Teaching Humanities Research Paper Starter

Teaching Humanities

Because the humanities are heavily dependent on reading and writing, this article will touch on literary criticism, along with social and cultural trends that have affected the humanities. Various applications are discussed in terms of how to approach the humanities as a whole, rather than only in the standard departmental approach. This article also provides an overview of the changes in the teaching of humanities and includes a discussion of some of the current issues.

Keywords Curriculum Integration; Empiricism; English; Globalization; History; Humanism; Interdisciplinarity; Interdisciplinary Curriculum; Liberal Arts; Literature; Music; Multidisciplinary Curriculum; Performing Arts; Pragmatism


The term humanities refers to a broad range of disciplines that attempt to explore and develop human qualities. Historically, the humanities, in one form or another, can be traced to the liberal arts of ancient Greece and Rome. Although the organization and division of what constitutes the humanities has changed over the centuries, one major dividing line has remained consistent, and that is the line of empiricism. On one side of the line are the humanities, with critical thinking & reading, speculation and analysis; on the other is empirical research, scientific method and the like. In other words, the main difference is one of how knowledge is explored and gathered.

After this initial polarity, many other divisions emerge. At the college level, for example, Kernan (1997) indicated that there are three main branches to the liberal arts: the humanities, the social sciences and the physical sciences, which are all separated from the professional disciplines. At the middle or high school level, the divisions are usually similar: dividing often along the lines of the humanities, mathematics and sciences, and vocational studies.

Further divisions often separate the humanities into specific departments. According to Kernan (1997), "the humanities are the subjects regularly listed under that heading: literature, philosophy, art history, music, religion, languages, and sometimes history" (p. 3). Most middle and high schools have similar divisions, although few have a philosophy department or a specific art history department. In terms of humanities, a typical public school has departments for: English, history, music, arts, language and sometimes performing arts when it is not part of the arts department.

The humanities, being heavily reliant on writing and reading, have followed many of the trends in the practice of reading. As Kernan (1997) noted, "The humanities might almost be said traditionally to have been elaborate exercises in various kinds of reading and writing" (p. 9).

Easily the most influential event in the early part of the twenty-first century has been the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation. This massive reform created standards for students and teachers alike and tied federal funding to test performance. On the negative side, the NCLB has possibly created a sweeping culture of "teaching to the test" where teachers, concerned about the results their students get on the standardized tests, are focusing heavily on the test material. In some situations this practice results in students who have strong test taking skills and specific knowledge, but they lack other skills and may not know how to learn on their own. In the worst cases, teachers are even supplying their students with test answers, sending the students subversive messages about the value of school and education.

On the positive side, the NCLB has created clearer standards for holding schools and teachers accountable. With these clear expectations, students are supposed to have equitable educational opportunities. However, issues still remain with inequities of resources, funding, buildings, class sizes and more. In the humanities, in particular, funding and standardized tests are serious issues.


The standard application of teaching the humanities in public schools is to separate into departments, where each can focus on a specific aspect. In this traditional model, art teachers teach art, music teachers teach music, history teachers teach history, etc. There is often little or no crossover, since class sizes, complex schedules, specific knowledge and expertise requirements, standardized tests, and other factors can make combining disciplines difficult.

A number of applications exist in practice that can help create more cohesion from an otherwise fragmented approach to the humanities. Co-teaching, team teaching and thematic teaching, for example, can help bring some cohesion to the humanities, but they still fragment learning. From a student's perspective, for example, art begins and ends one period, followed by history, then English and so on.

Some applications of teaching the humanities attempt to cross over the boundaries of the disciplines. Interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary models of teaching, for example, both focus on weaving several disciplines together. The boundaries still remain, however. Having teachers generalize into several disciplines, rather than staying focused in one, has consequences.

Other applications attempt to ignore the barriers that separate not just the humanities, but all the disciplines as well. Curriculum integration and certain types of project-based learning, for example, focus primarily on the learning process itself, and not on disciplines.

The following approaches are examples of various applications that explore the humanities in different ways.

Co-Teaching/Team Teaching

Co-teaching can help bridge some of the disciplines together. In a common form of such a model, an English teacher and a social studies teacher coordinate to study the same time period. The English teacher focuses on the literary elements, drawing on poetry, short stories and novels that are poignant to the time. The social studies teacher provides the historical background and approaches the same time period using primary sources and historical events. In some co-teaching models, a group of students has two teachers in the same classroom, allowing each of them to bring his or her experience and expertise to the course of study.

In team teaching, several teachers coordinate as a team to study the same thing, such as a time period like the 1960s. In this model an entire team, all of the sixth grade teachers, for example, coordinate to deliver the curriculum. Each teacher contributes his or her discipline toward the topic. Not only does this help bring together all of the humanities, it may even bring together all of the school subjects.

Thematic Teaching

In thematic teaching, a broad or abstract theme is used to bridge the disciplines and even grade levels. An entire school, for example, could study perseverance. In the English classes the students might read short stories about people not giving up. In the history classes, the students might learn about historic figures and the traits that allowed them to succeed through adversity. The science teachers might teach about the concepts of momentum and inertia. As with co-teaching or team teaching, the teachers contribute to the curriculum from their specific areas of expertise (Postman (1995).

Interdisciplinary / Multidisciplinary

In these approaches, teachers attempt to bring the disciplines together. An art teacher teaching about a certain era, for example, may have the students listen to pieces of music, read poems and short stories, and study primary documents in addition to the learning about the art of the time. The students then draw on their understandings from the other disciplines to inform their choices as artists for the project that the teacher assigns. Beane (1997) provided clear descriptions of these forms and how they differ from others.

Curriculum Integration / Project-based Learning

In curriculum integration and project-based learning the curriculum is student-centered and entirely, or almost entirely, driven by the interests of the students. The learning that takes place does not have to fall into the traditional disciplines. Those interested in more about curriculum integration should check out Beane (1997); for project-based learning of this nature, Starnes and Carone (1999).


Although there are different applications of how to go about teaching the humanities, whether through a traditional departmental model or through a cross-curricular model, there are also considerations of what to teach versus how to teach. The disciplines in the humanities represent a huge body of knowledge. An entire humanities department could be devoted to literature for four years of high school and still only manage a fraction of what exists in print. The same is true of history and the arts, as well as foreign languages. Therefore, schools, departments and...

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