Curriculum Opinion

Paul Horton: Will Liberal Arts be Saved by the Common Core?

By Anthony Cody — February 19, 2014 9 min read
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Guest post by Paul Horton.

The most valuable course I had in high school was a yearlong Humanities course. My teacher taught us philosophy, art history, music history, literature, and political and economic history all together, the way it should be taught.

Wherever I have taught courses that put the humanities disciples together, whether they were called Western Civilization or American Studies, they have always been very popular among students.

When I did my student teaching at Austin High, the most popular course by far was Humanities. I remember discussing the preparation for the annual Renaissance Fair in the late seventies sponsored by the beloved humanities teacher there, the partner of that intrepid young Texas Abraham Lincoln--Lloyd Doggett.

My high school does not teach the combined course, but a buddy, John O’Connor, teaches American Studies at New Trier High School, where it is one of the most popular courses.

All of us who love and value the humanities in American academic life are concerned with what is happening to American education. Humanities departments and courses at the undergraduate and secondary levels typically have trouble “adding value” to university and school communities because funding sources seem to be drying up faster than California.

Part of the problem is that benefactors who have made a lot of money are now investing in schools of business and charter schools that focus on neoliberal economics and data driven assessments. Charter school models tend to cut out arts and humanities programs to emphasize literacy and math skills that are measured by standardized tests.

As underfunded urban and rural schools face pressure as budgets are slashed, arts and humanities programs are typically the first cut because they are considered the least essential.

Also not surprising, the recent economic crisis of and slow recovery have further eroded humanities programs. Louis Menand has recently reported that “most of the, four thousand institutions of higher education in the United States are not liberal arts schools: that is fewer they award fewer than half of their degrees in liberal arts fields. Twenty-two percent of college graduates major in business; only two percent in history.” (Menand, The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University, 18)

Martha Nussbaum in her Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities goes a step further to call attention to a “silent crisis.” Due to cost cutting in the wake of the Great Recession, the humanities and the arts are being cut away in both primary/secondary and college/university education, in virtually every nation of the world. Seen by policy-makers as useless frills, at a time when nations must cut all useless things in order to stay competitive in the global market, they are rapidly losing their place in curricula, and also in the minds and hearts of parents and children. Indeed, what we might call the humanistic aspects of science and social science--the imaginative, creative aspect, and the aspect of rigorous critical thought--are also losing ground as nations prefer to pursue short term profit by the cultivation of the useful and highly applied skills suited to profit-making.” (2)

This certainly seems to be the case in the United States where three billion dollars are spent each year on funding Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics education. And states that refuse to implement Common Core bubble tests that focus on Math and literacy only stand to lose federal funding. California alone stands to lose three and a half billion dollars in Federal funding for not requiring these standardized tests.

A recent study, “The Heart of the Matter,” published by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, argues that the Humanities are grossly underfunded despite small increases in humanities funding by the Obama administration.

The authors of the “The Heart of the Matter” argue that the Humanities must be better funded. The document, written by a who’s who from the corporate, art, and academic worlds, clearly seeks to appeal to as many private and public sources of funding as possible without alienating any potential donor.

The result is an almost pathetic vacuity. The document carefully avoids any hint of the conflicts within the humanities world that fracture in opposite directions.

The first is between the arts and sciences: the social sciences have access to funding through AAAS and NSF that the arts don’t. The social sciences can expand their reach into secondary school curricula with these other sources of funding and have clearly done so within the National Council for the Social Studies C3 Curriculum that privileges psychology, economics, and geography--relatively hard disciplines-- over history, a narrative discipline. Moreover, women are moving into the better- funded social science majors and away from humanities majors, accounting for most of the declining enrollment in college humanities programs.

A second major conflict involves the split between those who favor the “Core approach” to reading classic texts as the basis for a liberal arts education, and those who have been heavily influenced by postmodern and post Marxist critical theories. Here at the University of Chicago, for example we have the older Committee on Social Thought and the newer Committee on Critical Thought. Cultural conservatives tend to value reading the Western Classics as the foundation of Western Civilization, while the critical theorists want to open up the canon to critical texts that will teach students to think critically across disciplines. Conservative critics tend to view these critical theorists as the “tenured radicals,” while liberals tend to view them as the intrepid twentieth century polymaths who have developed critical tools to cross pollinate and revitalize dying disciplines. Needless to say, conservative businessmen, for the most part, do not want to fund those who they perceive as “tenured radicals.”

