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After an Unfashionable Era, Traditional Humanities Are Revived

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Atlanta--"The question is not whether the humanities are desirable or necessary but whether they are ... postponable," said Harry S. Broudy, emeritus professor of education and philosophy at the University of Illinois.

"Students ask 'Why [do we study literature, philosophy, languages, and history] now? The eternal verities will always be there. We can appreciate the finer things later, when we retire on a pension."'

But, the emeritus scholar said emphatically before a sympathetic audience of educators, in his view the answer to his question and the students' is one and the same: the humanities are clearly "indispensable and not postponable. They are no longer the luxury of the elite but a necessity for living in a complicated, interdependent, and confusing world."

Mr. Broudy was one of a diverse group of about 100 scholars, schoolteachers, and administrators from the eastern half of the United States who gathered in Atlanta this month to air their views on the state of the humanities in precollegiate education. The invitational forum bringing together concerned educators from academe and the schools was sponsored by the Educational Excellence Network based at Vanderbilt University's Institute for Public Policy Studies, with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities (neh), whose chairman--William Bennett--offered the keynote address. (See Education Week, March 23, 1983.)

The meeting was the first of two--the second to be held next month in Colorado--designed to contribute thinking to a book under preparation by the Vanderbilt-based group that will analyze the status of humanities education in schools and provide recommendations for strengthening the programs. The excellence network is directed by Chester E. Finn Jr., professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt, and Diane Ravitch, professor of education at Teachers College of Columbia University.

The participants' discussions suggested they share many professional perceptions--on the fragmentation of subject matter; the vocational orientation of today's students; the poor quality of textbooks; and the need to return languages, literature, and history to a central place in the curriculum. But the meeting also highlighted their differing vantage points--for the scholars, the principal issues involved educational content, but teachers emphasized the frustrations associated with the low status and lack of intellectual stimulation in their work.

'Crisis' in the Humanities

Most of the scholars and teachers agreed that the present "crisis" in the humanities is a legacy of the 1960's and early 1970's, when attempts to make humanities curricula more responsive to students resulted in a "shattering of the disciplines."

That period, said Peter Pouncey, formerly dean of Columbia University and now a professor of classics there, was one of "intellectual anarchy" in which "teachers fed off student whims, and content disintegrated." High-school English curricula, he said, became a "free-for-all" and history, though maintaining some identity by virtue of its methodology, was broken into pieces by interest-group demands.

Indeed, agreed Mr. Finn, "History became black history, women's studies, global education, and economics."

Language study declined dramatically as colleges dropped their foreign-language requirements, said Carlos Hortas, chairman of the department of romance languages at Hunter College. Today, he noted, only 15 percent of all high-school students are enrolled in foreign-language courses, and only 8.4 percent of the total college population elects to study a foreign language.

"Only 1.8 percent of all students enrolled in foreign-language courses are enrolled at the third-year level or higher," Mr. Hortas said, "and only 1 percent of all students are ever exposed to a foreign language in elementary-school classrooms."

Of the social pressures that molded changes in school and college curricula, Mr. Broudy said: "The temptation in the 1960's and early 1970's was that, with a little money from Washington, we could reform the social injustices of hundreds of years. Either it was a misunderstanding of history or a miscalculation of cost. In the end, we lost our credibility."

Now, in an irony painful to many educators after all the social turmoil, students are more career-oriented than ever, Mr. Broudy said. And administrators, quick as before to respond, are rapidly shifting resources and instructional time to support science and technology programs at the expense of the humanities.

But Mr. Broudy reminded conferees that, in spite of what educators have done to curricula, the humanities are still "widely praised."

William Bennett, the endowment chairman, noted in his address: "Secondary school is the last stage of compulsory, universal education in America--our last shot, if you will, of giving students the best we have to offer them. Humanities courses should not be set up just for honors students. [We need to make the humanities available] not just for the dilettante, but for the indifferent, the Philistine, even for the hostile."

Throughout the discussions, the participants returned again and again to the central role that teachers must play in making the humanities a more vital part of the curriculum.

"The crucial ingredient is the teacher who knows his or her stuff, who is not embarrassed to reveal it, and who is not embarrassed to offer an invitation to students to know it, and [who will] press [students to learn more]," said Mr. Bennett. "Students will be interested in the humanities if taught well and taught effectively, because the kinds of questions the humanities raise are the kinds of questions students have."

Mr. Pouncey described the "essential" high-school humanities curriculum as one that would include works by Plato, Hobbes, Locke, Galileo, Darwin, Freud, Levi-Strauss, Marx, Newton, Herodotus, Brodel, Thucydides, Homer, Jane Austen, and Mark Twain, among others.

