By: Norman Sandridge

I imagine most–if not all–humanities professors would like to educate a person to become someone like this. Many of us probably imagine that this is exactly the kind of person we do help create:

She (or he) is high in emotional intelligence: she works to understand the perspectives of others; she is aware of her own motivations and emotional states and she can describe them in almost technical language; she can even regulate her emotional responses and behaviors in the interest of achieving her goals and those of her organizations or communities; she understands the feelings of others and they matter to her. She will speak up about a problem facing her community using clear, precise, and compelling language. When necessary, she will call out bad behavior and challenge someone’s misunderstanding. She will seek out and form positive mentoring relationships. She will mentor and teach others. She will encourage those around her to conduct themselves well and she will celebrate them for doing so. She will herself model good character (however she may define it). She will focus on the healthy functioning of the communities and organizations she belongs to. She will learn how her community operates, its rules, strengths, and weaknesses. She will carefully study her community’s problems and develop practical solutions. She has a good sense of what will and will not work. She will even help articulate an aspirational vision for how her community might become a better version of itself. When called upon to judge or decide, she will make decisions on behalf of the community more than on her own behalf. She will have a sense of gratitude for what others have done for her. She will connect with others, forming partnerships and new groups wherever necessary. When she has the means, she will look for opportunities to give things to people who need them.

However they might add to, subtract from, or clarify this description, I strongly suspect that most people across the political spectrum would think that the world needs more people like this. They would likely say that such a person would make a good leader. But where do such people come from? What role, if any, do the humanities play in developing them?

I want to provide here one very promising but inconclusive answer to this question: I think I can show from my own experience teaching ancient leadership–this spring semester–at Howard University that the humanities can play a role in developing this kind of person. I will first explain my methodology for answering the question “do the humanities play a role in developing this kind of leader?” Then I will explain my methods for attempting to develop such a leader. What I cannot explain exactly at this point is how these methods produce such a leader.

Frequency and Quality

One way of figuring out whether a pedagogical approach is working is to ask the students directly if they see results themselves. The value of such an approach is that it seeks to gauge a student’s improvement in some area rather than some prior state or aptitude. For example, a student high in emotional intelligence(EI) might already do well in a humanities course, and thus there is little argument to make that the humanities improves EI; perhaps it is rather the case that students already high in EI are likely to do well in such courses and to be drawn to them because they are easy and enjoyable. But if the student notices improvement in EI during the course, we can suspect that we are somehow on the right track. 

Thus for this present survey I generated a list of nineteen leadership behaviors and asked students to report whether they felt like they were performing these behaviors no more often/more often/much more often since taking this course. Then I asked them whether they were performing these behaviors no better/better/much better. While it is conceivable that the results are less positive than they immediately appear, they are still very encouraging.

These nineteen leadership behaviors can be grouped into different dimensions such as Emotional Intelligence, public speaking, interpersonal relationships (e.g., networking, finding mentors, modeling good character), problem-solving (e.g., learning the rules of an organization, studying problems facing a community). I developed them pretty much empirically from the texts on “becoming a leader” we engage with in the course: the Odyssey, Sophocles’ Philoctetes, Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus, Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, Plutarch’s Virtues of Women, Ida B. Wells’ Southern Horrors, Jorge Luis Borges’ “El Muerto”, Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, Hannah Gadsby’s “Nanette”, Disney’s Moana, and Ryan Coogler’s The Black Panther. There are no doubt some leadership behaviors I overlooked, and we could likely generate even more having focused on other texts.

The Results

Thirty students responded to the survey. Technically forty-two students are still on role across two sections of the course, but only thirty-seven still seem to be engaged in the class by mid-semester, which yields effectively an 81% response rate. Out of these thirty students, at least 90% reported an increase on nine of nineteen behaviors and at least 80% reported an increase in fifteen of nineteen behaviors. All the behaviors where there was at least a double digit increase in the behavior by “much more” are marked in red in Table One below. In the area of quality, at least 80% of the students reported improvement in fourteen of the nineteen behaviors and for eleven of the nineteen behaviors at least ten students reported performing their behavior as being “much better” (Table Two). Notably, students reported being much stronger in areas of emotional intelligence (perspective taking, self-awareness, self-regulation). 


