The crisis facing graduates of the humanities is palpable. Countless students leave academia without significant job prospects; there simply aren’t enough university positions to absorb a school’s graduates. With the erosion of the tenured track in academia, even those lucky enough to get a teaching gig at a university may find themselves in a perpetual low-paid, temporary position.
A myriad of pieces have been penned to warn future students of entering grad school in the humanities, all of which providing a healthy dose of realism to wide-eyed undergraduates with dreams of a future garbed comfortably in tweed jackets within the walls of the ivy shielded ivory tower. Some pundits have advocated for PhD graduates to consider other fields of work if they wish to apply skills they acquired in grad school. Elizabeth Segran at the Atlantic recently wrote a piece discussing jobs outside the university realm that may play well with those with a background in humanities. Considering the realities of academia, I hope anyone considering a PhD in the humanities recognizes that they will likely have to pursue work far removed from a professorship.
Oddly enough, Segran leaves off the most obvious career choice for out-of-work graduates: teaching. This may sound ridiculous to some, but PhD students of the humanities should see a teaching gig at your local middle school as the best use of their skills.
I recognize that teaching middle school students is not as glamorous as being a tenured professor; the job will not come with the air of respectability and wisdom inherent in holding a university gig. You also have to deal with being a politician’s whipping boy each time underperforming schools are addressed in the media. That gets tiring, but you get used to it.
I also accept that middle school students are dissimilar to college-aged undergraduates. We all remember what we were like in our early teens, and we likely don’t celebrate it as our best years. This age group can be a challenge to be engaged with continuously, but their emotional and intellectual immaturity should be seen as a positive to PhDs deliberating a cerebral challenge. In my estimation, a middle school teacher’s impact on society far exceeds that of philosophy lecturer speaking exclusively to middle class twenty-somethings.
This semester, my 8th grade students are addressing the following guiding question: what is the purpose of government? California state standards have us focus our 8th grade curriculum on early US history, but rather than simply discussing the reasons the American Revolution took place, we have students ask bigger questions about the entire point of government and the fundamental state of human nature.
On the first day of class, we drop our students into a collaborative simulation to get them thinking about human interactions in the state of nature. The class is put on a deserted island and has to complete a number of tasks, all of which require some form of cooperation. Through the simulation, students formulate opinions on the human condition and the reasons we organize into groups, as well as different arrangements of union to achieve a task. Some walk away from the experience deeming people naturally selfish and self-interested; others conclude man is inherently cooperative and good-natured.
We introduce philosophical arguments regarding the state of nature and solutions to its inherent problems. Our 8th grade students read excerpts from Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan:
“In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently no culture of the earth, no navigation nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and, which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Then from John Locke’s The Second Treatise of Civil Government:
“God having made man such a creature, [saw] it was not good for him to be alone, put him under strong obligations of necessity, convenience, and inclination to [push] him into society, as well as fitted him with understanding and language to continue and enjoy [society].”
As we analyze each excerpt, then discuss and debate each argument and the logical conclusions about government that stem from each position. We consider the place and time each philosopher devised their positions, considering the role culture and conditions have on one’s perspective (the English Civil War in Hobbes’ case and birth of liberalism and the Enlightenment in Locke’s).
Student’s examine the Magna Carta and the English Bill of Rights, and deliberate over the meaning of rights. They are forced to address inconsistencies with their idealized vision of fairness and justice in the world. Are there universal rights enjoyed by all people regardless of nationality or state? Clearly, this is not an easy question to answer for the most seasoned university debater, but seeing young minds build arguments with key philosophical texts as their foundation is a joy to witness, and challenges the perception that such quandaries are beyond the realm of possibility with this age group.
We even address controversial views on government, forcing the class to consider visions of society often left out of discussions on the subject. Benito Mussolini and fascism is addressed:
“A nation, as expressed in the State, is a living, ethical entity only in so far as it is progressive. Inactivity is death. Therefore the State is not only Authority which governs and confers legal form and spiritual value on individual wills, but it is also Power which makes its will felt and respected beyond its own frontiers, thus affording practical proof of the universal character of the decisions necessary to ensure its development.”
Quickly followed by anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon:
“To be GOVERNED is to be watched, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, regulated, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, checked, estimated, valued, censured, commanded, by creatures who have neither the right nor the wisdom nor the virtue to do so. To be GOVERNED is to be at every operation, at every transaction noted, registered, counted, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorized, admonished, prevented, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished…. That is government; that is its justice; that is its morality.”
Similar excerpts from Friedrich Hayek, Leo Strauss, Carl Schmitt, and Thomas Jefferson are addressed and debated, giving students but a taste of the varied opinions on the subject of government.
The trimester culminates in students presenting their own vision for government. Using specific historical examples, students construct their own manifesto to explain the purpose (if any) for government. Their argument is then challenged and questioned by their peers, requiring that students address dissenting positions. When the second trimester rolls around, and our focus shifts to the US Constitution, students have a much deeper understanding of the reasons for its structure and vision than students who simply memorized dates of battles from the Revolutionary War.
Surely, an 8th grade student cannot delve into these text’s in their entirety; even if time permitted, it is too much to ask of a mind just beginning to consider societal dimensions to read The Leviathan in its totality. Yet, these excerpts do allow for intense, sometimes contentious conversations about the state of man and the role of government. Our debates and seminars often spill out into the school’s hallways and onto family dinner tables. This reality alone should entice PhDs to give teaching middle school a chance.
With the Common Core, the possibilities are endless for what can be addressed in the classroom. Previously, all 8th grade students had to take a 40-50 question multiple-choice test that covered the previous 3 years of history curriculum. Questions ranged from specific details related to Mesopotamia, Feudal Japan and the Articles of Confederation. While this test gave a snapshot into specific content retention, it didn’t speak to a student’s analytical process, corroboration, or argumentative skills. Ironically, our history benchmark exam did not ask students to think like historians.
Some teachers have complained that the skills required by the Common Core are too challenging to foster in the classroom, but I find them liberating. The possibilities to address interesting and applicable material is endless; I am sure any humanities professor reading this can come up with a laundry list of texts students can address to better comprehend our central question.
When you began grad school, you likely didn’t see yourself teaching 14 year olds. Maybe you even thought it beneath you. The possibility of stable long-term employment and a need for smart, knowledgeable educators across the country may lure some to the classroom but the chance to shape young minds should keep you there. The chance to bring multifaceted ideas and texts to our nation’s youth is a golden opportunity that is waiting just around the block in your local public school. Challenging individuals to think critically about our world is at the heart of the humanities, and there is no better place to do it than a middle school classroom.
(Image: cover to Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan by Abraham Bosse- 1651)