and employ the beauty and utility of the spoken, recited, sung, and written word. We cannot think without words. The more sophisticated our vocabulary; the more sophisticated and subtle our thoughts, especially important as we increasingly rely on clipped and mangled English in the digital world. Also through reading about other humans, we can learn more of ourselves. Finally, in my first career as a professional Army officer, during the challenging times I faced, it was not the First Law of Thermodynamics or Newton’s Second Law of Motion that sustained me. It was Shakespeare, Beethoven, and Frost.

We need history. The historical method teaches us how to weigh carefully the credibility and reliability of the sources from which we derive our information and hence our picture of reality. Though I strongly disliked all the “curricular requirements” faceless, unnamed but clearly highly-credentialed educators from the College Board heaped on me as an AP history teacher, I appreciated how these forced me to teach my students such essentials as the difficulties of pursuing knowledge and causality in history compared to the STEM subjects. Crucial is also the skill of patiently and thoroughly asking questions—before the first word of the document is read—about the creator of the document (or visual).

We need philosophy and ethics. More here than in the other Humanities, especially for students who prefer rationality and linearity, is where we can learn to deal with ambiguity and irrationality, where we can grapple with essential questions which have no right answers. In my “War & Morality” course, we deal with such questions as: When is it right to use violence against other human beings? Who is to judge whether there is “just cause” to begin a war? How many alternatives must a state attempt before it is using violence truly as a “last resort”? My students role-play a post-World War II commission, examining whether the British-American fire-bombing of Dresden in February 1945 was a war crime. We end the course with the political, military, legal, and finally ethical implications of using drones in warfare. Moreover, in a world where so much emphasis is placed on “metrics” to measure, these subjects can force us to deal with factors that resist quantitative measurement: trust in Ferguson, Missouri; mistrust with Iran; the fundamentalism and hatred of ISIS.

And finally, there is religion. Whether one is a believer or non-believer, understanding the history of the world’s major religions, their role in societies, and their influence in shaping our world today is crucial to any educated person and engaged citizen. Religion also can give us words and ideas for our celebrations as well as for our commemorations and memorials.

After a Western Civilization lesson on the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire, one of my Chinese remained after class. She was curious about Jesus Christ and the broader subject of religion and society. I asked her about religion in China. She indicated that she was never really taught religion, and followed by saying that if there was any “religion” in Chinese education, it would be “science.”

In ancient Greece even wealthy, aristocratic non-Greeks would journey to the famous Oracle at Delphi to seek guidance on their most pressing questions. One of the most common responses the oracle gave was: Meden Agan (Moderation in all things.) STEM must be complemented with an ample ration of the Humanities rather than displace it. Giving too much emphasis to STEM may cause us to lose too much of our HUMAN-ness.


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Faculty Are the Frontline

The faculty, as teachers, are the frontline where in a private school—with all its various supporting components—has its most important interface with students. No other group of people in the entire school community—administrators, staff, board, parents—has as much daily contact as the teachers. Teachers—as coaches, advisors, mentors (and house parents, in boarding schools)—are the frontline where the school engages its students with its athletic, extracurricular, social and moral/ethical/character curricula.[i]

Research has shown that the faculty is the critical school component not only in student achievement, but also in student satisfaction and enthusiasm. Studying countries such as China, Finland, Canada, and Singapore, Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, has indicated that industrialized countries are in broad agreement on the key role teachers play in student achievement.[ii] Based on its research, Independent School Management (ISM) states the categorical importance of faculty to a school’s mission accomplishment: “…there is no more pivotal, important task than ensuring your school hires mission-appropriate faculty.”[iii] The dean of faculty, or principal in a public school, is the critical administrator in hiring and retaining these teachers, the frontline “service providers” of the school’s product.


[i] Independent School Management (ISM) uses the metaphor of the teacher as “the linchpin to student success.” “The 21st Century School: Teaching Time,” ISM, Ideas & Perspectives, Vol. 34, No. 13.

[ii] “Teacher Quality: What’s Wrong with U.S. Strategy?” Educational Leadership, Dec 2011-Jan 2012, 42. See also Bess Keller, “Teachers Seen as Making Difference in World’s Top Schools,” Education Week, November 7, 2007, p. 8. For a study of 800 pairs of twins that demonstrated the importance of good teachers, see Debra Viadero, “Twin Study Bolsters Arguments for Value of Good Teachers,” Education Week, April 28, 2010, p. 8. David Bouton, principal of Trinity High School, PA, maintains “a good school is one that finds ways to unlock the change agent within teachers—so that they, in turn, can unlock the potential within every student.” “The Key to Unlocking Student Potential: A Collaborative Learning Model,” Independent School, Fall 2011, p. 58.

[iii] “Characteristics of Professional Excellence: Faculty Interviews,” ISM, Ideas & Perspectives, Vol. 33, No. 10, August 11, 2008, 41. A study involving 2.5 million students over 20 years showed that teachers who helped raise their students’ standardized test scores appeared to have positive, longer term effects in other areas of the students’ lives. See Annie Lowrey, “Big Study Links Good Teachers to Lasting Gain,” The New York Times, January 6, 2012.