As if walking on hot coals, the authors of the “Heart of the Matter” section “K- 12 Preparation for Life and Work,” Historian Annette Gordon-Reed, Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg Charitable Trust, former Secretary of Health Education and Welfare Donna Shalala, and Chicago Federal Judge Diane P. Wood, avoid any of this controversy in their recommendations. In step with the Obama Administration, the authors emphasize “literacy.” The authors fully support the Common Core Standards Initiative, “We applaud the thinking behind this plan, which defines foundational skills in communication and writing.” Another major goal is to “Prepare Citizens” and the authors again “commend the Common Core State Standards Initiative for its inclusion of history and civics in the basic history curriculum.” Twenty-four. Finally the authors propose a Humanities Master Teacher Corps program similar to the extant STEM Master Teacher Corps. Beyond this, teachers should make good use of the support and websites provided by NEH, NEA, The National Humanities Council, and the Gilder Lehrman Center for American History. (21-28)

So, for those of us who are secondary Humanities teachers, we need to support the Common Core Standards, prepare citizens by using the Common Core Standards, be on the lookout for Professional development opportunities on the web, and hope for a Humanities Master Teacher Corps.

Not much here for those who are seeing their courses and jobs cut. There seems to be a central message here: follow the Common Core like the yellow-brick road or there might not be any funding for the humanities.

Sound fishy? When in doubt, follow the money. Now, “google” “The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the American Academy for Arts and Sciences” to see how many recent memberships are tied to research grants from the Gates Foundation. I can’t count that high. Needless to say, the institutions responsible for administering these grants, including the American Academy, skim quite a bit of overhead off of the top of every grant. This is “value added.”

Under the guidance of past President Leslie Cohen Berowitz, the American Academy focused on fundraising. Although she resigned last summer when it was discovered that she had doctored her resume’, she led quite an effort to make a lot of wealthy friends for the organization. Last year was a bumper year for the Academy when Melinda Gates and Jeff Bezos were invited as members. William H. Gates, Bill Gates’ dad was inducted to the Academy in 2003. No doubt he is a person of many talents, but if we were to look closer, we might find a long list of friends of Bill who were among the Academy inductees during the last couple of decades, especially when he foots the bill for endowed chairs and research.

With Berowitz at the helm, memberships in the American Academy seem to have been for sale. No wonder why so many scholars were upset with her: they valued an organization based on academic contributions, advancements, and integrity; not enlightened or not so enlightened philanthropy. What would founding members Ben Franklin and John Adams have thought about this? When Berowitz left, she was making almost $598,000 a year as the head of a nonprofit, according to the Boston Globe. Wealthy friends were greasing the wheels, adding a great deal of value to the modest academic organization.

In sum, “The Heart of the Matter” should be called the little Humanities standards that could not climb the smallest hill. Curriculum expert Sandra Stotsky asks a very good question, “Did any of the authors actually read the literacy and mathematics standards that they endorsed?”

Far from advancing the cause of humanities as a story about civilization on the skids versus the philistines, “The Heart of the Matter” is a wet noodle thrown against a dorm room wall. It is propaganda for the Common Core Curriculum inspired by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation support for the American Academy for the Arts and Sciences.

I think that we need to embrace all sides of the humanities conflict and encourage all students at all levels to read “the best that has been thought and said,” and question authority at every turn. Students should aspire to be gadflies in the tradition of Socrates, and locate hidden loci of power in the tradition of Foucault. All citizens must learn “to follow the money” in the best muckraking and new journalist traditions: they should historicize with Marx and create more efficient pin factories with Smith.

Above all, they must read texts critically and thoroughly, and apply tools for analysis to disparate situations and multiple contexts.

Our students should not be reduced to taking standardized tests and formula essays that anybody off the street in Iowa City can grade (Pearson).

Our kids need to understand what Computer Business Systems are up to by reading Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital and Dave Eggers’, The Circle before they go to business school.

We need more I.F. Stones! If we can’t stand up as educators, we deserve the hemlock that the Corporate Reformers will have us drink!

What do you think? Should we look to the Common Core to resurrect Liberal Arts? Or is there a better way to defend the humanities?

Paul Horton has taught for thirty years in virtually every kind of school. He began his teaching career in a recently integrated rural Texas middle school. He then taught for five years in a large urban high school in San Antonio’s West side where the majority of young people were ESL. He has been teaching at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, the country’s most diverse independent school founded by John Dewey, for fourteen years.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.