Adventures in the Humanities
A mom returns to high school.
by Shelley Daily
From the November, 2019 issue
Last fall, during "capsule night" at Pioneer High, one of my son's teachers mentioned that parents were welcome to audit the class. Judging from the laughter, I don't think most parents took her invitation seriously. Unfortunately for my son, Adam, I did.
Back in the Eighties, I'd chosen more of a "CliffsNotes version" of high school, skating by with a 3.0, and ending my academic career at a bachelor's degree. Now, with three kids tackling a challenging AAPS curriculum, I realized how much I'd missed. When Adam signed up for Humanities-a team-taught interdisciplinary class that spans 4,000 years of Western literature, history, art, and music-I saw my second chance.
I asked Adam if I could attend some lectures, and he agreed, with one caveat: "Just don't tell me when you're coming." And that is how, at age forty-nine, I landed in seat K4 of Pioneer's Little Theater during the second semester of my son's senior year.
I'd slip into the back of the room after Adam had settled into his front-row- center seat. At the end-of-period bell I'd bolt up the stairs and out the door before he turned around (I opted out of small-group seminar later in the day).
I heard I got at least one, "Who's that lady?" but to Adam's relief, I was mostly ignored.
On a cold February morning at 7:30 a.m. I pulled into the Pioneer parking lot for my first Humanities class. Students in their cars checked their phones, primped in their rearview mirrors, and chatted with friends. I followed them inside as they slowly lugged their heavy backpacks--and I opened the door into the Enlightenment, and literature teacher Amy Vail's lecture on Gulliver's Travels.
As Vail introduced the Lilliputians and Yahoos of Jonathan Swift's satire, I flashed back to Ms. VanderVort's English class at my St. Paul, Minnesota, high school, where I broke into a cold sweat when the class discussed the same book (I hadn't finished it, of
course). In the coming weeks, lectures by history teacher Joan Bruggers, art teacher Michael Benedict, and music teacher Jonathan Glawe would open my eyes to what I'd missed--and inspire me to finally finish Gulliver.
Bruggers--who's taught the course for more than two decades--explained their approach to me later: "I don't think there are many points in curriculums where you step back and say, 'What's the big picture in this?' And this is where we get to do this."
When Pioneer launched Humanities in 1962 with support from U-M professors, the course guide outlined its goals: "... to open some doors to intellectual awareness, to awakening, to the discovery that living and thinking are conscious processes which demand perceptiveness, enthusiasm and judgment." After Huron opened, it modeled its Humanities program after Pioneer's; Skyline's version is modified. But with the pressure to have AP classes on transcripts, STEM, and the increase in the number of graduation requirements, Humanities is losing popularity: At its peak in the early 2000s, Pioneer's course had 200 students; last year, it had sixty.
The same decline is rippling through universities: "Across nearly every humanities major, enrollment has been falling precipitously," wrote Kalev Leetaru in a recent article in Forbes. "Yet as students flock to STEM careers like computer science, they are losing the grounding that the humanities provide in helping them understand their role in society and the impact their creations have in shaping and being shaped by that society."
Vail, a 1989 Pioneer Humanities grad, says she's an "anomaly" in a family of STEM majors. As science, technology, engineering, and math reshape our lives, she says someone needs to be asking, "What does it mean to be human?"
"STEM is going to teach you how to do things," Vail says--but not "the what to do, why to do it, and whether to do it all."
During the previous semester, I'd watched Adam at our kitchen table as he'd trudged through the Odyssey and the Aeneid ("that was painful," he recalls), stayed up until 4 a.m. creating a triptych on characters from The Canterbury Tales, and become inspired by the original Renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci. Since joining him for the Enlightenment, and conquering Gulliver, I'd become quite enthusiastic about our next time period: Romanticism.
Adam rolled his eyes as I shared my enthusiasm about Madame Bovary. "I can't believe how much it still relates to what women go through today!" I observed. Vail had introduced the concept of "ennui," and the idea that a certain consumer object or lifestyle choice could somehow transport one from a life of boredom to living the romantic dream. "Of course you love it," he laughed. "You're a bored middle-aged woman." But months later Adam still talks about consumer culture and advertising's effect on his generation--and it was all because of Madame Bovary.
His Humanities classmate Grace Stephan experienced it, too. "I used to think that if I go to this certain college I'm going to be a totally different person," she says. Madame Bovary and other readings still "affect how I see the world."
Those revelations didn't always come easily. Grace says in their Humanities seminar, she and her friends nicknamed themselves the "Struggle Bus" because "there was a level of bonding from engaging in this [challenging] material together." But now, as a freshman at the U-M, "I have a comfort with ancient texts that others are scared of," and she's discussing the Odyssey (again) in her Great Books class. And Benedict's teachings motivated her to take a challenging 300-level class in Dada and surrealist art.
Another classmate, Anne Ye, is also at the U-M. She's studying computer science but says she's always tried to "strive for balance" by taking piano and art classes through her school years. She chose Humanities for the same reason and says it gave her a comfortable place to explore questions where there wasn't always a "right or wrong" answer.
While there are plenty of facts and dates, the teachers find ways to engage students in personal reflection as well. When I walked into Ms. Bruggers' World War I lecture one morning, Bob Dylan's "With God on Our Side" is playing: "The reason for fighting I never did get but I learned to accept it ... for you don't count the dead when God's on your side." Bruggers outlined the facts of the Great War, but what seemed to really get to the students were the stories of trench warfare, and the portraits of the soldiers their age that flashed on the screen.
During his lecture on Impressionism, Benedict played a video clip of the museum scene in Ferris Bueller's Day Off--a movie that came out when I was in high school--when Ferris and friends skip school. The instrumental version of a Smiths song plays, and Ferris's friend Cameron stares deeply into a Seurat painting. I got goosebumps.
