Recently I was invited to speak at a national symposium on the purpose and role of the humanities. Rather than talk theoretically, I asked our students and humanities faculty members to share their reflections. Their responses underscore the importance of the humanities at a Franciscan university. And it provided me an ideal occasion to reflect anew on some of the student experiences which help produce what I like to call the “Alvernia Advantage.”
I was fortunate to speak with students just returning from Alternative Break trips and several in a course I team-teach with Professors Fitzpatrick and Yarri — “Faith and Doubt in Modern Literature” as well as a sampling of first-year students, most of them majoring in Business, Nursing, and Occupational Therapy.
What I learned is that these students, regardless of major, are drawn to humanities courses because, in their words, such courses “help me to see myself,” “to open my mind,” “to walk a mile in another’s shoes,” and “to visit other cultures and historical eras.” Students don’t usually think about the humanities collectively, but they are familiar with the disciplines that comprise their humanities requirements in general education: philosophy and theology as well as language, literature, and history.
Humanities courses, several noted, push them “far outside [their] comfort zone” and encourage creative, open-ended thinking rather than memorization and more passive learning. One non-major, while acknowledging he liked his intended major, announced rather proudly to a large group of fellow first year students, that his philosophy course had greater personal significance: it compelled him to re-examine his beliefs. Humanities courses, said one older student, “made [him] squirm,” by posing uncomfortable questions and forcing him to question unexamined assumptions.
Students praised humanities courses as opportunities for dialogue and community-building, in contrast to courses where learning seemed more a private matter between instructor and student. And, as I pointed out to one group, they had praised humanities courses for apparently contradictory but really interconnected reasons: both for prompting deep self-reflection and for challenging them to look beyond themselves to probe beliefs and cultures quite different from their own.
Several students emphasized that faculty should not be apologetic about requiring students in professional fields to take humanities courses seriously. “If faculty don’t act like this is very important,” said one student, “there’s no chance students will think so.”
Humanities faculty members naturally identify far more strongly with the humanities collectively and emphasize the intrinsic value of such study rather than its practical application. While a compelling case for the humanities includes the development of critical thinking and communication skills, skill development should be viewed as an appealing byproduct of such study, rather than as a central purpose, they note, especially since many non-humanities courses make similar contributions.
Nor are the humanities merely another method of acquiring of information, noted one colleague, as if education were like filling a car with gasoline or transferring a computer file. For him, to further develop the computer analogy, humanities education is about changing the hardware not the software of one’s computer: it is the pursuit of “intellectual maturation, the structural change of the mind.” One colleague noted simply that the humanities emphasized the importance of human development—“the growth of humans as humans” more than as “productive workers.”
In my view, humanities studies are an essential way students learn about the world’s diverse societies and cultures, past and present, and the diversity of human experience. It has also never been more important that today’s students (and all citizens) reflect on differing responses through the ages to the questions about the existence and nature of God and the meaning of human nature, goodness, justice, and a free society. Such inquiry also has the power to help cultivate in our students habits of the mind, habits of the heart, and habits of the soul.
How does this happen beyond individual courses? A coherent general education program shaped around some intentional, integrated shared learning experiences is an essential way to foster the kind of “human development” and cultural inquiry mentioned above. Other ways include Alvernia’s Literary Festival and Writers Series, the activities of our high-profile Sigma Tau Delta chapter, popular interdisciplinary courses, and the entire faculty’s emphasis on ethics. Alvernia’s “Ethics, Leadership, and Community” lecture series, with its focus on the ethical dimension of contemporary, often controversial, issues, has built the University’s reputation as a “safe space” for sometimes difficult dialogues and a center for interfaith programs and intercultural dialogue.
Such programs also underscore what students consider to be a key attribute of humanities courses: their refusal to settle for easy answers. One faculty colleague noted that, given their subject matter, humanities courses should be taught by the Socratic method—“asking questions and questioning answers.” This made me recall an essay written as a young faculty member, when I suggested that undergraduates needed to approach their education with “constructive skepticism,” a process of relentless questioning to help clarify their values, beliefs, and what they considered sacred.
That is a worthy goal for all of us, especially at a Franciscan university.