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Teaching US History: An American Creed

As a retired Army officer, I had always been nagged by my prep school’s rejection of any signs of patriotism. Like most boarding schools, it has never acknowledged several national holidays. Memorial Day has normally been our first day of spring term exams. We have celebrated Martin Luther King Day with a 40-minute program instead of a holiday. Until 9/11, Veteran’s Day was barely recognized, perhaps a quick reference to it during our opening prayer when school assembly fell on the holiday. Our student body has never been asked to say the Pledge of Allegiance.

Therefore, it was with some misgivings that I decided my US History students and I would formulate an American Creed in phases as we progressed through the course. I explained to them that unlike most great powers in history, Americans define themselves by certain words. We have never reposed our trust and identity in an emperor, king, ruler, or political party.

As much as for my students, this would also be a healthy and challenging exercise for me. Having never attempted such an exercise, I held but few preconceived notions about its ultimate composition. I knew clearly it would contain some lines from the Declaration of Independence and probably Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, but beyond these, it was a blank slate. I recognized that it should be neither too long nor too short; the students should be able to memorize it without too much effort. The assessment would come at year’s end with a quiz in which they—with a few prompts—would essentially write the entire Creed. I pictured it containing five to eight statements. I told them that we would not formulate the words; they must come from historical figures—speeches or documents.


Abraham_Lincoln_November_1863, Lib, Congress

Since my school is a Catholic-Benedictine boarding school, all students take Western Civilization in their freshman year. They all learn about the Council of Nicea. In 325 CE, Roman Emperor Constantine, the first Christian emperor, troubled by the controversy over heretical Arianism, called a council of church leaders to resolve it. In ultimately condemning Arianism, it also formulated the Nicene Creed, the basic beliefs of Christians which 1700 years later Roman Catholics still recite at every mass. In this age of heightened partisanship which at times evolves into gridlock, could my students and I discover words on which most Americans would or at least should agree?

But then there were the international students. Over 40% of my students were international, mainly Latinos and Koreans. Should I also require them, not only to help formulate but also commit to memory this American Creed? I decided ultimately that they too would be required to know it and be quizzed on it. Equity was one factor; more important was my conviction that it would be a healthy exercise for them which they could replicate for their own countries’ Creeds. I wagered that they would also benefit, perhaps more than the American students, from comparing our ultimate American Creed with their own.

In the end I decided on these elements. One: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed ….” (Declaration of Independence, 1776) Two: “…that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” (Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, 1863) Three: Emma Lazarus: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. (Emma Lazarus, 1883) Four: “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror.” (Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1933) Five: “… ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” (John F. Kennedy, 1961) And finally, six: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” (Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963)

Since I essentially had done the selecting, I asked the students, when assessment time came, to add a seventh quote. I received some interesting ones. Not surprisingly, one student offered the Pledge of Allegiance. Also, “The greatness of a man is not how much wealth he acquires but in his integrity and ability to affect others around him positively.” (Bob Marley) “All great change in America begins at the dinner table.” (Ronald Reagan) “The life of the nation is secure only while the nation is honest, truthful, and virtuous.” (Frederick Douglass)

Toward the end of the musical Don Quixote, a dramatic moment comes when the near-death Quixote, scorned and covered with scars, asks Dulcinea: “Tell me the words.” He has forgotten the words which once actuated him on his quest. This exercise reminded me and my students of timeless key words which have inspired Americans.

George Packer, in his award-winning book, The Unwinding, suggests how America in the last four decades has been in a “vertigo” of “unwinding,” bringing power to organized money, a surfeit of freedom, aloneness, change, and new celebrity icons. As we undergo renewal, only the cacophony of “American voices” has persisted.

Perhaps in our renewal process, we can rediscover the right words from our past, rebalance their inherent conflicts, and find their best application in the 21st century.


An educator for 35 years, Fred Zilian teaches history, ethics, and political science at Portsmouth Abbey School and Salve Regina University, RI. Contact: zilianf@aol.com.





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Advice to New Teachers: You Can’t “Touch” Every Student

Last week, as we approached the end of the trimester, Jacob came to me dejected. He was frustrated at his lack of success in his first trimester of teaching. Too many students seemed to be falling short of his goals for them. Too many of his goals were not met. I tried to console him.

As a new teacher you cannot be too hard on yourself. Your frustration at not “getting to” all your students shows that you have very high standards for yourself. That’s good. However, do not take it too far. You are not going to touch all your students. Rather, you should strive to have a positive effect on some, perhaps most, of your students.

The superior students will grasp the concepts and material easily and reinforce your worth. There will also be students who are simply not interested in your course. (Jacob teaches a required course at our school.) Try to identify and focus your energy on those students who wish to learn and with whom you believe you may have a genuinely positive impact–a genuine “delta” of improvement. Nurture these students as best you can in class but also in one-on-one sessions on the margins of the formal classes–the few minutes before and after classes, and during extra help sessions.

