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opinion

Clifford Orwin is a professor of political science and senior fellow of Massey College at the University of Toronto.

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As a teacher and practitioner of the humanities, I know I need all the help I can get. Thus I'm grateful for pieces such as the recent commentary by Alan Wildeman, president and vice-chancellor of the University of Windsor, who offered a bunch of arguments, all good, as to why the study of the humanities is good both for students and for Canada. Still, having read many similar cases for the humanities, I wonder whether they actually persuade students to study them – or explain why a hardy band of them continue to do so.

We'll stipulate, as the lawyers say, that, as Dr. Wildeman argues, a globalized world requires both intellectual and social skills that depend on the study of the humanities. (I won't lump the humanities with the social sciences, as Dr. Wildeman did, because the cases for the two are different, and no one regards social science as imperilled.) We'll also stipulate that graduates in the humanities fare no worse economically than most other graduates. These are both good reasons not to hesitate to study the humanities if you're inclined to do so.

What it won't explain is why you, Mr. or Ms. Recent High School Graduate, might be inclined to do so. It doesn't explain why you would opt for the humanities over any other similarly useful or remunerative pursuit, and it certainly won't persuade you to do so. Note that I say "would," not "should." I don't think that anyone takes to the humanities because of a "should."

I'll tell you why I went to university keen to study the humanities. It had to do with Margaret Cassandra Annan. No, she wasn't the hottest girl in the English class in my Chicago public high school. She was the distinctly unhot teacher. Miss Annan (it would be ludicrous to reinvent her as Ms.) was fiftysomething and possessed a doctorate from the University of Chicago. She was highly eccentric. She wore her hair cropped (which no one else we knew did) and was a spinster. She lived with her sister and numerous cats in an apartment in an otherwise wholly black neighbourhood (something else that no other white person in Chicago did at the time). Was her middle name really Cassandra? We never knew, but she frequently invoked it as she called down doom on all who committed grammatical errors.

We teens had no idea what to make of Miss Annan. But boy, could she teach "the humanities." She presented reading the classics of world, English and American literature as a mission and a privilege. She demanded systematic analysis, be it of Dante or Milton or Thornton Wilder, making it clear that real reading required thinking. Such thinking would disclose not only unseen patterns but also unimagined depths and new ways of looking at the world. Thanks to her, we took it for granted that the next stage of our education would involve still deeper immersion in these books. Not only we nerds but even the cool kids and athletes were caught up in the general bookishness.

I have no suggestions for rejigging Canada's teacher training systems to produce Miss Annans. She was sui generis. Herself a relic of the critical schools of the 1930s, she enjoyed certain advantages still present in the early 1960s but absent today. The habit of reading was more widely diffused, as was respect for the masterpieces of the Western tradition. She didn't have to defend her beloved works against charges of phallocentrism or ethnocentrism, and we didn't sit in class jiggling smartphones.

Still, I suspect that almost everyone who plunges deeply into humanities at university has had his or her Miss Annan in high school. The future of these disciplines depends not on abstract arguments but on concrete examples. Arguments are fine in their place, but what the humanities require, and only great teachers supply, is excitement.

If you're really lucky, you may still encounter your Miss Annan at university. On the whole, however, the fate of the humanities in Canada depends on its high schools, and their success at instilling a love of the subject that (like any love) owes nothing to statistics.