Friday, October 23, 2020

Humanities Classes Are Not a Substitute for Social Studies


Above: Students debate during an inquiry-based social studies class. 

A few weeks ago, a fellow Boston Public Schools parent wrote me worried that her child's middle school principal was replacing social studies with humanities. I replied: 


I am concerned about any school moving to a "humanities model" or any other combination of English language arts and social studies. This is usually only done at the middle school level (although here in Boston, we see it at the high school level, as well). It is part of a misguided "back to the basics" view of school, or a belief that students just need literacy development and social studies content is just the vehicle for teaching reading and writing-when in fact it has different disciplinary structures and thinking skills that are developed. I would, however, want to better know the administrator's intentions. It is one thing to have English teachers and history teachers coordinate their courses to provide a better humanities experience. That could actually be a great thing (when I was a classroom teacher, I worked with English teachers to do just that). However, what usually happens with these models is that it becomes one teacher trying to teach one of those two subjects with limited expertise (it is often an ELA teacher teaching social studies poorly). It can be a way for the principal to get rid of social studies positions or make room in students schedules for more literacy time. 


This is not a post against the idea of humanities courses. In theory, there is great value in courses that emphasize the interdisciplinary nature of school subjects, which are too often content silos. All schools should approach subject matter this way.

Rather, this post is an attempt to articulate how humanities courses have been co-opted by a group of educational leaders who overemphasize literacy as a discrete skill (and devoid of subject matter) and misunderstand the ways that literacy functions within the disciplines of history and the social sciences.

If you are a teacher or student (or parent of a student) required to teach or take a humanities course, I offer three questions (with explanations at the end of this post) that you should be asking about the course:

1. Is my humanities course a substitute for social studies courses (i.e. history, civics/political science, geography, economics)?

2. Is my humanities course taught by someone without a background in both history and language arts (or is not co-taught by a social studies teacher with a colleague who has a background in teaching English or another subject in the humanities)?

3. Is my humanities course not taught in an interdisciplinary way, where we use different disciplinary lenses on the world (it is just an English course about history-related texts)?

What is Humanities and How Is STEM Involved?

First, we should start with the question: “What are the humanities?” The humanities, much like STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), is an overarching term to describe a group of related disciplines that can be taught in interdisciplinary ways. Humanities usually includes the study of literature, philosophy, world languages, history, law, politics, geography, economics, archaeology, anthropology, religion, art, and music.

For some time, our national (and perhaps global) educational conversation focused on the need for more STEM education. Rightfully, there was a concern about our teaching of math and science (and those subject areas have seen important instructional improvements over the past decade because of this increased attention). 

However, in this conversation, we have diminished the importance of learning the humanities (beyond literacy being a workforce skill). However, of the “big four” school subjects, social studies (i.e. history, civics, geography, economics) has clearly been the biggest victim of this shift (in fairness, art, music, world languages, and other humanities subjects have been wrongly marginalized for much longer-it explains why art educators pushed for their subject to be added to STEM in the form of STEAM; who could blame them? I'd make it STEAMSS, with social studies at the end, if I could). In fact, many people I speak with do not even list social studies as a main school subject anymore (they think of school as primarily reading, writing, math, and science). It is clear that the marginalization of social studies is a national trend, which is worse at the elementary and middle levels, as well as in urban schools (see here, here, and here).

Ancillary Literacy and Reducing Social Studies Positions

Part of this national decline in social studies is a push for humanities as a replacement for it in schools (especially for children at the elementary and middle levels, and in urban districts, with Boston and New York City being the largest examples; see here, here, and here). This push is not coming from social studies educators (see here), or even literacy specialists, but rather school and district leaders. They think it as a chance to maximize literacy instruction (this group often advocates for a "back to the basics" approach, where basic literacy and math drive everything). They think it is a way to increase test scores (especially in places where social studies is not tested, they can add additional literacy blocks or courses; and more about that later!). This know it is a way to reduce faculty, especially when budgets are tight (no need to hire social studies teachers, when you have English teachers covering it in humanities classes). 

Above: A mural at my daughters' elementary school in the Boston Public Schools, which describes what they learn there. Notice that "social studies" (and writing) is missing, while math, science, reading, art, and music are all included (since that mural was created, I have worked with the current principal to implement a new social studies curriculum-our work can change this trend!)

