The humanities and social sciences are not merely elective, nor are they elite or elitist. … They are critical to our pursuit of life,
liberty, and happiness, as described by our nation’s founders. —The Heart of the Matter Report
It sometimes seems that the education community’s emphasis on STEM and the utilitarian case for a college education has not only left the humanities without a place at the education table but has pushed them out the door where they stand shivering in the cold!
How encouraging, then, to open the recent report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, The Heart of the Matter. In affirming the continuing importance of the humanities and social sciences to the prosperity and security of American liberal democracy, it strikes a distinctly Jeffersonian tone. In fact, you can almost hear the founder of the University of Virginia and advocate of public education in several arguments of the report.
Representative democracy presupposes an informed citizenry; and the report also echoes the Common Core State Standards’ support of full literacy with its stress on the study of history and government, particularly American history and American government for 21st-century citizenship and global leadership.
The Heart of the Matter recognizes that only the humanities provide the intellectual framework—needed now more than ever—to navigate an ever-changing world. The humanities’ fundamental concerns rest on open, critical inquiry; they raise the how and the why; they challenge students to delve deeply into the underlying issues that are part of the human condition, issues that cannot be answered with utilitarian responses or formulas.
A Common vision of literacy
Communication skills top the list of desired qualifications of high school graduates as they prepare to enter college and embark on their careers, and strengthening literacy is the major goal of both The Heart of the Matter and the Common Core State Standards.
The report defines literacy as a means of “being able to read the world” and that definition is characterized by the study of humanities in which “[e]ven in a digital age, the spoken and written word remains the most basic unit of our interactions, the very basis of our humanity.”
Properly implemented Common Core English Language Arts Standards provide a foundation of classic authors from Chaucer to Whitman and great thinkers from Adams to Tocqueville (exemplary grade level authors and texts (Appendix B), which ensure that students will be increasingly literate and schooled in the complexities of human thought and interaction as they proceed step by step up the staircase to full college and career readiness.
Citizenship and liberal democracy
The Heart of the Matter section on how to “Prepare Citizens,” recommends “a new dedication to participatory readiness as an educational goal” and urges “a nationwide commitment to preparing K–12 students for full participation in a democratic society.” Such “participatory readiness” is the same destination sought by the Common Core.
The Standards culminate in a mastery of civic knowledge worthy of a citizen in Jefferson’s republic. By Grade 11–12, students should “delineate and evaluate the reasoning in seminal U.S. texts, including the application of constitutional principle and use of legal reasoning (e.g., in U.S. Supreme Court majority opinions and dissents) …” They also should able to “analyze seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century foundational U.S. documents of historical and literary significance (including The Declaration of Independence … and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address) for their themes, purposes, and rhetorical features.”
Teaching tool kits: EDSITEment
The Heart of the Matter maintains that “educators at every level and in every subject area need resources, both physical and online, to stimulate learning, inspire student participation, and provide up-to-date content.”
The good news is that there have never been as many high-quality, curated, open (free) educational resources available for educators in grades 6–12, who are primarily responsible for the instruction of an informed citizenry. For over fifteen years, EDSITEment has offered “the best of the humanities on the Web” by reviewing and vetting websites and producing lessons plans and student interactives that stimulate learning, inspire student participation, and provide up-to-date content.
Superlative EDSITEment-reviewed humanities resources abound in history and civics and support teachers’ efforts to strengthen literacy in these areas. Teaching American History, which houses a library of the most important U.S. history documents and Saturday webinars on how to teach them; the National Humanities Center, which offers America in the Class toolbox and webinars; and the Gilder Lehrman Institute for American History, a comprehensive source for American history and social studies teachers.
Civic Awareness through Literature is also at the core of the What So Proudly We Hail: The Meaning of America Curriculum. The Meaning of America is a new approach to civic education, demonstrating how short stories shed light on American identity, character, and citizenship, and promote learning through genuine inquiry and searching conversation.
EDSITEment also offers innovative, free educational games to engage today’s students such as: Mission US. Mission 1: "For Crown or Colony?" which puts players in the shoes of 14-year-old Nat Wheeler, a printer's apprentice in 1770 Boston; Mission 2: "Flight to Freedom," which immerses players in the role of Lucy, a 14-year-old enslaved on a Kentucky plantation; and a third Mission, due in September: A Cheyenne Odyssey. And then, there is Sandra Day O’Connor’s exemplary iCivics, with its massive amount of educational gaming including six games on citizenship and civic participation.
So let Mr. Jefferson have the last word: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”