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Oh, the Humanities!

Authored By: 
Michelle Koza, English Teacher

I am an English teacher who is passionate about literature. Catch me in my AP class and you’ll see that I’m a superb lecturer (though I do stray from literature every so often; see my blog on why I teach Aristotle’s Ethics). In my standard English classes, however, as I have gathered experience over the last 10 years, I have moved away more and more from pure literature, and exposed my students to magazine articles (old and new), op-eds, and other types of non-fiction, like primary source documents such as historical memos, convention resolutions, and legal opinions. In the parlance of our times, I am not so much a traditional English teacher, as a teacher of the humanities.

What are the humanities? The humanities are a branch of the liberal arts that cover human arts and attitudes through history, philosophy, religion, language and visual arts. All of these are reflections of human activity in the world, and as a steward of the new generation, I believe it is my duty to impart to them the complexity of human endeavours, beautiful and ugly, in all of its facets. Literature is a part of this bigger picture that can serve to pierce through the sometimes asceptic language of the other disciplines, and give human warmth to cold concepts, like the historic inequality of women and people of color. We look at primary sources to create context, to pin literary text to a moment in history that speaks to the lived experience of a particular person or group of people. The literature shows, illustrates, fleshes out, and gives voice to the effects of these historical forces.

One of my favorite texts to teach is “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, an American writer of the turn of the last century. An activist for women’s rights all her life, Gilman used fiction to illustrate the consequences of the social expectations under which women were expected to operate. The story is sometimes taught as a tale of horror, a woman slowly going insane, hallucinating images in the titular wallpaper. However, when paired with texts such as “Bradwell vs. State of Illinois,” which claimed women were legally barred from working as lawyers because of their traditional role as mothers, or the Declaration of Sentiments, that puts a rather fine point on the ways in which women have been oppressed, the story takes on new meaning. Why is the narrator going insane? Because she is precluded from exercising the full spectrum of her personhood. The story is about the consequences suffered by an individual when we do not honor her humanity. As a result, students can come away with a deeper understanding of the personal costs that social norms, for example, may have on an individual psyche. Then, they may turn the question inward: Where do I end, and where does my aculturation begin?