Humanities Courses Are Evolving To Meet Changing Needs

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Washington--"I think the crisis in the schools is to a large extent a mirror of the national confusion over goals and purposes," said Ernest L. Boyer, speaking to a group of humanities educators who attended a session on "The Humanities in the Schools" at last week's annual meeting here of the American Association for the Advancement of the Humanities (aaah).

"During periods when our national intentions were clear," said Mr. Boyer, who is president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, "curriculum expectations were cohesive, too." Today's uncertainty over goals has affected all disciplines, including those that make up the broad field of the humanities.

In addition, many administrators regard humanities courses as unsuitable vehicles for the teaching of basic skills, and hold outdated ideas about the content, staffing, and usefulness of the humanities curricula, said Jayne G. Karsten, a teacher of American civilization at Langley High School in McLean, Va.

In reality, Ms. Karsten said, "There is no better vehicle for teaching various critical skills," such as thinking, writing, and reasoning. Humanities curricula in the public schools, however, have undergone numerous changes in the past 20 years, she pointed out,6leaving behind a residue of confusion in the minds of some educators as to what a humanities course should be.

In the 1950's, high-school humanities were associated with teaching ''great books." In the 1960's, the humanities joined the trend toward "creative encounters," and began to include more study of ethnic literature and societal problems, Ms. Karsten said. By the end of the 1960's, many humanities teachers adopted an interdisciplinary approach, which met with mixed reactions.

Interdisciplinary Format

Today, she continued, the humanities teacher favors a mixed approach--some "great books," some creativity, some social problems, as well as other material. "Perhaps the best format is interdisciplinary, but using a guided format," she said.

Some administrators are also convinced that only English or social-studies teachers should teach humanities. But, Ms. Karsten said, "The humanities teacher must be something beyond an English or social-studies teacher."

Foreign-language teachers may be equally well suited. But because of inflexible staffing, many humanities programs built on teachers' efforts to go beyond English and social studies"go down the drain," Ms. Karsten said.

Content and usefulness are two other areas in which many misconceptions about the humanities linger, Ms. Karsten said. "It is difficult to convince administrators that the humanities can be very well defined."

Teachers need more than just "pick-up" materials to develop a solid humanities course, she said, adding that developing a good humanities program can take years, and requires the support of a good administrator.

In general, the speakers concluded that the humanities will play an increasingly important role in elementary and secondary education in the years ahead, as educators "rethink" core curricula, clarify the goals of education in general, and dispel some of the misconceptions about the humanities.

Benjamin Ladner, executive director of the National Humanities Faculty, noted that the humanities will emerge as more important because of the increasing need to make sense of society's technological know-how.

Both Ms. Karsten and Mr. Boyer said that they foresee a change for the better for the humanities. "I believe the climate is changing," Mr. Boyer said.

"I agree that things are looking up," Ms. Karsten said. "We think in the high schools that people are beginning to care."--S.W.

Vol. 01, Issue 10

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