If you focus on your impact with these motivated and interested students, you will feel a genuine and justified sense of accomplishment at the end of the trimester.

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Advice for New Teachers: The First Parent-Teacher Conferences

With Parents’ Weekend looming, Jacob came to me today, seeking guidance. To prepare for these short, ten-minute conferences, the most fundamental requirement is first to center yourself and overcome your fears. The vast majority of parents take the time to attend these conferences because they want to meet you, learn about their child, and support you in your efforts to educate him or her. They do not come to attack and criticize. So the first principle is to relax and to have confidence in yourself and what you are doing.

Begin the short conference with your grade book closed. Make direct eye contact with them and state calmly and positively some of the more salient characteristics of their child that you have observed. Be sure to state any critical comments in a positive manner. Project an image of genuine caring for their child.

Only after you have shared some general observations about their child should you then open your grade and talk numbers. Be sure to have their child’s latest average and perhaps their last graded requirement on hand. Identify any trends you see. Showing them a sample of their child’s work can help to reinforce your more general comments on him or her.

Inform them of the times you are available for extra help, if their child needs it.

Finally, try to offer a few recommendations on how the student may improve. Again, try to end on a positive note.

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Advice for New Teachers: Power Points

Power Point software was a tremendous boon for teachers who grew up in the age of overhead projectors and acetate Vu-graphs. Praise God! For many years I tried to pack as much content into my Power Points as possible. Eventually I realized that the “more is not better” principle applied.

          I enjoyed the creative challenge of summarizing the important points of a lesson and adding visual and audio media to the presentation. It was also comforting to know that I could fire up the Power Point and everything was there for the entire period. I would talk, embellish, ask them questions, tell my jokes, and my students would write.

          In hindsight, I can see that I was too teacher-centered in my approach. With my longer presentations, my students wrote feverishly and developed writer’s cramp by the end of the 50-minute class. The more self-confident students would respectfully comment on the quantity of info they had to transcribe and ask for mercy!

          For a 50-minute class, I now do my best to hold the number of slides to 8-12, including a Cover slide, a Review slide, an Overview slide, and a Conclusion slide. In addition, I have found that it helps my students if the content on my slides is incomplete, just the key concepts and the initial words of a sentence. At the Smart Board, I fill in the blanks manually. This allows them a more reasonable amount of time to transcribe the truly important content.

          A word about the Overview slide: I have come to place much emphasis on this. I prepare this slide at the very end of my preparation of the entire lesson. Only then can I make a good judgment on what it should contain. I sit back and ask myself: If I have only five minutes to teach this class and one slide, what should I put on the slide?

          Another step I take to be fully prepared for class is to synchronize my lesson plan with my Power Point. My lesson plan can be a summary of the entire reading. I cannot possibly cover all the material in the lesson. With a highlighter I highlight the words that I place into the Power Point. With a second different highlighter, I designate that material I shall manually write onto the slide during class.

          I have found that making my Power Points more reasonable in length—trying not to cram extraordinary amounts of content into them—has helped my students to transcribe the truly important content. It forces me to distill the lesson into the most important points, themes, concepts, and essential questions. With this approach, I am getting fewer complaints about writer’s cramp. Overall, I feel my teaching format is much more student-centered.

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Advice for New Teachers: Striving for Balance

When Jacob and I sat down to talk yesterday, I could see that he had on his desk a stack of papers to grade. With the first two weeks of classes behind us, we have both given quizzes–quizzes that must be graded. I realized that we needed to talk about balance–specifically, balance between his professional and personal life.

The first time teaching a course in your first teaching position, you clearly are eager to prepare thoroughly for every possible contingency for every lesson. This shows that you are conscientious and hard-working and are striving to be a professional–very laudable. However, if you have a family–like Jacob–you cannot simply be a full-time teacher. You have responsibilities to your spouse and children, and these take time and your physical and emotional presence. Strive to strike a healthy balance between the two. You may have many different teaching positions in your life; however, you have only one family, and it needs daily tending. There will be times when most of your energy must be devoted to your professional life; however, there are also times when your family will need all of you–physically, mentally, and emotionally.

In practical terms, this means you must use judgment in assigning homework and conducting assessments, all of which take time to grade. Space these out over the semester so that you have several days between them to grade them properly. For major assessments (e.g., tests) you may not be able to grade them completely until the weekend. Better to assign less and grade them rigorously than to assign more and give only superficial feedback to your students.

I finished our talk by telling him that I never get a course right the very first time through. During that first run, I am trying to read all the material carefully, summarize the readings, and fashion good–perhaps not perfect–lesson plans. It generally takes me three times through a course before I have the syllabus and lesson schedule the way I like it. Individual lesson plans are always a “work in progress.” A teacher should always be ready to try new ideas and formats to achieve the objectives of the lesson.


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