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Educator makes the case for studying the humanities

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Open Your Hand: Teaching as a Jew, Teaching as an American by Ilana M. Blumberg (Rutgers University Press)

The humanities are in serious trouble.  Throughout Canada and the U.S., fewer university students every year are majoring in subjects like English, history, classics or philosophy. As the Globe and Mail recently reported, “Over the last decade, students have fled the humanities. In response, universities have cancelled individual courses, or entire specialized humanities programs. Instead of hiring tenure-track professors to replace retiring faculty, they make do with less, or turn to sessional instructors who teach when and if there is demand.”

Current common wisdom dictates that, if they want to have a chance of finding a job when they graduate, students must study something practical, like computers, business, or accounting.  Many university graduates now lack a sense of history, an appreciation of literature, and even basic writing skills.

Some intellectuals have tried to make a compelling case for studying the humanities.  (See, for example, Jerry Z. Muller’s The Tyranny of Metrics). A new passionate voice for their importance is Ilana M. Blumberg. Open Your Hand: Teaching as a Jew, Teaching as an American is her  second book on a Jewish theme. (Her first, Houses of Study: A Jewish Woman Among Books, was published in 2007.  She has also published a book in Victorian Studies.)

Blumberg is a gifted educator who grew up in the United States. She and her family made aliyah five years ago.  Currently she is a professor of English at Bar-Ilan University.

This book chronicles her experiences as a teacher in many settings – at the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, as well as at the cutting-edge Jewish day school in New York, Beit Rabban. Some of the most moving passages in this book describe her work as a volunteer in an American inner-city public middle school where she worked with disadvantaged children with spotty attendance records who almost invariably had experienced violence in their lives.

Blumberg opens her classroom door and we get  a sense of her impressive skills as a teacher, something she thinks about constantly: “Teaching seems straightforward enough, and yet how difficult it is: the split-second decisions all classroom interactions require, the beliefs they reflect, the relations they create…. Decisions that do not even seem like decisions: whether one smiles while teaching, or stands or sits, at what volume and pace one speaks.”

Blumberg feels that all her teaching, whether of kindergarten kids or ostensibly sophisticated college students, has the same goal: making students more involved with the world around them and more sensitive to its needs. 

“I have spent 15 years teaching material that demands action in response…. ‘English literature’ is not a sufficient description of my project; it never has been. I need a licence for thinking of myself as a civic educator.“

She describes her frustration with a writing class she taught at Michigan State University. Like many writing teachers, she assigned the students to read and discuss articles. In one discussion, she was perturbed to discover that her students all believed America to be a real meritocracy where people succeed because of their skills and effort. They were skeptical about the article’s claim that people from economically and socially disadvantaged backgrounds often face insurmountable obstacles to success. Like the dedicated teacher that she is, she adjusted the curriculum, bringing in material that she hoped would raise their social consciousness.

A kindergarten teacher, particularly in a Jewish day school, or even a middle school teacher is certainly expected to inculcate values, trying to turn students into better citizens who are socially aware, passionate about justice, and compassionate. But is this what we expect of university teachers?

Blumberg recognizes that there are other approaches, discussing for example the theories of Stanley Fish. A respected scholar of literary theory and Renaissance literature, Fish argues in his 2008 book, Save the World on Your Own Time, that “professors should leave aside any lofty moral, political, spiritual goals and instead rededicate themselves to precisely the job they [were] hired to do: teaching the bodies of knowledge and the traditions of inquiry in which they [are] expert and equipping students with the necessary analytical skills for these pursuits.” Fish argues that he understands his task to be “teaching students to decode and to write logical sentences.”

READ: MAIMONIDES MIGHT NOT BE SURPRISED RABBIS MISAPPROPRIATED HIS TEACHINGS

Throughout my 40 years of teaching at universities, my own sense has been that Fish’s approach is the most prudent.  Universities reasonably enough continue to hire professors for their skills in specific subjects, whether they are good people or not.  Not every professor is cut out to be a “civic educator.”  I have also seen a few egregious examples of professors who use their classrooms to promote values that do not conform with mine, and a few professors who have prioritized values over the teaching of critical skills. I often wonder whether the current unpopularity of the humanities is a result, in part, of this development.

Blumberg, however, has presented a moving argument for the other approach, for combining the teaching of academic skills with the teaching of values. Whichever approach is better, I’m sure that if every professor had the skills, dedication and values of Ilana Blumberg, universities would be better places.

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