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U.S. Public Schools Should Revive Stagnant Humanities and Arts Education

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The entrance to Hamilton High School in Los Angeles. (Wikipedia Commons)

Since 1999, the American public school system, like many other national institutions, has undergone a major disruption. In our brave new world, children call their parents “mean” for not allowing them to bring an iPad to the dinner table. Many Americans worry that we are lagging in our command of cyberspace and state-of-the-art weaponry. And technological development has begun to drive our educational agenda.

Nowhere is this obsession more apparent than in the STEM initiative, which prioritizes science, technology, engineering and mathematics as our most urgent educational needs. This focus comes at the expense of the humanities and arts.

The decline of American influence around the globe has generated the same kind of fear that existed when the Russians launched their sputnik in 1957. One of the major talking points of John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign was “the missile gap,” a perception that the Soviet Union was outpacing the United States in producing missiles. Our current concern that jihadists or the Iranians or the Chinese will become more technologically sophisticated than we are has eerie echoes of the late 1950s and the Kennedy years, which culminated in the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 and led to the “hot war” years in Vietnam.

President Kennedy was a student of history who knew firsthand the horrors of war, and his advisers were composed largely of Harvard alumni—doves and hawks—whose coming of age was grounded in history to lend perspective to their opinions.

Today, the most influential group includes Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. Their endeavors help set educational policy, which increasingly prioritizes technology (unsurprisingly) over the study of human beings.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), however, instruction in the humanities was not always on the back burner. In 1981, the Board of Education designated Cleveland High School and Hamilton High School as humanities magnets. Cleveland teacher Neil Anstead was selected to run the districtwide program, and he believed the curriculum should encompass four disciplines—history, art history, philosophy and literature—taught as an interdisciplinary core.

Teachers collaborated on planning and developing one central theme for each unit. The unit examination was in the form of an essay that addressed the theme, and students were asked to discuss its significance in each of the subject areas. The objective was to encourage independent, critical thinking, thereby weaning students from the habit of parroting back what they’d been told.

The program was a striking success, and in 1985, the Los Angeles Education Partnership, under the guidance of Peggy Funkhouser and with the backing of The Rockefeller Foundation, sponsored the adoption of humanities curricula in several schools throughout the district. The enterprise sported an appropriately Latin name—Humanitas.

In the spring of 1988, two years after being hired to teach in the English department at Los Angeles High School, I was asked by the principal to join him at a Humanitas presentation designed to spur interest in forming new teams. As a teacher at other venues prior to my employment at L.A. High, I had always used an interdisciplinary approach to my teaching. It never occurred to me to ignore the historical context of a literary work—to introduce John Milton, for instance, while neglecting to study the English interregnum, or William Wordsworth without suggesting the impact of the French Revolution.

The Humanitas program involved a collaborative format with history and art teachers (we had no philosophy component), and it felt like an exciting idea. The training conducted by Anstead and other colleagues was thorough, rigorous and always intellectually stimulating. It was bolstered with staff development sessions conducted by the Humanitas Initiative and its flagship team. A fraternal feeling grew between the program’s teachers in the district as we learned how our colleagues at other schools were developing units, themes and essay questions.

Throughout our seven-year span at L.A. High, we forged considerable outreach to the larger community. While my history colleague covered the Mexican Revolution, I taught the novel “Pocho,” by Jose Antonio Villarreal, and three of our students received academic credit for working as interns for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

We worked hard to foster a sense of ethnic and national pride among Latinos, recognizing the need to distinguish between the different Spanish-speaking nations. Our syllabus also included the works of Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Nikki Giovanni and Alice Walker.

I expect African-American students today have a keen sense of racial division, taking into account the serial police shootings of unarmed blacks in so many American cities. The adolescents in our program, many of whom said they’d had no personal experience of racism, got a crash course in consciousness-raising when whole neighborhoods were set on fire to the south and east of L.A. High in the wake of the acquittal of cops who beat Rodney King.

Whether students are predisposed to activism or apathy, it is always difficult to inspire them to believe in change through politics. When the United States Senate votes down four gun control measures immediately after the deaths of 49 people in Orlando, Fla., it is not shocking that our adolescents are cynical. The best remedy for this cynicism is strong humanities curricula in our schools and classes that intersperse contemporary and historical events while establishing parallels.

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