What Makes Us Human?

Art is the most effective form of communication that exists. –John Dewey

Carving Cambridge

This year, I’m lucky enough to be teaching a new elective course simply called Humanities. I’ve realized in the five years I’ve been here that students at our school don’t have that many chances to be exposed to a wide variety of art, music, and other kinds of human expression commonly referred to as “the humanities.” The course is inquiry based, and organized around the question, “What makes us human?” The hope is that by the end of the course, students will have their own meaningful answers to that question, and will have found at least one particular kind of humanistic expression that excites them enough to create a culminating presentation based on a deep exploration of a specific work of art, an artist, a genre, or a medium.

There are seven students in the class, sophomores through seniors, and we began by reading and discussing some of the big questions philosophers have wrestled with through the ages, such as “How do we know anything?” and “How do words get their meanings?” and “What is free will?” and “What is death and the meaning of life?” Our discussions vacillated between riveting and confusing, and several students complained of headaches caused by intense thought. I’d say that was a success.

We’re in the midst of our second unit, on art and architecture, and have the great fortune of two community members – a former art history professor and an architect – exposing us to all sorts of great work from around the world. Because our students also lack a broad understanding of world history, it’s hard to give them a complete picture of any one school or period or even a single artist. I find this a bit frustrating because I want to “fill them in” on all kinds of related things to nearly every piece we look at, but I have to remind myself that the point is to focus more on the variety of expression and allow students’ natural curiosity to determine what specific things they want to explore more deeply on their own, with the guidance of us teachers.

Drilling holes for the feathers

Most of the class so far has taken place in my classroom, using technology to show digital images and video of various things. Yesterday, however, was different. We went outside and were guided by Mr. Walters, the architect, on how to use antique stone-working tools. The video below shows what we all did in a single, compelling hour. I know everyone learned. As the great educational philosopher John Dewey said, “Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn, and if the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking, learning naturally results.” I think the video shows in each student’s face the result of that experience. It was one of the most beautiful hours I’ve had as a teacher. Now, when they look at Michelangelo’s “David” or one of the 5,000 gargoyles on the Notre Dame cathedral they’ll understand more deeply what they’re seeing. One of the students, waiting for her turn to pound the wedge between the iron “feathers” used to split one of the stones, said quietly to me, “This is nothing like any school I’ve ever been to!” Dewey again: “We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience.”

Carving the “C” for Cambridge

As a language arts teacher, I often struggle to imagine ways to “give my pupils something to do” with language, other than to read, write, and talk about it. But I think about Dewey a lot when tackling new material and trying to make it relatable; digital storytelling and other uses of technology help, but it’s rare to be able to go outside and cut stone when you’re trying to teach students about evidentiary reasoning or character development. But I think those connections between “doing” and “just writing/reading/talking” are there if you look hard enough for them. Yesterday, with the engagement I saw in students, especially when the stone split in two as a result of their guided work, I’ve got some new inspiration.

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