When I first arrived in Xiaogan, a former farming village in the center of China that now has a skyscraper being built on every block, to be an English teacher at the local university, I met my two fellow wandering foreigners – a French teacher and another English teacher, from Canada. While I had studied a little bit of Chinese in college, to the others the language was utterly incomprehensible. All of us, however, knew we were in a place where we didn’t know the rules, where we were outsiders. As teachers though, we had to learn these rules in order to do our jobs. Some of these rules were learned gradually, but one rule all of us learned with shocking speed: the rules about cheating, namely, the rule that there weren’t any rules about cheating, not in the student’s minds at least. Of course, according to school policy, cheating was not allowed, and could be grounds for dismissal. Such regulations, however, did not stop 60% of my students from plagiarizing the entirety of their first big assignment from the Internet, word for word. My fellow teachers all had similar experiences – blatant, systematic cheating, of the highest caliber.
All three of us spent a dinner discussing the more outlandish attempts at cheating, and the rage my coworkers felt was palpable. They were shocked and a little bit betrayed – they always would ask, “How could they do such a thing?” “How are they so lazy?” They resented their students, and looked down on them for it. I will say that I was angry at first too – some of the cheating was just so obvious I was offended they didn’t try to hide it better! I soon realized though that my co-teachers were asking the wrong questions. Instead of “how could they be so lazy?” the real question to ask was “would I be doing any different, if I lived their lives?” It was here that my experience in Chinese history gave me insight – I knew about the old examination system in China, how the essays were designed to encourage copying and pasting as a demonstration of memorization, how teachers today consider it demeaning to have to punish students and demand they do their own work, and I knew institutional facts about education in China, how schools actively encouraged cheating by their students in order to boost tests scores and get money, and dozens of other reasons that contributed to his problem. I did not excuse my students, but I knew enough that it was easy to not resent them for it.
The most salient point about why the humanities matter is that you can’t actually escape them. When my co-teachers judged their students, hated them for what they did, they judged them based on an idea of what their students should be, and that their students are personally responsible for fitting into that ideal. They judged them based on a theory of how people act, a theory based on personal responsibility and their own history and culture. Everyone has tons of these ideas that they pick up from school and society around them, that colour how they view the world and shape how they relate to people. The humanities, at its core, is very much the study of these ideas, and you have these ideas no matter how few history seminars you attend. A study in the humanities, however, often shows that many of these ideas, if not wrong, are at least not the only way to look at the world. History will show you that cheating isn’t what you think it is in China, psychology and even literature can help you understand that the laziness of my students may not be their fault, philosophy can show you that assumptions you thought were foolproof are in fact foolish. The humanities may or may not provide any economic, quantitative benefits for society – that’s not a question that I’m pondering here. However, the humanities does contribute to our happiness in very concrete ways. Sure, knowing how many men were under Caesar’s command as he crossed the Rubicon wont mean much in your life, but that’s not the point of history any more than the point of chemistry is to memorize how many protons are in a Uranium molecule. Understanding the humanities can help you understand your friends, understand why people say and do some of the things you consider to be crazy, understand why so many people have the opposite conclusions about so many things you do, and understand why you yourself think the way you do. With my co-teachers, me teaching them about everything I knew of China’s history with cheating helped them let go of their resentment of others. Everyone has ideas in their head, ideas that affect how they act every day and cause them judge the people around them, and the purpose of the humanities is to shine a light on these ideas, and help them match the reality of our lives.