Published Online:

Humanities Instruction Is Assailed

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Washington-- Lynne V. Cheney, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, levels the charge in "American Memory: A Report on the Humanities in the Nation's Public Schools," a Congressionally mandated study issued late last month.

"Long relied upon to transmit knowledge of the past to upcoming generations, our schools today appear to be about a different task," she writes. "Instead of preserving the past, they more often disregard it, sometimes in the name of 'progress'--the idea that today has little to learn from yesterday."

"But usually," she continues, "the culprit is 'process'--the belief that we can teach our children how to think without troubling them to learn anything worth thinking about, the belief that we can teach them how to understand the world in which they live without conveying to them the events and ideas that have brought it into existence."

As a result, she concludes, "we run the danger of unwittingly proscribing our own heritage."

Ms. Cheney recommends that history, literature, and foreign languages be a part of the curriculum for every grade; that textbooks use more original materials and present information in a more compelling way; and that more time be allotted to humanities study in the preparation and continuing education of teachers.

In addition, she urges school districts to spend less money on curriculum supervisors and other middle-level administrators, and more on teachers' aides and other paraprofessionals. Such a move, she argues, "will give teachers time to study and think; and it will put them, rather than outside education specialists, in charge of what goes on in the classroom."

Most of her recommendations will require action by state and local officials, Ms. Cheney acknowledges. "But," she adds, "I do not mean merely to set an agenda for others." She said the endowment would be announcing in the next few weeks a series of steps to help implement the reforms.

'Next Frontier'

Mandated by the Congress in 1985, "American Memory" is the second report in recent years by an neh chairman on the state of education in the humanities. In 1984, William J. Bennett, now Secretary of Education, published "To Reclaim a Legacy," which analyzed humanities instruction in colleges and universities.

Ms. Cheney said she released her report four months before it was due so that it would coincide with the celebration of the nation's heritage accompanying the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution.

The report appears likely to contribute to the continuing debate on the proper role of content in instruction. Chester E. Finn Jr., the Education Department's assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, has called the issue "the next frontier in educational reform."

In that debate, Ms. Cheney joins Mr. Finn and scholars such as E.D. Hirsch Jr., author of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know, who argue that schools should systematically teach basic knowledge and information about Western and American culture.

That approach differs from proposals endorsed this summer by a coalition of leading English educators, who contend that teachers should place more emphasis on the way students read, write, and think. (See Education Week, Aug. 5, 1987.)

'Educationists' Blamed

To prepare her report, Ms. Cheneynamed two advisory groups, consisting of teachers, administrators, and scholars, including Mr. Hirsch.

She also drew on the results of a 1986 neh-funded study, conducted by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which measured 17-year-olds' knowledge of history and literature.

That study, which will be released this week, found that two-thirds of the students tested could not place the Civil War within the correct half-century; that two-thirds could not identify the Reformation or the Magna Carta; and that vast majorities were unfamiliar with writers such as Jane Austen, Willa Cather, Geoffrey Chaucer, Feodor Dostoevsky, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman.

The naep findings show the failure of the practices espoused by "professional educationists" since early in this century, Ms. Cheney maintains. Such experts, she says, have steered curricula, textbooks, and teacher training away from the humanities and toward an emphasis on practical knowledge and the process of learning.

"Indeed, the very concept of history became submerged into 'social8studies,' a term that emphasizes the present rather than the past," she writes. "English courses, transformed into 'language arts,' stressed communication rather than literature; and as the schools adopted a fundamentally different orientation than colleges and universities, humanities scholars turned away from precollegiate education."

'Subversive' Teachers

"A system of education that fails to nurture memory of the past," she argues, "denies its students a great deal: the satisfactions of mature thought, an attachment to abiding concerns, a perspective on human existence."

Many teachers have been able to impart knowledge of the humanities to their students, but such teachers are rare, Ms. Cheney adds. In fact, she writes, "Good teachers tend to become subversives in [the current education] system."

One remedy for shortcomings in the teaching force would be to separate teacher preparation and certification, Ms. Cheney suggests. That would "help ensure that education courses ... are of value to effective teaching," she argues.

The efforts by the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy to develop a national test to serve as the basis for certifying teachers "holds promise," she says.

Ms. Cheney praises the Holmes Group, a coalition of deans of colleges of education, for recommending that all prospective teachers major in the liberal arts. But she adds that "the group's emphasis on graduate study as the path to advancement in teaching is troubling."

Copies of "American Memory" are available free of charge from the Office of Publications and Public Affairs, National Endowment for the Humanities, 1100 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20506.

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login | Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories