Teachers Dispute Studies' Counsel On Humanities

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

Educators and curriculum specialists last week disputed the prescriptions in two new reports that call for a greater emphasis on content in history and literature instruction.

While acknowledging that students need to know more about the humanities, critics said they feared the reports could lead to a "fact-based" curriculum that would do little to improve students' acquisition and retention of knowledge.

Flap over reports. See page 15.

The reports--"American Memory," by Lynne V. Cheney, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?, by the education historian Diane Ravitch and Chester E. Finn Jr., assistant secretary of education for educational research and improvement--draw on results of the first national student assessment in the humanities. The assessment found huge gaps in 11th graders' knowledge of history and literature.

"All of us are appalled by the gaps," said Nancy S. McHugh, president of the National Council of Teachers of English. "But we don't think the answer is to pour facts into students' heads, Japanese-style."

"'Trivial pursuit'-minded kids can answer all the questions [on an assessment] and still not be educated, still not have an understanding of a period of time or work of literature," said Ms. McHugh, who teaches English at Grant High School in Van Nuys, Calif.

Rather than overhaul the curriculum to require teachers to impart a larger body of information, she and others argued, states and districts should emphasize staff development that trains teachers in ways to motivate student interest in the humanities.

Gordon Cawelti, executive director of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, asked: "Can thousands of school districts be wrong in spending dollars on training for their staffs in the fundamentals of teaching the past few years, or is desk-bound Ms. Cheney right in saying teachers don't need to know how to teach?"

"This investment in teachers'8time didn't come out of whimsy, or a desire to avoid more subject-matter courses," Mr. Cawelti continued. ''It came because public schools take all students, and all students are not enamored with Thackeray, or Shakespeare, or the Crusades."

Skills and Content

Ms. Cheney's report and Ms. Ravitch and Mr. Finn's book, both released this month, have fueled a longstanding debate over the proper balance between content and process in instruction.

Ms. Cheney argues that gaps in knowledge have arisen because schools have stressed the teaching of skills, rather than facts.

"There are many fine teachers, who are dedicated to the idea that their mission is to transmit knowledge of the culture," she said in an interview. "But I have also found teachers who, when I would lament that kids didn't know basic facts, would say, 'They can look them up."'

Furthermore, she charged, an overemphasis on social studies has diminished the status of the humanities in the curriculum--an assertion denied by curriculum specialists.

"She is under the mistaken notion that 'social studies' has driven history out of the curriculum," said Donald H. Bragaw, chief of the bureau of social-studies education in the New York Department of Education and president of the National Council for the Social Studies.

"Anything called social studies in schools generally is history," he continued. "It is the mainstay of social-studies programs."

And where schools have stressed skills instruction, said Lean King, director of the education-services division of the San Diego County Office of Education, such an emphasis has been a response to the school-reform movement, which has highlighted the need to improve basic skills.

Although Ms. Ravitch and Mr. Finn express concern about an excessive focus on skills, they argue that the conflict between processel15land content is "a false dichotomy."

"There is an intimate relationship between facts and concepts," Mr. Finn said in an interview last week. "You can't have concepts without facts. You can't have skills without knowledge."

'Political Agenda'

Others questioned the conclusiveness of the data from the 1986 test in history and literature devised by Mr. Finn and Ms. Ravitch and conducted by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Donald V. Rogan, a social-studies teacher at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill., and a member of the panel that advised the authors in developing the history assessment, argued that the test was "flawed." Because students were tested midway through the 11th grade, he said, many of them probably had not yet been exposed to all of the required content.

Mr. Rogan contended that the results were being used to further the ''political agenda" of those who want to infuse more core content into the curriculum.

"I don't think this is the final, or necessarily the strongest, salvo in the ongoing discussion," he said. "It should be looked at not as a tool in chipping out a curriculum of content, but as one additional and flawed insight into American education."

'Ironic Tragedy'

Other educators cautioned that the reports' findings could further encourage "teaching to the test" at a time when that practice is being seen as a flaw in the reform movement's focus on standardized measures of achievement.

If teachers devote more time to flash-card drills and workbook exercises in order to prepare students for tests, less time will be available for reading, warned John C. Maxwell, executive director of the National Council of Teachers of English.

"That would be an ironic tragedy," he said.

But Mr. Finn suggested that tests of factual knowledge, while imperfect, would ensure that teachers are presenting their students with the knowledge they need. When asked whether there was a danger that teachers might "teach to the test," Mr. Finn responded: "That's a problem I'd like to see us encounter before we dismiss it."

Attention Said Overdue

Despite their criticisms, the English and social-studies educators applauded the reports for drawing long-overdue attention to the humanities.

"This should give public attention to something that's been neglected," Mr. Maxwell said.

Such attention, he and others suggested, could lead to reforms in humanities instruction.

The ncte was one of eight leading English organizations that agreed this summer to support an overhaul of language-arts instruction at all levels to place more emphasis on the way students learn. (See Education Week, Aug. 5, 1987.)

"Knowledge is damned important," Mr. Maxwell said. "But the mode in which kids learn is far more important. That has an effect on whether they retain knowledge."

Specialists in the social studies are planning to re-examine the history curriculum with an eye toward strengthening the content, particularly in the early grades, according to Frances Haley, executive director of the National Council for the Social Studies.

"The depth of the content has become pretty thin," she conceded.

In other grades, Ms. Haley added, debates about what content should be included center on the question of whether schools should cover a broad range of topics, or fewer topics in greater depth.

The social-studies council has proposed convening a meeting to debate that issue, she said. But the results will have an impact on schools, she added, only if all parties--historians, administrators, and teachers--are involved in the debate.

"People can write reports until the cows come home," Ms. Haley said. "But you have got to have everybody working together."

Vol. 07, Issue 02

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on edweek.org, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
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