Academic journal article International Journal of Humanities and Peace

The Humanities-Based Classroom: An Oasis in a Standardized Desert

Academic journal article International Journal of Humanities and Peace

The Humanities-Based Classroom: An Oasis in a Standardized Desert

Article excerpt


The intellectual and spiritual journey for my Ph.D. in Curriculum Studies revealed for me, the intense clash of philosophical civilizations, student-centered versus subject-centered educational practices, and how significantly the outcome of the wars would shape social, political and aesthetic destiny of our nation's young learners. This paper will suggest an historical beginning between these two civilizations, elucidate their distinctions, and offer a rationale for student-centered practices using my dissertation post-doctoral work as resources for my defense.

Recent policies at the state and national levels have bolstered the strength of the subject-centered civilization--often referred to as the "factory model," advocated in a treatise by Franklin Bobbit (1918). Also termed "linear," this trend toward subject rather than student as the site of learning was, according to Levi (1991), begun in the monasteries of the Middle Ages when learning moved from process to product, where the works of Greece and Rome "caused tradition to be seen finally less as habits of procedure, of ways of doing, feeling, thinking, and valuing, than as the transmission of literary artifacts. Literary culture became a matter of bibliography and the things of the spirit assumed a mysterious substantiality" (p.226). From the inquiry learning of Socrates to the Progressives led by John Dewey, many educationists have held that educational experiences should not be incrementalized but rather integrated into a rich web of connections that assists the student in seeing ideas holistically.

An Arizona State University study found that state-mandated exams, "high-stakes tests" as promoted by the civilization of subject-centerists, improved student scores on the state tests while weakening them on the SAT and ACT (Winter, 2002). The study also suggested that "these kinds of tests narrow the curriculum and actually produce deficits in learning" (p. 2).

Learning holistically, the student-centerists assert, motivate students by beginning with their world and teaching them how ideas are inexorably tied. This civilization values the making of connections using the arts and humanities. The arts provide affective experiences so essential for the development of emotional intelligence, which leads to dispositions of empathy and peace (Goleman, 1997). The humanities celebrate our universality and possibility. The subject-centerists argue that the material is time-honored and must be presented in separate subjects isolated into chewable chunks. Research shows that cognitive learning assists students to understand the difference between right and wrong but not to value it (Eisner, 1997).

Sylvia's Story: Inquiry

During my Ph.D. work, I met a third grade classroom teacher who, at the time, taught in a district in the urban core of a large city in the Southwest. "Sylvia Tierra" (pseudonym) was doing a session for a social studies conference. When I queried her about the title of her presentation, which included the word humanities, she described herself as a "humanities-based teacher."

As I learned more about Sylvia's approach to teaching, I recognized her work as exemplifying my developing notions of what elementary education could be: project-based, rich in arts and humanities and in the tradition of the Progressive movement of John Dewey and others. Dewey's Democracy and Education (1934) articulates how integrated learning in a setting that practices democratic tenets as a socially organized microcosm, affords the best opportunity for students to internalize those behaviors at maturity.

I resolved to study Sylvia and her work--to discover what motivated her to spend so much more time in preparation than she would using subject-centered models of teaching. What formal and informal educational experiences had this person synthesized to form a personal, humanities-based pedagogy?

As examined in depth in my "Interpretation" chapter, Sylvia herself had received a British liberal arts education through elementary and middle school in Sri Lanka. …

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