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Humanities education in the nation's schools is "under siege," primarily because many of those entrusted to defend these disciplines have "lost their nerve, forgotten their mission, clouded their vision, or, in some instances, defected altogether," according to Challenges to the Humanities, a new volume of essays edited by Chester E. Finn Jr., Diane Ravitch, and P. Holley Roberts.

The book, published this month by Holmes and Meier, is the second major report to emerge from the Educational Excellence Network at Vanderbilt University with financial support from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The preceding volume, Against Mediocrity (published in 1984), proposed reforms in education policy to restore the integrity of high-school humanities curricula and raise the value of teaching in humanities disciplines. But the new book suggests that, given the climate surrounding humanities education in schools, policy changes alone are not sufficient.

The contributors examine such areas as the role of the school in building a common culture; the threats to education in the humanities posed by a national fascination with science and technology; the encroachment of social-science courses into the humanities; the troublesome questions of values that emerge in the teaching of literature, history, classics, and philosophy; and the lack of precision in defining what the humanities are--and are not.

In an epilogue, Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, former chairman of the neh, reiterates some of his views on humanities education, arguing that the goal of humanities curricula must always be to teach "the best that has been thought, said, and done."

"In deciding what we teach," Mr. Bennett writes, "we must draw from what is better or higher than average, from the best and most compelling material we have. Why? Because one purpose of teaching the humanities is to invite students into the company of great souls and to have them linger there awhile."

But one contributor, Patrick Welsh, a teacher of English at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., questions whether all students are capable of accepting such an invitation. "I wonder how many of these policymakers ever tried to teach Shakespeare to an 18-year-old who could barely read street signs and who could not comprehend simple paragraphs of the simplest newspaper article," Mr. Welsh says.

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