Why this approach seems to be working

We should begin by pointing out that there are a lot of ways of thinking about what it means to study leadership through the humanities. I don’t mean to claim that simply reading, e.g., a tragedy about leadership, or even reading it very carefully, would automatically contribute very much to these behaviors. Much of my approach here has to do not only with how one reads the humanities but also what one thinks of oneself as doing during and after this process (for more on this topic see “Saving Higher Education“).

Surveys based on adapted scenarios

I will briefly describe here some of the new approaches I have introduced to my leadership course this semester. I believe these may explain the uptick in the reported frequency and quality of these leadership behaviors (for more information on the course, see this link to the syllabus). For starters, while this course begins with the study of ancient leadership, and particularly the theme of becoming a leader, I introduce almost all of the ancient material by having students respond to a scenario that I have adapted to a contemporary setting. So, for example, before students read about how Telemachus in the Odyssey prepares to take over his father’s household from the suitors who are courting his mother Penelope, they read a scenario about a contemporary college-aged student who is positioned to take over a family business but whose parents have gone missing while the board members of the company try to orchestrate a hostile take-over (more on the scenario here). Students are then asked to think about their own emotional reactions in this scenario and then they are asked to consider how difficult (or easy) they would find it to carry out certain actions to resist the board, e.g., calling out board members for their bad behavior or reaching out to friends of the family for alliances and support. In class I have students compare their answers with each other to improve self-awareness and I have them try to guess each other’s answers to improve perspective taking and theorizing about other minds.

The “Talking Stick”

At the beginning of each class I invite and encourage students to come to the front of the room and deliver a message that they feel the rest of the class needs to hear. This could be anything from a word of encouragement about classes to a political or social issue students should be aware of to a personal experience that the student feels may be relevant to others. Students speak while holding what we call the “talking stick” (or skēptron in ancient Greek). This stick is decorated with all sorts of biomes from the ocean to the sky and inscribed with the various leadership behaviors we explore in the course, e.g., speak, know thyself, inquire, honor, give.

Howard University’s Ms. Cavani Diggs delivers a message with the Talking Stick (Photo by Ariana Morrison)


Finally, throughout the course I have regularly encouraged students to practice a five-step method for translating leadership study into practice. Briefly, this method is as follows (I recently discussed it with Brook Manville for his Forbes blog on leadership). Students first put themselves in a mindset to identify leadership behavior in ancient sources. They gather examples, as it were, like any good botanist or baseball card collector. They then analyze these examples to better understand how they work and what their context is. Then they creatively and imaginatively “translate” the ancient examples into modern terms as best they can. So, if they see someone like Telemachus in the Odyssey being mentored by the goddess Athena, they would be encouraged to imagine how this compares and contrasts with their own experience of mentorship. Equally importantly, they are encouraged to think about how ancient aspects of mentorship might be incorporated into their own mentor relationships in the future. From here they are encouraged to evaluate the ideas they have come up, whether they would actually be good and practical. If they do seem good and practical, they are encouraged to then practice them, not at any unspecified time in the future but at the earliest possible moment. To expect students to engage in a search for a good mentor based on a reading of the Odyssey at some point months or years down the road is probably a longshot; to expect them to do it tomorrow or in the next week may not be. Identify, Analyze, Translate, Evaluate, Practice (now): or the acronym my students noticed well before I did, I ATE P.

