The Humanities Faculty… What’s in a Name?
Late last year, in consultation with Dr Bell, our Faculty decided to change its name from the Social and Environmental Studies Faculty to the Humanities Faculty. While our teaching areas remain the same, this reflects a subtle but important clarification of who we are as a Faculty and where we are going.
Although the name Social and Environmental Studies (usually shortened to SES) accurately represented the kinds of subjects that we offered, it did not indicate any sense of our shared goals or objectives beyond the obvious fact that the environment and society are connected. Moreover, it was often the case that we were mistakenly called SOSE (Studies of Society and Environment), a subject area which has never been taught in this School and one which tends to conflate disciplines such as History and Geography. This confusion over names was particularly marked amongst our Year 8 students, many of whom had recently experienced SOSE in their primary school years.
While it can be argued that all true education is ultimately about enabling the individual to become more fully human (McCutcheon, 2006, p. 1), Humanities education is perhaps more explicit in this objective. This is attributable to the unique way in which a Humanities framework conceives of the world. As its name suggests, Humanities is about humans in all of their complexity, what we do and the forces that shape us to do both great and terrible things (White, 2008). Recognising that humans are more than the sum of their parts is a distinguishing characteristic of humanistic study and it is this approach which sets it apart from many other fields of knowledge which focus on knowing “about” humans — a process which is inherently reductionist (White, 2003). From an historical perspective all education was once Humanities education. Some of the earliest schools in ancient Athens for example, saw knowledge as integrated and the various subject disciplines such as Mathematics, Logic and Geography as branches of the new humanistic curiosity in a world which offered endless possibilities for enlightenment. The famed “father of history” Herodotus embodied this curiosity in that he is also purported to be the first to write a major work on geography and ethnography. His interests “were omnivorous, from natural history to anthropology, from early legend to the events of the recent past…and the nature of Greek liberty” (Thomas in Strassler, 2008, p. ix). In our own modern world as knowledge has become more complex, it has also fragmented and perhaps lost some of this grand and unified vision.
While the Humanities Faculty at Brisbane Girls Grammar School does not have a monopoly on Humanities education, it is nevertheless well placed to explore the dynamic links between areas of knowledge as well as being able to think about the ultimate purpose of education as a way of realising our shared humanity in all of its various historical, religious, socio-economic, geographical dimensions. In asking the question of what it is that makes us human we are compelled not only to look for commonalities between different societies but also to explore the “otherness” of groups who seem so remote from us.
The uniquely integrated way in which Humanities enables us to approach the world was demonstrated earlier this term when Mr J Wheatley, Head of the Geography Department, presented to the UN Club a fascinating lecture about the Icelandic volcano entitled “Is the World Falling Apart?”. In this, Mr Wheatley addressed the question that many of my own students had asked regarding an apparent increase in geological activity in the world since the start of the year; a question requiring the knowledge and perspective of a geographer. His explanation of the recent earthquakes and volcanoes did indeed provide an in-depth explanation of the seismological events that have occurred but it was impossible for his audience not to also consider the profound effect of these events on individual lives as well as the global economy as a whole. From my own historical perspective, the notion that such unusual natural events could trigger fears that the world is “falling apart” was reminiscent of a very similar anxiety around the year 1000, a time which also witnessed strange astronomical and climatic occurrences (Holland, 2008, p. 152). That a seemingly obscure fact such as this one could resonate and indeed shed light on a contemporary occurrence spoke to me of the relevance of the Humanities which are too often accused of being impractical and not useful. According to Dr Peter White, from the School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry at Sydney University, “impracticality is contextual” (2003). “This or that study may seem impractical now” says White, “but when something happens in Iraq, or the Solomon islands…the person whose expert knowledge is called upon is almost certainly someone in the Humanities” (White, 2003).
Brisbane Girls Grammar School’s Humanities Faculty is united by the common goal which is to see our students equipped with the means by which to make sense of the increasing complex world in which they find themselves. The means by which such seemingly lofty aspirations can be achieved rest firmly with the development of creative and critical thinking skills. Subjects in our Faculty approach the development of these skills through a variety of methods tailored to their specific contexts. The most significant legacy for our Humanities students relates to their understanding of the humanity they share with others regardless of time and place.
Miss A Dare
Acting Director of Humanities
Holland, T. (2008). Millennium. London: Little Brown.
Strassler, R.B. (Ed.). (2008). The Landmark Herodotus. London: Quercus.
McCutcheon, F. (2006). Education as a Humanising Activity. [conference paper]. Dialogue Australasia Conference.
White, P (interviewee). (November 30,2003). Humanities. Radio National [Radio Transcript]. Australian Broadcasting Corporation.