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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
September 1, 1993
Vol. 51
No. 1

Hooking Kids with Humanities

In both urban and rural schools, the Humanitas and CHART programs are demonstrating why the arts and humanities should be at the heart of the curriculum.

In the library at Cleveland Humanities Magnet High School, a multiethnic group of 150 12th grade students from all over Los Angeles is discussing American pragmatism. The students are enrolled in Humanitas, an interdisciplinary humanities program based in 38 of the 49 comprehensive high schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District. After some introductory remarks by Richard Rorty, a respected philosopher, the students' questions begin: You say that human beings don't have a nature to be true to, that there is no intrinsic truth. Do you think there are any intrinsic values at all?You encourage feminists and other oppressed groups to redescribe themselves and suggest that doing so might strike a chord in the minds of the oppressors. What is that “chord”? Is it some unifying human center?How can we raise children without defining morality based on a concept of truth?
For 90 minutes it's question, response, and further response, issue-to-issue and eye-to-eye, students demonstrating their full potential in an academic discussion based on a significant modern theme. Such discussions are possible, for all students and in urban schools. What it takes is a commitment to the arts and the humanities.

Humanities at the Center

Humanitas is part of a nationwide network called Collaboratives for Humanities and Arts Teaching (CHART), funded by the Rockefeller Foundation with local support from many private and public foundations. In 11 large urban school districts and dozens of rural districts throughout the nation, teachers, academics, artists, and business and community leaders are working together to promote the teaching of the arts and humanities at the high school level.
In Philadelphia, for example, teachers, professors, and representatives from the city's cultural institutions are focusing on inquiry-based methods to study world cultures. In rural Arkansas, teachers are gathering several times a year to explore humanities approaches to international education. In Pittsburgh, the whole process of creating and evaluating art is under study. And in the small rural school districts in South Carolina, kids are working with scholars, museums, and historical societies in an effort to preserve treasures of local history.
Through programs like these, two misconceptions about the humanities are being dispelled: (1) that the humanities are only suited to upper and middle-class students and students of higher ability, and (2) that humanities mean “Western Civilization.” Because teachers can now expand their knowledge of African, Asian, Latin American, and Native American arts and humanities through courses offered at numerous universities, they can begin engaging students of all backgrounds. And research shows that all students benefit from a humanities course of study; those who benefit most are students who have been most disadvantaged (Aschbacher 1990, 1991).

Why Study Humanities?

But why should students study the humanities at all? First, students want to study meaningful issues, issues that stress connections, issues that adults and teachers frequently ignore: What are the roots of prejudice? How much should we be guided by reason and how much by emotion? How can we deal with problems of scarcity? How can we create community? How can we be certain about anything? Experience with high school students in Humanitas classes has taught us that in the hands of flexible and sensitive teachers, such humanities questions will keep students hooked from bell to bell.
Second, Humanitas and the other CHART programs teach kids from a variety of ethnic and economic backgrounds, who, like all adolescents, would rather be interested in school than bored. In classroom after classroom, students we found hard to interest through traditional approaches in the five core subjects called for in the New American Schools—English, history, geography, math, and science—will read and engage in heated discussion on humanities questions.
By focusing on important issues, the questions raised in humanities classes promote active listening and critical thinking, and they help students begin making connections among the five core subjects. For example, the question, “Do we have free will, or are we simply programmed by symbols?” will quickly bring a classroom to questions of language and logic. With a simple introduction to symbol theory, students begin to understand the power of words in shaping behavior. They develop a habit of thinking about words, examining metaphors, and asking, “What does this mean?”
By applying this critical approach to history, students learn to analyze propaganda and political speeches. By comparing carefully reasoned historical arguments with the close logic of the scientific method, students see that the language of science is only one way of describing the world.
Finally, the study of humanities is important because human beings have to make decisions based on values. Even if the day arrives when every objective fact about the physical and biological universe is known, we will still face questions of equity, the good life, and community—humanities questions. Students know this deep down, so when given the opportunity to study the sciences as part of a humanities curriculum, they see more meaningful connections and experience more success than they do in specialized classes. For this reason, a number of Humanitas schools include biology, physical science, geography, and even chemistry as part of their humanities programs.