Instructor modeling of leadership behavior

In addition to these three approaches I have also made a special point this semester of sharing my own experiences with leadership development–as a teacher, as a member of various organizations, as captain of my HS baseball team. I share my successes as well as my frustrations and failures. Earlier in my teaching career I would have considered this to be a self-absorbed distraction, believing that my sole duty in the classroom was to transmit my knowledge of the field I had spent twelve years in college and graduate school trying to master. Students still spend much of the course reading ancient literature and answering questions that require them to think critically about what’s going on. And we develop a working vocabulary of fifty or more ancient Greek terms that become the tools for analysis that we use to understand ancient leadership and apply it to modern situations. For example, we talk about what it means for the suitors in the Odyssey to be nēpios (=disconnected) and compare that later to how Eric Killmonger is in several ways nēpios in The Black Panther. Nevertheless, I see my personal anecdotes as a kind of “proof of concept” a way of communicating to the students, “see, I use all of this ancient and modern material to think about and guide my own behavior.”

The challenges of assessment

As promising as this data is for demonstrating the immediate ways in which the humanities may be translated into more frequent and better leadership behavior, there are many reasons to question what exactly the data is telling us. For one, how do students understand the word “frequency”? Does “more” mean “once more” to them and “much more” mean “twice”? Does their behavior seem more frequent only because they have been asked to pay more attention to it? What do they mean by “better” for some of these behaviors? Are they answering the survey more positively because they want to believe the course is having more of an impact on their lives than it really is? These are questions we could pursue in a more detailed survey by asking students to provide anecdotal evidence. In theory we could also ask them to provide references from others to attest to their improved leadership. Nevertheless, it will always prove difficult, if not impossible, for an instructor to ascertain whether the student is actually, e.g., “making decisions on behalf of her community” more frequently or in a more thoughtful way.

But this brings us to an observation about the state of higher education today. Perhaps we used to take it for granted that when we analyzed a history text or a novel as part of coursework that the student then knew how to “translate,” to use our present terminology, this study into some particular practice. But my suspicion is that now students are not doing this very much because they spend less and less time on coursework and because there is no direct incentive or encouragement for them to do so. If they are not going to be graded on, e.g., whether they “give someone what they need”, then why would they bother trying to improve in this area? Or, to put it another way, why would they ever see their experiences in a humanities course as an opportunity to become better at this even if they think it’s a good idea in general?

Humanities courses, then, appear less and less relevant precisely because we have eroded the process of translation by which they become relevant. Without this process professors are stuck clinging to the fantasy that students will retain examples of leadership from history and literature, along with the “critical thinking skills” necessary to analyze them, until an indefinite point in the future–ten, twenty, thirty years down the road–when the stars align and their education realizes its purpose. This is a fantasy that humanities professors would probably do well to be more skeptical about. Economists are already way ahead of us in this regard (for example, see Bryan Caplan’s recent book, The Case against Education (2018), which calls the idea of human capital an outright myth).


In order for the humanities to truly improve leadership behavior we may need to move away from the idea that we can precisely measure the behaviors we hope ultimately to foster. We may need to encourage and then trust students and the communities they operate in to take the responsibility to do this for themselves. In particular, we might encourage students to ask their communities members to give them feed back on whether they can observe these behavioral changes in the students, i.e., are they developing a new reputation for speaking up and calling out bad behavior, for example. This does not mean we as professors should stop grading students altogether. I can still measure fairly accurately the Analyze portion of the “I ATE P” method with quizzes and exams; and I can assess their willingness and skill at engaging in the Translation and Evaluation portions in class discussion and through essays. But I may never know for sure how often or how well they put all of these behaviors into practice. And that’s o.k. Just because we can’t grade something doesn’t mean we shouldn’t actively promote it.

Finally, we must also think more carefully about all the processes we want students to engage in when they are translating their study into practice. For brevity, I have treated the creative and imaginative act of translating, say, ancient mentorship into modern mentorship. But that can actually be quite a lengthy process involving lots of the student’s own self-awareness as well as careful consideration of what kinds of opportunities exist for her. Maybe a process like finding a good mentor is not something that can be mastered in few weeks of a single course. Those of us committed to the description of the young leader I outlined above must work harder to create the right environment for this transformation to take place, over a long time and in many different domains.

[I would like to thank Dr. Mac Williams, associate professor of Latin American Literature at Coker College, for helping me think through some of the ideas in this piece.]


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