Article Review: “Humanities, Why Such a Hard Sell?”

The origin of compulsory education was to require that all people go to school to become educated and subsequently, well-rounded and well-informed adults who can function in a positive manner and further the goals of our society.  In the last 30 years or so, the public education system of the United States of America has revolved around a curriculum model rooted in science, technology, engineering, and math  (STEM).  But, as David J. Ferrero has pointed out in his article, “The Humanities, Why Such a Hard Sell?” published in the March 2011 edition of Educational Leadership, that focus has come at a cost of the humanities curriculum.

Ferrero highlighted in his article that in democratic societies there has historically been three main purposes of schooling: personal, economic, and civic.   The personal level is essentially to learn about other subjects that you may not come in contact with every day and it is through schooling that people are able “to discover and cultivate individual interests, talents, and tastes; form good habits; and develop an understanding of what it means to lead a good life.”  The economic purpose of school is to prepare students “to contribute productively to the economy by preparing them to pursue a vocation or further study leading toward some profession.”  Lastly, and perhaps the most important reason that the United States has a free and compulsory education system, is to “[equip] students with the knowledge and skills necessary to be good citizens.”  Ferrero believes that this holistic approach to education has “atrophied”; essentially, the personal and the civic purposes have given way to the economic.

One key detail that Ferrero never clearly or directly states is the future repercussions for this unbalance.  Instead, his article focuses on persuading readers the value of the humanities and how it still can work within the confines of a STEM-focused, Common Core Standards curriculum.  If it is not apparent already, he is a supporter of STEM curriculum as well as other college and career-ready initiatives.  He openly disclosed at the end of the article that he works for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation which has funded the development of the Common Core Standards.  He also added the line that the views expressed are his own and not the Foundation’s.  This open admission of his connection shows he is qualified to speak on the topic and is passionate about it, yet he is not being paid by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to write this article and therefore, eliminates bias.

It is evident in this article that Ferrero supports STEM, but just as evident is his desire for balance in the curriculum.  He fleshes out this desire more clearly in a blog post on ASCD’s In service blog, “I privately fret over the way STEM advocacy, and current reform efforts in general, inadvertently devalue the humanistic and civic dimensions of a basic education.”  By focusing so stringently on STEM, education reform has abandoned the centuries-old foundation of what it means to be educated; but even worse than that, as Ferrero points out in his article, it has taken the humanity out of education.

The abandonment of the humanities was not deliberate, according to Ferrero.  Instead, it was a byproduct of a refocused curriculum.  In order to heavily promote STEM subjects, some subjects were demoted.  Some subjects were able to prove their worth and stuck around, such as English (for communication skills).  History is having a hard time fighting for its seat at the academic table.  In fact, most subjects that are considered humanities are constantly fighting to keep their seat or to beg to be let back in.

The core question of Ferrero’s article is, “Has the study of history, literature, art, and ideas—what we commonly call the humanities—outlived its relevance?”  He, a STEM advocate, answers, “I hope not. I believe students can still learn from the humanities and that these lessons can enhance their lives— and our collective life—in a variety of ways.”  There are countless ways studying the humanities can not only enhance lives, but benefit the economic emphasis that education reform desires.  Ferrero lists three main ones: those who are exposed to a wide variety of arts are more likely to pay for arts entertainment or fully appreciate period films and TV shows; through the disciplines in the humanities we learn about human achievement and in turn, encourage innovation; and it is within the humanities that we genuinely learn and appreciate good citizenry and autonomy.  In essence, through an education we do not learn just facts and regurgitate data to be a better employee, we learn about who we were, who we are, and who we want to be.  And that, according to Ferrero, is why the Common Core Standards are so vital to education reform.

The Common Core Standards, as summarized in this article, are the best balance that has been proposed nationally thus far.  As mentioned before, Ferrero works for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation which has funded the development of the standards, but he is not just peddling his own product here.  He truly believes this is the best compromise.  And from the way he has written this article, I tend to agree with him.  Ferrero points out that while the Common Core Standards are focused on competitiveness and credentials, which make the STEM-focused curriculum advocates pleased, a careful reading of the English/Language Arts requirements reveals the promotion of a multitude and variety of texts in the humanities without limiting teachers to narrowed content.  Ferrero additionally points out there is a “tool for working out these details is the set of curriculum maps developed by the coincidentally named Common Core, a nonprofit organization established in 2007 that is unrelated to the Common Core State Standards project.”  It is the organization, Common Core and their standards that have been funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is Ferrero’s employer.  Although I would have preferred to understand this distinction earlier in the article, it still does not change my opinion in any way.  The distinction was important to make, but the primary objective of the article was not about himself or the Common Core standards (or the Common Core State Standards).  It was about the fact that the humanities have been abandoned in the curriculum.  In my opinion, he added this distinction at the appropriate time.  Lastly, he gave some models of schools in Colorado, Illinois, and Wisconsin that have a successful balance of STEM and humanities.

I have had firsthand experience with society’s viewpoint of students and the humanities.  I have lost count the number of times I have had to defend my choice to pursue a Bachelor of Arts degree in the field of writing.  The most asked question was “but what are you going to do with it?”  WRITE.  FOR MONEY.  For years throughout my schooling I was told to find out what skills I am good at, what my passions are, and to figure out how to merge those into a career.  I have bounced around from author, to journalist, to professional/business writing and back again.  I just love to write.  And I am good at it.  I do not have the capacity to memorize and regurgitate facts.  I accept that – I was not drawn to law or medicine or engineering.  I was drawn to literature, history, languages, philosophy…essentially, the humanities.  Not everyone can be a doctor, an architect, an engineer, or a something in a tech field.  Like Ferrero said, there needs to be a balance for our society to function.  I was more than happy to pursue the humanities.

Unfortunately, people kept telling me there would be no money to be made, no jobs, and I would live out of a cardboard box. Friends and I would joke in college that we may live in a cardboard box, but we would rather be happy in our cardboard box instead unhappy in a mansion.  Not everyone is as strong-willed as I am (some call it “stubborn”) and if teachers do not stand up and fight for the humanities then we are doing the next generation and the future of this country a disservice.  When more people in South Africa know more about my country and president than I do, that is a problem.  When people think the Titanic was only a movie by James Cameron and that it was not based on a true story, that is a problem.  When people can repeat song lyrics after hearing them twice but do not know “to be or not to be” is from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, that is a problem.  When people can solve calculus problems but cannot write a check, that is a problem.  And when I search “humanities meme” in Google Images and find nearly all the memes are negative, that is a societal perception that is hindering students from pursuing the humanities.  We are at risk of losing our humanity, and that is more than just a problem.  That is a crisis that requires immediate, serious attention.