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Save the Humanities in Our Public Schools

We're depriving students of their national heritage. Here's how to fix that.

Rather than respond to the current regrettable disregard of the humanities in both public and governmental circles, I thought I would draw up a utopian scheme for education in the humanities in American schools. The vague notion of “The Humanities” is in part administrative (“studies that are neither sciences nor social sciences”), in part historical (“studies of the ancients”), in part moral (“elements of a liberal education”), and so on. These definitions have not persisted very well, nor have they ever played a role in American elementary and secondary instruction. 

Most countries want students to know about their own national achievements. Only America is silent, in its public elementary and high schools, about its own cultural glories. Most American students graduate from high school knowing the names of only a few American authors and, of those authors, hardly any works; they rarely can cite by name even one American painter or architect; they know of no American philosopher, no American composer. The vacuum in the schools abandons our children to contemporary pop culture. We have deprived students of their own national heritage: we are not giving them much of anything to be proud about. 

When America, with an understandable Whitmanian self-assertion, dropped classical languages and European humanistic works from secondary school instruction, it lost the languages, poems, novels, and philosophical works on which our own earlier American authors drew, without replacing them with strong works in English produced in the United States themselves. The vacuum was complete. And the cultural vacuum has recently produced the idea that students should read, for the most part, factual and informational prose rather than works of art. There have been efforts, by E. D. Hirsch and others, to create a viable cultural curriculum, but one that seems more informational than aesthetic. The public schools have not adopted such a cultural obligation.

Illustration by Karolis Strautniekas

The humanities are usually considered material for college education. But students enrolling in college tend to pursue what they already know—and there is, in the schools, no preparation for the study of the humanities, as they are commonly conceived. We think of the humanities as studies reacting to classical philosophical and religious texts, and enterprises of critical and scholarly investigation of the arts (in musicology, literary criticism, art history, theater studies). There are no SAT subject tests of these pursuits. We can hardly expect these subjects as such to enter the primary and secondary school curriculum—yet there are no more delightful and provocative areas of study, not only for pupils with verbal and aesthetic interests, but for all. 

At present the humanities are a blank space in our younger students’ intellectual maps. How can we change that ignorance so that students will come to their post-secondary studies eager for more of what they have already found arresting, unsettling, and beautiful? The National Humanities Center took a step in the right direction by creating “toolboxes” for use in secondary schools: these were supposed to provide integrated study of history, the history of ideas, literature, and art. I had great hopes for the toolboxes, but when I viewed several of them, I was disappointed. Literature and art were brought forward chiefly in utilitarian and instrumental ways, as illustration of some historical person or affair or epoch. History was the Procrustean bed to which the humanities were to be fitted, era by era. 

What emerged was not an integrated, interdisciplinary, objective survey of the arts and humanities of America. The portraits and photographs were chiefly those of political figures (Washington, Lincoln) or notable writers (Whitman, Douglass), with brief summaries of their historical importance. Where was the rest of the great American portrait tradition: Eakins’s portraits of women, of boys at the swimming hole, of a cello player? What conventional history didn’t notice, the toolboxes ignored. Where were our American still lifes? Where were our nineteenth-century landscapes of sunsets and icebergs and hayfields? In their place were newspaper illustrations of the Civil War, and other such topical material. Historically relevant, yes, but not peaks of American representational art. And literature, too, was chosen for its historical allusiveness; Whitman, yes—but for his Civil War poetry more than for his sensual poems. Since Dickinson illustrates almost nothing historical, she fades into relative insignificance. It was several years ago that I saw some of the toolboxes then in use, and they are no longer produced. But students would not, from the toolboxes I saw, acquire an unprejudiced exposure to either the history of ideas or the history of the arts of America. 

The toolboxes that I saw made me want to go and do otherwise. I wanted art and literature to be given the same independent interest, in this integration of subjects, as history. What would the narrative of American art look like as it went from Copley’s shark to Whistler’s nocturnes? What would the narrative of American literature look like if it ascribed a describable importance to Emily Dickinson and Wallace Stevens comparable to that ascribed to Thoreau and Harriet Beecher Stowe? A different representation of America would arise from such humanist “toolboxes,” a national story not dominated by history, but rather one reflecting a wider view of what the humanities are. Philosophy—long considered the central study among the humanities—is largely missing from the humanities toolboxes. Emerson is present, but no William James, nor the ideas of Marx and Freud, which have been as influential on American historiography as on other staples of the humanities, from the study of religion to literary criticism to choreography. We need more large-minded toolboxes for the secondary schools, giving equal eminence to historical events, the history of the arts, and the leading intellectual (not merely political) ideas of the successive eras.

Since the humanities as they are studied in college are absent as subject matter or test-matter in our public educational system, the cultural silence in our schools needs to be countered by some means. I would like to see, in every school, on every corridor, in the gym, in the cafeteria, anywhere, reproductions of American painting, sculpture, architecture, photography. For each image there would be a simple caption: “Nighthawks by Edward Hopper.” It wouldn’t cost very much to hang laminated copies all through the high schools, tailored in part by region and by ethnicity. 

The other cultural manifestation in the schools, in my pedagogical utopia, would be musical. American music, from Sousa to jazz, would be there, as would Stephen Foster and spirituals and Woody Guthrie. Somewhere in the school day there would be a half-hour of music. I would like to include world music, but American school districts might resist such choices. The reproductions on the walls, the half-hour of music, would not be “taught” at all; my utopian school would merely create an environment where there was always impressive American art to look at, wherever the eye would rest, always some American music to be heard in a lunchroom or an assembly. American film loops could run in the school library, so students could realize that American film has a long experimental history; they could laugh at Buster Keaton or watch a part of a Balanchine ballet. In short, our students would no longer be deprived of a sense of pride in American cultural monuments. 

