GNT STUDIO/shutterstock
GNT STUDIO/shutterstock

The humanities are having a tough time these days. At many colleges and universities, humanities departments are shrinking as students gravitate to STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) and other “job-oriented” majors.

And yet, many experts take great issue with the notion that a humanities degree condemns graduates to under- or unemployment, and others have pointed out the value of the liberal arts in fields from technology to medicine. Still others have noted that immersion in the humanities conveys critical reading and thinking skills, key “tools of citizenship” that help us wade through the contemporary blizzard of information and distinguish between real and fake news.

But despite the abundant evidence of their value, the liberal arts are in retreat, and humanities majors are subjected to tiresome jokes about grim job prospects and meager future paychecks.

That’s why this humanities nerd was excited to hear about the Whiting Foundation’s recently announced program to support high school programs that “bring students into the heart of the humanities.”

Humanities in high school

The Whiting Foundation, which was created by investor and arts patron Flora Ettlinger Whiting, is all about the humanities. It supports fiction and nonfiction writers through its annual awards, as IP has reported, and through annual literary magazine prizes. It also encourages scholars engaged in “public-facing” humanities projects through its Public Engagement Fellowship and its Public Engagement Seed Grant. Finally, it supports efforts to preserve priceless cultural treasures around the globe.

The Humanities in High School program represents new territory for Whiting. According to Daniel Reid, the foundation’s executive director, the program arose from discussions with college professors. “Humanities professors at the college level talk about how important it is for kids to come into the college setting with an understanding of history and why it is important, with a sense of philosophy and why it is important,” Reid said. “Too often, kids come to college, and they have had very little meaningful exposure to these disciplines.”

In its call for proposals, the Whiting Foundation points out that the pandemic has made the situation worse, as “far too many young Americans lack opportunities to unlock the power of history, philosophy and the study of literature and other arts—and the challenge of fostering deep engagement with these fields has only increased in classrooms upended by the coronavirus pandemic.”

Of course, a number of philanthropists do support the humanities—though not as many or in amounts that approach foundation support for STEM fields. And as IP has reported, most of those dollars go to humanities programs at colleges and universities. Whiting’s initiative is innovative for its focus on the high school years, when many young people develop a passion for the humanities—or not.

Learning experience

Daniel Reid says that the Humanities in High School grants will focus on three broad areas: professional development for high school teachers, curriculum development and enrichment programs in and out of school.

Reid points out that professional development for high school teachers typically focuses on the mechanics of teaching versus intellectual development. “Teachers are often extraordinarily curious about their subject,” he said. “They like working with kids, that’s part of it, but they also love history, for example, and want to do history for the rest of their lives. I think too often, professional development focuses very narrowly on pedagogy that has nothing to do with subject matter, and the intellectual development of teachers gets neglected. There is a real opportunity for programs that allow teachers to continue their own education in history, or literature, or philosophy, and to think about how to then take that back into their classrooms.”

As an example of an innovative approach to curriculum development, Reid points to a project being developed by Jennifer Feltman, one of Whiting’s Public Engagement grantees. Feltman, an art historian, is working with middle school teachers to design a unit on media studies and art history using the Cathedral at Reims to create a virtual reality experience that will enable  students to explore the architecture of the building as well as its historical context.

For Reid and the Whiting Foundation, this new slate of grants presents an opportunity to find out more about existing high school humanities initiatives, and they deliberately made the application criterion broad in hopes of attracting a range of applicants. “This will be a learning experience for us to see what is out there, who is doing what, and how they are measuring their own success,” he said.

Reid himself is weary of discussions about the demise of the humanities. “There is always a sense that there is a crisis in the humanities,” he said. “You can’t go more than a few years without hearing that phrase if you are anywhere near the humanities. But I am confident that, as with the arts, people are always going to be making art. And they are always going to be studying history, no matter what you try to do to stop them.”

Still, Reid concedes that the underpinnings of the humanities are not as robust as they could be. “I think you might say that there is a crisis in the structures that support the humanities,” he said.

Philanthropy, for one, could be doing more to strengthen the field. Reid puts it diplomatically: “Our sense is that education focusing specifically on the content and mindset of humanities is an area that has not gotten its full due from philanthropy.”

Of course, there are countless causes worthy of philanthropic support, but now more than ever, it’s hard to dispute the value of the humanities, which the Whiting Foundation describes as “the bedrock of an education that prepares students for meaningful lives, work and citizenship.”

Read the program’s full call for proposals here. The deadline for submissions is May 3, 2020.

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