Educating our Children in the Humanities

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The late Philip Seymour Hoffman’s will indicated a preference that his son be raised in San Francisco, Chicago, or Manhattan, “The purpose of this request is so that my son will be exposed to the culture, arts and architecture that such cities offer.” As a society, we devote a lot of energy to standardizing education, testing outcomes, increasing STEM content, and generally trying to make education the same for everyone. Yet, Hoffman’s will highlights something we are missing with all the standardization: the danger of making education equally bad and equally pointless.

Hearing Hoffman’s wish for his son made me think about the outside-the-classroom choices that my parents made and the choices my husband and I have made as parents. Growing up in the suburbs of Detroit and then Flint, “culture, arts, and architecture” were a little thin on the ground. There were museums, plays, and the occasional symphony concert, but what we didn’t have was critical mass of people who cared about the arts and talked about them. Despite a wonderful, bright extended family and a few dear friends, we didn’t have that 24 x 7 soup of culture, arts, and architecture. So, early on, my parents started taking us to Toronto. Braving the QEW over winter breaks, we spent more than one snowstorm in Simcoe. But our parents’ objective was to have us experience what a real city was like, one where as a teen I could ride the subway on my own, where there were lots of innovative restaurants, books, magazines, bigger art museums, more people focused on the arts.

That early exposure was part of what prompted me to apply to graduate school in Dublin, a city sometimes overshadowed by London, but with a hugely literate culture. Two (that I know of) the 20 students from my MA program are published authors.  People in pubs had reasoned opinions about literature, contemporary world events, art. Over winter break, I spent my first week in London, where a guy who was very interested in the friend I was traveling with gave us a brilliant tour of the Inns of Court. It wasn’t a matter of a few more museums, or even safe, reliable mass transit (although that made a difference). The critical factor came from just bumping in to people who were well-educated and cared about history, culture, architecture.

Fast forward to my own parenthood. I have struggled to find schools that work well for my child, and after 15 years, finally realized that a combination of homeschooling and community college is the right answer for us. I feel like it took way too long to figure that out and I probably could have saved everyone a lot of grief by doing it sooner. What we did do well, though, was travel. Starting when our child was less than 2 weeks old, we were up in a small plane. We’ve done road trips around the US, hit the history sites in Philadelphia and the Smithsonian in Washington, even been to Beijing as a family. We keep going back to London, though. It’s the place that grounds us because of the “culture, arts, and architecture,” and I would add history. The cultural texture is so thick and so deep there that our child couldn’t help but become immersed in it, developing a perspective that’s informed by history, literature, music, wit, drama.

Education, after all, comes from the Latin, for to lead out. Education leads us out of ourselves, out of the narrow confines of our worldview. Whatever steps we take as parents to lead our children to a broader, more informed worldview enhances their education.Image: London double-decker bus

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About good2kno

Trained in English Literature, Anglo-Irish Drama, and Business Administration, Kirsten Nelson blogs as good2kno.com. Her content strategy and communications practice includes work for Apple, Cisco, IBM, Oracle, and a host of start-ups. She has served on non-profit boards, is wife and mother to Science Fiction and Steampunk geeks, and is homeschooling a budding actor.

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