His remarks prompted Peter Greer, superintendent of schools in Portland, Me., to ask: "Where do we find more teachers like you?" And others worried even more where they would find enough teachers (or how they could produce them "overnight") to teach Mr. Pouncey's "essential" curriculum.

"My proposal is idealistic, of course. But we have to set our standards high," Mr. Pouncey said.

Most teachers at the conference agreed that in their training and inservice programs, teachers need to talk about ideas and be nourished on "great books" rather than to focus on pedagogical techniques.

"We're not a lot of dunces who don't know what to do on Monday morning. We need some stimulation," said one teacher.

"Without an interesting program, inservice days too often become good days for teachers to take off," said James Egolf, a high-school English teacher from Allentown, Pa.

"We need to put the fire under teachers again and say that they are not the lowlife of education," said Phyllis Bretholdz, a teacher of social studies and English at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School in Cambridge, Mass. "Teachers have something to give, and with the proper initiative, can revitalize themselves so they can give it again."

For teachers to be capable of injecting new rigor into humanities programs, current teacher-training systems, certification programs, and inservice training will have to establish closer links with the academic disciplines to encourage the "intellectual renewal" of the teaching force, conferees said.

John Casteen, secretary of education in Virginia and a professor of English at the University of Virginia, questioned whether improvement in teaching could be made when the state boards of education that control entry into teaching are unlikely to let English or humanities teachers set standards for their own ranks.

Many of the participants blamed the plight of the humanities, in part, on the preoccupation in recent years with basic-skills training and minimum-competency tests.

"The back-to-basics movement is wearing down the kids with a focus on noun and verb. They're taught to decode, encode, uncode, and overcode," said Sharon Smith, a high-school teacher from Lynchburg, Va.

"The emphasis on basics has taken away from higher-order intellectual skills," said Rebecca Burns, a high-school English teacher from Charleston, W.Va.

"Teachers are hungry for [additional intellectual] content in their courses," added Jack Murrah, an associate with the Lyndhurst Foundation of Chatannooga, noting that emphasis on the "basics" leaves little time for development of higher-order intellectual skills. He suggested that the movement by some states--including New York and Tennessee--to take competency tests out of high school and utilize them at earlier levels of education will improve the quality of education in the high schools by al-lowing more time for "content."

"Changing exit tests to entrance tests will liberate high schools," said Vanderbilt's Mr. Finn. He argued that much of what is now taught in high school should be taught earlier so that high-school students can concentrate on higher-level subjects. Students cannot have a "mindblowing experience," he said, "before they have learned to spell."

Benjamin H. Alexander, president of the University of the District of Columbia, said the nation's educational system must look beyond minimum standards and set higher goals that "appreciate [students'] enormous capacity for learning."

He added that "putting excellence back into our education system" can only begin inside the classroom.

"It will happen with teachers who instill positive attitudes, who push their students to their intellectual limits, and who can manage a classroom with firmness and compassion," he said.

Mr. Alexander, the grandson of a slave, received cheers from his colleagues as he traced his own background and education in black schools where students achieved "in spite of their environment, because they possessed intelligence; they were eager to learn; their teachers were eager to teach; standards and expectations were high, discipline was strong; and there were no exceptions to the rules."

Making Courses More Rigorous

Making humanities courses more rigorous and infusing them with intellectual substance will also require better textbooks, the participants agreed.

Too many books used in the schools, several teachers said, are tailored to the needs of the Sunbelt states, which constitute 20 percent of the school-textbook market.

The books, said Stephen Arons, associate professor of legal studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, foster "certain attitudes toward the founding fathers" and circumvent controversial subjects such as evolution. Moreover, he said, the political criteria used by state boards to determine what is appropriate reading would "gut" any ideal curriculum.

Teachers from the Kanawha County Schools in Charleston, W.Va.--in 1974 the scene of violent community strife over school book banning--said they felt grateful to have their books restored by a federal judge, while other teachers, commenting on the poor quality of textbooks, said they were grateful to have Weekly Readers.

But a number of participants in the Atlanta meeting expressed the opinion that a "momentum for change" is developing to make humanities teaching more attractive and humanities courses more vital. They cited support from neh; the findings of the Rockefeller Foundation report on "The Humanities in American Life" which placed as its "highest priority" the improvement in the quality of humanities education in the schools; the work of the Educational Excellence Network; current interest in effective schools; the Paideia proposal; and the focus in some states on master-teacher programs.

The participants applauded an announcement from Mr. Bennett that the neh will focus more of its attention on the humanities in the elementary schools by funding for inservice training and teacher renewal at all levels and by extending to high-school teachers programs previously open only to college faculty members.

They smiled at the words of the British-born classicist Peter Pouncey: Americans have no wish, he said, to be the way their European cousins perceive them--"rootless mavericks drifting like tumbleweeds through the arid cultural landscape."

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