Encouraging Art

Art is also an important part of the Humanitas program. Over and over, students in secondary schools remark that they have no artistic talent, which is frequently taken to mean that they will not benefit from arts education. Behind these claims is the simplistic notion that art means creating. But art is more than creating; it is part of a web of related subjects, such as, philosophy (aesthetics), critical thinking (judgments), history, and literature.
In Humanitas classes, the Getty concept of discipline-based art education is encouraged. Students are regularly assigned to art classes that are much more than studio experiences. When students at Cleveland High School, for example, study existentialism, they relate it to the history of abstract expressionism, create works of art that reflect the philosophy and literature components of their studies, and then critique them using a variety of aesthetic criteria. In so doing, they learn that works of art don't stand alone but are related to the prevailing ideas of a whole society, which the art in turn helps shape. Art becomes a habit of interdisciplinary thinking and a part of everyday life. It is approachable by all students.
For some students, art, music, and drama are natural avenues of learning (Gardner 1985). Furthermore, the arts can be windows into cultures. We live in a multicultural world that calls for knowledge of diverse peoples. When works of art are approached as containers of history, values, and ways of life, they help us appreciate the societies they reflect and promote tolerance for cultural differences.
Another reason for studying the arts is found in Richard Rorty's The Consequences of Pragmatism. Rorty traces the search for truth over many centuries and concludes that we are no closer to truth today than we were in 500 B.C. Since that time, however, human beings have harnessed lots of power and created much pain in the world. Rather than pursuing truth, Rorty advises us to spend more time studying the arts and creating a beautiful world. Thus, we study art simply to live better lives.

But Does It Work?

While Humanitas does not claim to help students to live better lives, its most recent evaluation does support an educational program in which the arts and humanities are the center of the curriculum. Conducted by the UCLA Center for the Study of Evaluation and sponsored by the Los Angeles Educational Partnership, the evaluation points to accelerated achievement in almost every meaningful category: Students in interdisciplinary Humanitas classes read better, write better, think more critically, attend school more often, drop out less, and go on to post-secondary education more frequently than their counterparts in traditional classes (Aschbacher 1991).
Teachers, too, benefit. In Humanitas programs, teachers are more likely to interact with colleagues, to continue their studies, and to have higher expectations and better relationships with students than teachers in traditional classes. Humanitas encourages teachers to remain students, to develop broad interests and broad minds, and to see the humanities and arts education as a holistic endeavor. Such teachers become the central agents of change.
It's no surprise that each of the CHART programs enjoys parental and community support. “Never has there been so much talk about school around the dinner table” is the way one parent put it. Numerous comments such as this confirm that traditional molds are indeed being broken through holistic, interdisciplinary education stressing the arts and humanities.

Aschbacher, P. R. (1990). Preliminary Report, Some Effects of the Humanitas Program on “At-Risk” Students: Jefferson High—A Case Study. Los Angeles: UCLA Center for the Study of Evaluation.

Aschbacher, P. R. (1991). The Humanitas Program Evaluation, 1990–91. Los Angeles: UCLA Center for the Study of Evaluation.

Gardner, H. (1985). Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

Rorty, R. (1982). The Consequences of Pragmatism: Essays 1972–1980. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

End Notes

1 The New American Schools Development Corporation initially funded 11 teams to design and implement model schools reflecting President Bush's Education 2000 goals.

2 Among the numerous examples of schools incorporating science into humanities programs is Jefferson High School, an urban Humanitas school that teaches both biology and chemistry as part of its humanities curriculum.

3 For more information on discipline-based art education see A. W. Levi and R. A. Smith, (1991), Art Education: A Critical Necessity (Chicago: University of Illinois Press).

Neil L. Anstead has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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