Humanities- Why the Hard Sell?

     Record: Ferrero, D. (2011). Humanities- Why the Hard Sell? What Students Need to Learn, 68(6), 22-26. doi:March 2011

     Summary: In this article David J. Ferrero discusses the place of the humanities in both modern educational policy and historic ideals of education. He opens with an anecdote about a PBS mini-series featuring Dr. Michael Sandel lecturing on tough moral questions. Ferrero compares how the airing of this TV series means to create reflective citizens with how education in the humanities can help create reflective students.

Ferrero titles his first section “The Purposes of Schooling.” This portion deals with what Ferrero believes are the goals of education. He states that historically education has been used to further the economic, civic, and personal growth of students. This is followed by an additional claim that the latter two goals are now being largely ignored in favor of the former. In his words, “a school’s value is defined primarily by whether it helps students earn credentials that will make them employable.” Ferrero expands on his claim with a summative breakdown of modern educational policy. After reiterating the ancient goal of the humanities to forge what he calls “good persons,” he looks at several subjects through the lens of their “cash value.” Math and the sciences (including the social) are virtual treasure troves. Physical education is also given a rosy description. Even English and a few other arts manage to squeak out under the umbrella of developing communication skills. History does not fare so well. “This,” Ferrero says, “requires some shoehorning.” He suggests some possible ways to convolute the discipline, but ultimately recognizes that such finagling robs history of its true meaning and value. He ends by listing several other areas of study that this description can be applied to: a few being literature, art, and religion.

After reaching this conclusion, he proceeds to his next section titled “Learning from the Humanities.” He offers three broad themes students can glean from these subjects. The first is that it helps residents of a consumer economy maximize their leisure and entertainment. According to Ferrero, a broad exposure to classical and contemporary expression will help a person get the most out of both. His second reason is that it teaches students about human achievement. Ferrero sees this as a method to inspire students to excellence (both academically and civically) by providing historic examples. Finally, Ferrero reasons that learning the humanities fosters a sense of collective identity and individual autonomy. The former is done by studying topics and histories that situate students in a story bigger than themselves. The latter is accomplished more subtly by a recognition of how chains of thought in the past have shaped students’ present understanding of the world. Ferrero gives a few examples of these thought-chains before concluding that the humanities foster an understanding of human-ism.

The remainder of the article, titled “Finding Space for the Humanities,” discusses how to fit the humanities into current models of education. The section begins by saying that the value of the humanities discussed above isn’t good enough to convince policy makers to incorporate it more into education, but that current policy allows some space for them. He gives an endorsement of Common Core, quoting part of its English section as an example of what he wants in humanities education. He also raises up the Common Core organization that is using the state standards to create curricular guideposts. After outlining both these ideas, Ferrero ends with a restatement of his thesis that the humanities and the civic/personal goals of education are undervalued.

     Appraisal: Ferrero’s article made some interesting claims about educational philosophy and the role of the humanities, however in many places there were insufficient examples and argumentation. Ferrero sometimes takes for granted that his point of view is correct and fails to offer evidence or argument as to why his claims are correct. An example of this is when he states the three goals of education. He simply states that democratic societies have viewed education this way. He doesn’t offer examples or trace the evolution of that thought. The reader simply has to take it on faith that he’s correct. It is slightly ironic that later in the article he states the importance of tracing the history of ideas, yet fails to do so with the idea that his entire article hinges upon. However, if one agrees with his model of education-for-economy is correct, his breakdown of each subject’s place in such a model (and the problem this creates for the humanities) is insightful.

He does a good job outlining the issue that if humanities are made into packaged economic products they lose their value as humanities. Unfortunately, like many champions of the humanities, while he does a good job stating the issue he does a poor job defending it. His claims fall to the same sword outlined above, that being their lack of elaboration. His endorsement of Common Core is no surprise given that he works for the organization partially responsible for it, but it would be interesting to see how Ferrero would respond to those who claim Common Core exacerbates, not alleviates, the very problems he outlined in his article. Overall, the article needs to be longer with more time devoted to substantiating the claims made in it.