While all true education is ultimately about enabling the individual to become more fully human, an education in the humanities is perhaps more explicit in this objective. This is attributable to the unique way in which a humanities framework conceives of the world. Recognising that humans are more than the sum of their parts is a distinguishing characteristic of humanistic study and it is this approach which sets it apart from many other fields of knowledge which focus on knowing ‘about’ humans — a process which is inherently reductionist. As its name suggests, humanities is about the human story in all of its complexity and richness — what we do and the forces that compel us to do both great and terrible things. As with all good stories, the human one relies on imagination and creativity, not just the bare facts. It provides context to a complex world and thus enables the individual to make sense of that world and find her place within it.
From an historical perspective, all education was once more explicitly connected. The earliest schools in ancient Athens, for example, saw knowledge as integrated and the various subject disciplines such as mathematics, logic and geography as branches of the new humanistic curiosity in a world which offered endless possibilities for enlightenment. The famed ‘father of history’, Herodotus, embodied this curiosity in that it embraced a variety of inquiries and he may also be recognised as the first to write a major work on geography and ethnography. His interests ‘were omnivorous, from natural history to anthropology, from early legend to the events of the recent past and the nature of Greek liberty’ (Thomas in Strassler, 2008).
In our own times, as knowledge has become more complex, it has also fragmented and perhaps lost some of this grand and unified vision. The concept of knowledge itself can seem quaint in a highly competitive environment of limited university places and an unstable employment market. Will the careers that students seek now still exist by the time they finish university? What new and unforeseen careers will emerge while we are teaching students what has always worked in the past? The increasingly rapid pace of change makes a humanities education more relevant than ever. Indeed, it is in the humanities classroom that students learn explicitly about the nature of change itself.
Humanities at Girls Grammar is based on the premise that while the human story can be understood through various lenses (economic, religious, geographical, historical), the goal underlying these subject avenues remains the same; that is, to uncover the common thread that unites us through time and place. This means that in studying the discrete subject areas with all of their skills and content specificities, students also consider the big questions underpinning these areas.
For example, topics as diverse as the Roman Republic in the first century BC or Germany in the 1930s would obviously require an acquisition of core facts. But beyond the facts, the development of deeper knowledge would require the utilisation of critical thinking skills in order to make sense of a multiplicity of narratives and perspectives. At a more elemental level, students might be compelled to consider questions about the nature of power, the role of individuals in shaping the course of history or the meaning of freedom. Addressing questions such as these fosters the development of self-reflection and self-knowledge.
It refines the individual’s understanding not only of their own personal values but also of the source of those values in the big thought frameworks through which we all see the world. It prompts them to consider ideas that might challenge underlying assumptions and beliefs—beliefs that would otherwise seem natural or normal. In this sense, the humanities classroom is the forum where divergent ideas co-exist. It is the place where students learn not only how to critique ideas but also, in considering ideas that might clash with their own, how to listen with empathy to the various standpoints of others.
An education in the humanities opens students up to the richness and diversity of the human experience. It builds in them the capacity to make decisions that are both wise and judicious and in so doing builds confidence as they forge pathways into the future.
Thomas, R. (2008). Introduction. In R.B. Strassler (Ed.) The landmark Herodotus: The histories. London: Quercus