My schools would teach an articulated curriculum: there is no rhyme or reason, for instance, in the way a poetry “unit” is thrust into the middle of a school year, with poetry never seen in the months before or after. Since there is, as we know, no real learning except a learning in some depth, poetry “units,” as they now exist, are depressingly superficial. To be presented with one poem by Dickinson, one poem by a negligible contemporary poet, and one poem by a foreign poet in translation teaches a student very little about poetry (or about the American language as it is renewed in poetry). To see, instead, running through the year, a group of poems by Dickinson or Robert Hayden with some drafts illuminating their stages of composition would be a true poetry “unit.” Such an articulation enables intellectual authority in students: by April, they can say of Dickinson, “In the landscape poems, she is hardly ever doing something active,” or “In the early love poems, she is much more starry-eyed,” or “She’s more difficult in the later poetry,” and so on. They speak of what they know, and they gain intellectual confidence from that accumulation of evidence. 

Students’ instruction in science is sequential, coherent, progressive, and intellectually involving; their scattered instruction in literature is not. With some notable exceptions, the humanities derive from the arts. (As a wit once said, when you do them, they’re the arts; when you study them, they’re the humanities.) The art of literature gives rise to literary criticism, literary history, literary theory, comparative literature, linguistics; the instant pleasure of music generates musicology, music history, music theory; the graphic and plastic arts generate art history, iconography, historical themes and contexts. To center humanistic study in the schools solely on American culture—because to teach the European heritage seems politically impossible—is of course sad: our children deserve the world heritage of the humanities. Perhaps there could be another set of toolboxes directed to non-Western art and literature, and on the walls there could be pictures of a mosque and a temple as well as a cathedral. But pride in one’s own culture is a powerful motivation to know it better. I want to see students coming into college already proud of Winslow Homer and Mary Cassatt, loving the repertoire of spirituals and of musical comedy, interested in Frank Lloyd Wright and David Smith, longing for more Willa Cather and more Edith Wharton. And once they have found pleasure in their American composers and sculptors and poets, they will be aware that huge areas of such pleasure exist in other countries, other centuries. Pleasure is the most reliable avenue into the humanities for young people; and all the arts promise pleasures.

Can anything practical be done to bring about such a utopia in the schools? Perhaps toolboxes of American art and American literature could be created and distributed, forms of instruction undistorted by subordination to political or historical imperatives. I wish the toolboxes would emphasize the biography of authors less and the work of making art more. I wish such toolboxes would present living sculptors or writers or film-makers talking about their arts, and would present as well a music critic or a historian of ballet who could say something about current critical or scholarly pursuits. American culture should seem to be an ongoing and living expression, supported by both makers and audiences. As Whitman declared, “To have great poets, there must be great audiences too.”

The humanities usually take a long time to affect human thought and human personality, and an even longer time to affect national and international culture. Short-term results are inherently impossible in the humanities; the humanities are not a technology or a method. Just as a child soaks up the nature of the surrounding region—and becomes, almost insensibly, over slow years, a “Californian” or a “New Englander”—so attention to the arts and the studies of the arts creates, at least notionally, more fine-grained and attentive perceptions, sensations, thoughts, and sensibilities. The arts and humanities are pervasive influences, and subtle ones. Evidence for immediate “public impact,” so affrontingly demanded now by funding bodies, is simply not available as a defense of the humanities. But just as the long-term “public impact” of basic science is undeniable, the long-term public impact of Mark Twain or William Faulkner is undeniable: they combine—with all the other creators—to give us lasting ideas of our American selves and American culture.

Humanistic studies broker art, thought, and perception to a larger public. As earlier intellectual systems yield to later ones, each large reframing of thought—scientific as well as philosophical or artistic—requires a new formulation of what we find valuable in works of culture. “The scholastic philosophy of the wilderness”—one of Marianne Moore’s witty remarks on American culture—merely murmurs that Aquinas might not be the best guide for Lewis and Clark. Intellectual upheavals—from Nietzsche to Marx to Freud to Martin Luther King Jr.—recreate all humanistic study. It is often said that in the humanities, we study what makes us human. That seems to me an exaggeration: the sciences also make us human, as do the social sciences and the arts. But the humanities are the study of human subjectivity, the study of human expressiveness and its fabrications in the arts, the study of consciousness bent on self-understanding. These are difficult areas of study to defend these days, because they do not admit of either progression or quantitative measurement. But we know we do not respond, psychologically or emotionally, as a nineteenth-century citizen might have done: the larger culture, through its seismic intellectual and artistic motions, changes us, slowly but profoundly, in ways that can be measured only by a long look back at the evolution of human thought, feeling, and action. 

It is because the ideas and ideals of the humanities have been dropped from primary and secondary schooling that Americans have almost no sense of what the humanities offer. The current waning of public support is unsurprising, since most Americans have never experienced the pleasures of the humanities, year after year, from kindergarten through high school. We cannot expect people to support what they hardly know. So we need more toolboxes, and more adequate ones, for all pupils, from the very young to students approaching graduation, from the more naïve to the more sophisticated. Such toolboxes are attractive in themselves: they can do many things that a teacher cannot, presenting original documents and eye-pleasing graphics and illustrations, and they can be well articulated sequentially in their historical efforts. If American arts and the studies associated with them could be offered in independent toolboxes, we might begin to educate our teachers and our children to become, in the long run, supporters of what they have already deeply enjoyed.

In the schools, earnestness is always present, but exposure to the humanities and the arts is still lacking. It will require a close mutual effort by schools, universities, and foundations to create, in the schools, young humanists in the making, so that our American culture, so rich and so rewarding, will receive its due in every school, in every grade. Then our students will feel a deserved and authentic pride in what their country has produced.