What is Human?

A Humanities Institute for High School Teachers

July 11-15, 2011, Hiram College (Hiram, OH)

This institute is supported by the Ohio Humanities Council, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities

This teachers' institute, "What is Human?," aims to use texts and methods from the humanities to explore cutting-edge biotechnologies, their impact on society, and their relevance to our understanding of that key question at the core of the humanities: what does it mean to be human?

As students are increasingly leaving high school to seek degrees in the sciences or in applied or professional fields, this institute aspires to equip high school Language Arts teachers with strategies for helping students see the essential relevance of humanistic critique in a high-tech, science-driven world. We will serve Language Arts teachers at the 9-12 level with a three-fold mission:

  • provide teachers with a basic overview of current and proposed biotechnological developments that impinge on our understandings of human nature,
  • introduce new texts and explore how familiar texts can connect to key questions these biotechnologies are raising about human limits, origins and possibilities,
  • and generate practical strategies for incorporating this interdisciplinary subject matter into the Language Arts classroom as a way of demonstrating for students the relevance of fictional texts and of humanistic inquiry to their lives.

The institute will begin and end with an exploration of the concept "human" and a consideration of what role this concept plays in the humanities. Our initial discussion will draw on classical texts from Plato, Aristotle and Descartes in order to demonstrate how far back in our history these questions of what is human reach. The bulk of the institute is structured around several key biotechnologies and the questions they raise. We will introduce you to each new biotechnology with a lecture from our science faculty that will clarify basic scientific concepts and outline the impact—real or envisioned—of the use of these technologies. This factual introduction will be followed by one or more discussion sessions in which we explore specific aspects of the topic through works of fiction, typically short stories and plays. Each day will include discussion of a visual text, screened while you eat lunch. Each day will also include a "Resources" session in which we briefly discuss other texts that speak to the topics, and will conclude with small group sessions led by our teaching consultants designed to aid you in translating the day's discussions and texts into practical classroom activities.

More particularly, our institute aims to help prepare you, as Ohio teachers, to meet the revised Common Core Standards coming on-line in 2 years, especially the mandate for Language Arts teachers to include more informational as well as literary texts and to meet new cross-disciplinary literary standards. From your participation in "What is Human?" we anticipate that you will gain the following:

  • An increased understanding of and appreciation for the ways that science and technology inform the concepts and questions central to humanities investigation;
  • Heightened awareness of the instability and rhetorical slipperiness of key conventional terms that pervade our depictions of and aspirations for humanity, such as natural, normal, individual, equality and fairness;
  • Greater confidence in your understanding of the science behind and impact of contemporary and future biotechnologies;
  • An enlarged repertoire of highly relevant topics to raise through canonical texts, as well as exposure to many new texts which connect to key questions being raised about human limits, origins and possibilities;
  • Broadened resources for discussion approaches and assignments that will help students see the relevance of texts to our science and technology-driven twenty-first century;
  • Increased awareness of web-based resources available to help students access these texts from interdisciplinary perspectives;
  • An enlarged repertoire of resources to combine the use of narrative and informational texts in the classroom around a central theme.
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