"If you haven't already, you have to see this film and take a cue from it," Benedict said. His mantra seemed to match Ferris's: "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."
In 2014, Jonathan Glawe was thirty-two years old and director of Pioneer orchestras--overseeing some 200 students in four ensembles--when he suffered a stroke. It left him with impaired movement, speech, vision, and memory. After intensive rehab, he says his "slow path to recovery" included sitting in on Humanities lectures and giving occasional guest lectures. He returned as orchestra director in January 2015, and joined the Humanities team as a lecturer that fall.
"I credit humanities with being the reason I could come back to Pioneer," Glawe (rhymes with "save")
says. "I needed something new--otherwise I would have fallen into my old myopic view of how I do my job." He says becoming a lecturer helped him to build his memory, improve his reading, and give him a "moment to think deeper about everything in my life."
"I love starting the day with this team," Glawe says. "I hear dedicated, deep-thinking people talk about their craft. I leave with questions I think about all day, and it informs my orchestra teaching." Without it, "I could be the king of my castle and live in my little world."
I'm clueless about classical music, but Glawe used symbols and metaphors to help us learn ("chords are built like a sandwich," with certain textures, flavors, and thickness). When he introduced Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 one morning, he had us close our eyes and imagine the second movement: "You're near a brook, with gentle, flowing water ... You just have a little picnic and enjoy!" At his final lecture, he gave us our "assignment for life": Support the arts. Challenge the arts to be better. Be a patron. Be an enthusiast. Be a scholar.
When Benedict presented controversial contemporary art by Andres Serrano, he urged the students to "think before you react ... and continue to think for the rest of your life." After reading Keats's poem "To Fanny," Vail said, "I hope someone writes a love letter like this to you someday." Another day, Glawe asked, "Is it possible you're creating art with your life?"
And there was never a shortage of enthusiasm. When Vail lectured on postmodernism, she showed a clip from the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, exclaiming, "I have the best job ever! Have I mentioned that yet?!" The class erupted in laughter.
Over at Huron, teacher Amy Van Appledorn--a lifelong friend and Pioneer humanities classmate of Vail's--had 108 Humanities students in 2015. Last year she had fifty-five, and this year it's twenty-two.
"I'm not necessarily optimistic about a rebound in enrollment in the humanities," says Peggy McCracken, director of U-M's Institute for the Humanities. "I am optimistic about the enduring importance of the humanities itself."
Adam says humanities "is so broad that it gives you so many opportunities for ideas to resonate." His favorite subject was existentialism, and he says the course made him "more skeptical, but not in a bad way."
"Students who take the humanities have a different viewpoint," Van Appledorn says. "They see the world and community differently ... Even a walk in Ann Arbor can be a different experience." She takes a group of a dozen students to Italy over spring break each year after they've studied the Renaissance to see Michelangelo's David and venture through Rome's great museums.
We didn't quite make it to Italy, but our end-of-year field trip to the Toledo Museum of Art still boasted work by Cezanne, Degas, van Gogh, El Greco, Rembrandt, and more. On the school bus I sat by Vail and her special guest, Pamela Graff, Pioneer Humanities teacher from 1985 to 2011. She was Vail's teacher, and Vail taught with her for a decade before she retired.
"People have always tried to erode the program because of the focus on STEM," says Graff, who still gets together for breakfast each year with a group of 1987 Pioneer Humanities grads when they come to town. "I understand it, but I deplore it, because we need to make them into human beings--people who pause and question."
At the museum, I found Adam Richards, a senior I'd known since kindergarten, wandering around a gallery of paintings from the 1600s. He was planning to study sports management in college, but he was reflective about his year in Humanities. "In twenty or thirty years I may not remember all the facts, but I will still love art because of the way Mr. B taught class."
When I glimpsed teenage life in the hallways at Pioneer, it seemed more heartening than most Instagram posts. I saw students high-five their peers from special ed classrooms, always hold the door open for me, and chat with one another before class instead of staring into their phones. (However, enter the student parking lot at your own risk: my open car door came within an inch of being shaved off one morning.)
After the morning lectures, I often chatted with community assistant Jeff Hilliard, who's monitored Pioneer's halls for twenty-six years. "Most of them find their way," he said, even those that get off track. "The system is not set up for you to fail. Only you can fail yourself. There's so much more help available [than years ago]."
Hilliard is hopeful about the future, as is Benedict, who retired this year: "The kids are so much more accepting and so much more kind to each other ... I feel at ease that they will make the world a better place. I can't wait until they take control."
On the last day of school, Humanities held its own graduation. As students blew bubbles in the Little Theater, music played, and a slide show highlighted the year. Vail gave a commencement address, and each student received a certificate declaring that they are a "member in good standing of humanity." There were tears, laughs, and hugs as the seniors prepared to leave the building for the final time.
They're ready, Vail says, to "go out into the world and create conversations that are just going to get richer and deeper ... It's just the beginning of this life of the mind."
from Calls & Letters, December 2019
To the Editor:
I greatly enjoyed Shelley Daily's article about the Humanities program at Pioneer High School. It brought back wonderful memories of early mornings--first and second period--of my senior year over 25 years ago.
Among the important reasons for students to take, and for the District to continue to support, the Humanities program, I would add this one. On the first day of class in the fall of 1993, Sue Frazier, the tiny spitfire senior English teacher on the teaching team, got up and said to us, "We are going to make you work hard. Really hard. And you know what? At the end of this, you are going to be so smart. You're going to be able to read the cartoons in The New Yorker and laugh at them."
It was true then and it sounds like it's still true today
[Originally published in November, 2019.]
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