Are We Undervaluing the Humanities?

Students in B Block US History Honors participate in a constitutional convention photo by Eleanor Sanaman

Students in B Block US History Honors participate in a constitutional convention
photo by Eleanor Sanaman

“You want to get a B.A. in English? What are you going to do with that?”

When I was younger, I assumed the friends who asked me that question were ignorant. By high school, I started to wonder: are questions about the importance of the Humanities just coming from a few people or are they questions that schools are asking too?

First, I turned my attention to Lick-Wilmerding High School in San Francisco. I have always loved LWHS’s English and History classes. However, one thing I noticed is that at LWHS, students are able to take honors-level Science, Math, and English courses as seniors but are not able to take honors-level History courses as seniors.

The LWHS junior course request form for 2012-2013 photo by Lawrie Mankoff

The LWHS junior course request form for 2012-2013
photo by Lawrie Mankoff

“LWHS’s lack of honors History makes it harder for students to show that they’re advanced,” says Krista Klein, Co-Director of College Counseling at LWHS. Krista, who came to LWHS 7 years ago after working in the publishing industry and as a History teacher, also points out, “But colleges look at you in the context of where you’re coming from.”

Krista’s first point concerns me because I think that even though colleges do not penalize students for not taking honors History courses when honors History is not available, the lack of honors History courses still makes it harder for students who are passionate about the Humanities to prove their passion.

What makes courses like English 4 or Anatomy and Physiology “honors” courses?

“‘Honors’ is actually a construct caused by the UC,” explains Eric Temple, Head of School at LWHS. “However, I believe our senior History seminars are definitely at an honors level. They just don’t carry that designation from the UC.”

There are some positive sides to LWHS not having honors History options for seniors.

As Krista points out, “Having all people take the same Humanities classes gives everyone at LWHS a common academic identity. LWHS is an equity-oriented school where people come from a variety of backgrounds. All those voices need to mix with each other and be heard.”

Lisa Wu, Director of Admissions at LWHS, agrees that equity and variety are two of the greatest aspects of LWHS. However, when asked if she thinks honors History should be available to seniors, she replied, “I’m a fan of giving students the greatest challenge they can handle.”

Lisa, who has worked at LWHS for 13 years, also points out that she has noticed a shift in the interests of prospective LWHS students.

“More kids applying are making and building and designing,” says Lisa. “There are more organizations that give kids those opportunities.”

Some universities have also been struggling to balance interests of prospective applicants.

Stanford University started a summer program called the Stanford Summer Humanities Institute that gives students who are passionate about the Humanities the opportunity to take undergraduate courses in History and Philosophy with the professors who teach those courses at Stanford.

In an e-mail sent to The Stanford Daily for an article published in 2012 regarding the Stanford Summer Humanities Institute, Debra Satz, Senior Associate Dean of Humanities and the Arts at Stanford, says, “The percentage of our applicants who express a strong interest in the Humanities is low, only about 10 percent. This program is part of an effort to showcase Stanford’s excellent Humanities faculty.”

I do think that LWHS, honors History or not, has a phenomenal History program. However, I think that we need to continue to think about how a cultural shift toward Math and Science may be influencing schools.

I also think that while Science and Math are both immensely important, it is also important to acknowledge that the Humanities give us important life skills that can be applied to almost every profession.

Randy Barnett, Dean of Academics and Instruction at LWHS,  oversees curriculum development. Prior to becoming the Dean of Academics and Instruction, Mr. Barnett taught English and History.

“Literature gives us an amazing way to live multiple lives,” says Mr. Barnett. “Deep study of the Humanities has given me the study of human thought. Where have we been as a species?”

Mr. Barnett also stresses the importance of balancing both the Humanities and STEM subjects in school.

“We know through historical experience that studying STEM things without grounding them in philosophical and ethical conversations can be dangerous and narrow,” says Mr. Barnett. “Quality of life can depend on things like developing empathy, appreciating and even creating art, and doing service, and that can’t be done through STEM alone and that can’t be done through the Humanities alone.”

Tags: ,
Posted in Voices | No Comments »

About Amelia Roskin-Frazee

Amelia Roskin-Frazee is a senior at Lick-Wilmerding High School. She is the co-Managing Editor of the The Paper Tiger. Outside of school, she is the Founder and President of The Make It Safe Project and is on the National Advisory Council for The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network. In her remaining free time, Amelia writes novels, plays steel drums, and contemplates how strange it feels to write about herself in the third person.

Leave a Reply