On the Importance of Humanities in Our Schools Today

The technology-driven disruption through which we are living certainly highlights the importance of educating every student into numeric and scientific literacy. What is less often recognized is that the disruption also underscores the crucial value of providing students with a rich grounding in the humanities. The humanities must retain a key role in our educational models, because it is precisely through the humanities that students are given the best tools for understanding the impacts and implications of technology, and equipped with the skills and insights to achieve success and become leaders in the world those technologies are reshaping with such rapidity.

Humanity has, broadly, lived through three technology-driven revolutions, and each has seen its greatest impact in the social, economic, political, and cultural spheres. Starting with the historical—rather than archeological—record, the first great tech revolution was the Neolithic, marked by the monumental innovation of settled agriculture. This made possible, for the first time, the rise of sufficient aggregations of people in one locus for cities to rise as well as sufficient productive surplus to allow for leisure classes to emerge. The results included unprecedented social hierarchies and political structures—including highly organized warfare and religio-political systems—from Mesopotamia and Egypt to the Indus River and China. Cities also fostered the first emergence of urbanity or civilization as we know it, including the invention of writing, ushering in the historical epoch itself—as compared to all of pre-history before a written record.

The next great tech revolution was the Industrial Revolution, which was perhaps most saliently the result of radical new tools for harnessing power, particularly via the steam engine. This tech revolution, too, played out most profoundly in non-technical realms. Just a short list of the social implications of the industrial era must include several political revolutions (the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the revolutions of 1848, and many others), the global hegemony of European colonialism, democratic movements, communism, global environmental threats, two world wars, and many others. The list could obviously be quite long, and still not be exhaustive.

Today, we are living through an extraordinary convergence of at least three simultaneous tech revolutions: nano, information, and genomic. These are mutually reinforcing and are unleashing forces, both within science and outside of it, of perhaps greater scale than either of the Neolithic or Industrial. We are witnessing a steady acceleration of technology introduction that changes the ways in which we relate to information, to work, to learning, and to each other in fundamental ways. Just reflecting on the impact smartphones have on almost everything we do, it is hard to fathom that the iPhone only turned ten years old last month. Consider another example: It took a decade and over a billion dollars to map the first human genome in 2000; today, that can be done for anyone at a cost below $1,000. Humans are coming to understand the underlying plasticity of—and our capacity for redesigning—life itself.

What is also important to note is the quickening of pace marked by each successive technology revolution. The Neolithic Revolution took millennia to unfold; the Industrial Revolution transpired over a mere 150 years. We, however, are living through the critical stage of the nano-info-genomic revolution in perhaps a 50-year timeframe. It is no wonder that people find this a disorienting and confusing time. So many received paradigms are shifting.

So why are history, literature, and other subjects in the humanities relevant to this age of unprecedented disruption?

Precisely because the impact of technological changes will be felt most powerfully on the human level—in the ethical, social, and cultural spheres that are the very subject of humanistic study. Today’s students need to understand prior human history in order to contextualize today’s historical moment. They need to have facility with the great ethical systems of philosophy and religion in order to bring tools to bear in weighing wholly new ethical questions. They also need the creativity, compassion, and leadership qualities that a humanist education inculcates, as much as any students ever have before.

The best schools of today and tomorrow will reimagine, but not eliminate, their students’ educational grounding in the humanities, even while further enhancing their offerings in science and math.

Jim Tracy is Head of School at Rocky Hill School in East Greenwich, RI.