Choosing a Humanities Moment was initially a challenging task. Over the last few years working with the organization PLATO (Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization), I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the humanities, liberal arts and a philosophical education. In particular, the so-called crisis of the Humanities, the popularity of STEM fields and the blossoming of a national testing regime prompted me to think a lot about what a good education should entail. In thinking back to my own education, my Humanities Moment both shows the power and challenges of what could be called a liberal arts perspective. I attended a high school run by the Department of Defense in Heidelberg, West Germany due to my father’s job in the government service. From the start, I was culturally and politically alienated from my peers. Having lived in Germany for years, I not only had scant knowledge of recent American culture, but also had a much different perspective. Initially, I could only feel the alienation to be a shortcoming of my own. However, in the summer between 9th and 10th grade, I discovered Hermann Hesse, in particular, the novel Demian. The novel, a classic Bildungsroman, discusses a young student’s coming to see beyond the illusions and falsehoods of the society around him. This novel struck me with tremendous power at the time. Along with other novels of this sort, it showed me a fundamental ideal of the Humanities — the same set of facts or experiences can can have more than one meaning — perspectivalism. It took me awhile to come to understand all of this, but as a shy 15 year old, it gave me emotional fortitude and encouragement. Unfortunately, it also gave me a nascent sense of elitism. It didn’t just validate my feelings, but suggested the idea of an intellectual aristocracy I could potentially be a member of. As the member of the special club of those who “got it”, it suggested my experiences were superior. Later, in college, exposure to Kant, Aristotle and other very challenging philosophers introduced humility. If there was a special club, surely I couldn’t be a part of it!
Why is this a Humanities Moment? Hesse wasn’t the only author of modernist alienation I read as a teenager, but I use him to illustrate this point because years later, another of his books again explained an important moment in my life. Three years ago, I became involved in efforts to bring philosophical education outside of the academy. I had been teaching high school philosophy for years, and was shocked to learn that there were whole organizations devoted to pre-college philosophy, and that people were doing philosophy with elementary and even pre-K students. Around this time, I read the Hesse novel The Glass Bead Game (Magister Ludi) for the first time. Although dull at times in its abstraction, the novel raises prescient points that Humanities education is still struggling with 50 years after its publication. In short, the novel describes a future world where monasteries and colleges have essentially fused, and a wildly abstract game, The Glass Bead Game attempts to unify all of the fields of human learning. Importantly, Castalia, where the game is played, steadfastly refuses to engage with the world outside — intellectual pursuit literally has become a walled-off game. In the year 2017, especially, it seems crucial to find a way to explore the socially critical functions of Humanities thinking while avoiding the elitism that has led so many people to even reject the idea of a shared truth. The question — how to bring a Humanities education and its expansion of perspective to all?