Yet, this push to maximize literacy instruction and increase test scores actually has negative impacts on literacy instruction and test scores (See this explanation from Nell Duke). It means students are not learning social studies well, which we know actually has a negative impact on their literacy (I suspect this is why few wealthy districts approach it this way; social studies usually exists in those places, separate from language arts). STEM education should be (but is rarely) an interdisciplinary use of those school subjects (should not be simply teaching science as ancillary math instruction). Similarly, humanities should be, but is rarely, an interdisciplinary subject (it is usually teaching social studies as ancillary literacy instruction; see here). And, in no school situation is reducing social studies faculty a smart idea (there are so many other ways to close budget gaps; or better, increase funding to urban schools).

White Supremacy?

Finally, one other point to consider is the history of humanities as a tool for White supremacy. I engaged in research for my new book with Kaylene Stevens, and uncovered that in the late 1800s there was an increased push for the teaching of humanities in school. However, this view of humanities was clearly rooted in a Western Civilizations view of the subject. In fact, Herbert Spencer, perhaps the founder of scientific racism, pushed for the teaching of humanities as a way to justify European superiority (by teaching the great works of White men). That view influenced the content of courses and textbooks from the elementary to the college levels. Then again, in the 1980s and 90s, in reaction to an increasing emphasis on multicultural education, conservative scholars again pushed for humanities courses from that same Western Civilization perspective (especially as a replacement for social studies, which they long thought was leftist and anti-patriotic; see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here; and a more recent example here). These courses became most popular in urban schools, where there were large concentrations of Black, Brown, Asian American, and immigrant students. It was part of a plan to assimilate students of color to White culture (a very similar purpose as Herbert Spencer had argued a century earlier). 

Despite this, I have seen humanities done right. However, it has always included an ethnic studies lens and de-centered Whiteness and Eurocentracism. A few years ago, I had the pleasure of observing Ling-Se Chesnakas at Boston's Urban Science Academy (the school was sadly closed by the Boston Public Schools and she is now a teacher at Boston Arts Academy). Her class had all the qualities of a good humanities course (to be honest, it is one of the few that I have ever experienced). She taught the course balancing literacy skill development and literary analysis with historical thinking. It truly felt like I was in an English and history course simultaneously. The students had just finished reading a chapter from The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, but were now engaging in a primary source analysis related to Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo. She had a background in both English and history (while having never earned a degree in history, she continuously enrolled herself in social studies-oriented professional development). She organized her units around the chronology of history (covering a broad scope), while also featuring literature prominently. She moved back and forth from having students construct historical arguments and historical interpretations like a historian, and then used what I would consider to be "English time" to have students engage in creative writing about their own personal experiences (I have experienced other humanities teachers in Boston teach this same unit, and frankly they were simply an ELA unit based on some history content).

What Can Be Done?

Let's return to those initial questions about humanities courses. If we are to have humanities courses, how should they be taught?

1. Is my humanities course a substitute for social studies courses (i.e. history, civics/political science, geography, economics)?

Make sure that all students receive social studies every year. If your school combines ELA with history or the social sciences, it is a sign they likely do not care much about students receiving social studies. Humanities should be in addition to social studies, or be separate ELA and social studies courses combined into two blocks that allow for teacher collaboration. When I was a teacher at Boston College High School years ago, my English teacher colleague Alison Piazza (now Alison MacDonald) and I created a two-block course called American studies, where we coordinated the curriculum, so students would be using their ELA time to leverage social studies content and we would draw connections between American literature and the inquiries that we were doing in U.S. history (we could also have coordinated themes of social justice across both courses). That is how you teach humanities.

2. Is my humanities course taught by someone without a background in both history and language arts (or is not co-taught by a social studies teacher with a colleague who has a background in teaching English or another subject in the humanities)?

If the answer is yes, see above about your school not caring about social studies. Also, see above about how it can be done right.

3. Is my humanities course not taught in an interdisciplinary way, where we use different disciplinary lenses on the world (it is just an English course about history-related texts)?

If the answer is yes, see above about your school not caring about social studies. Also, see above about how it can be done right.

To conclude, I would like to suggest an alternative to replacing social studies courses. I argue that we should instead add ethnic studies courses and approach social studies using ethnic studies lenses (think about teaching a U.S. history course through different ethnic groups' experiences; you could cycle through the course chronologically several times through the Indigenous, Black, Latinx, Asian American, and immigrant experiences). There is strong evidence that ethnic studies have positive impacts on students' social and academic outcomes, including increases in their literacy skills and social studies knowledge (see here). Ethnic studies, like humanities, is an interdisciplinary subject. Good ethnic studies courses involve all of the same qualities of good humanities courses (especially when included in addition to traditional social studies courses, co-taught by teachers with history/social science and English backgrounds, and using of different disciplinary lenses simultaneously; ethnic studies should also not simply be a literature class that reads multicultural texts). However, there is one key difference. Ethnic studies has a far greater focus on social justice and equity than humanities (minus all the White supremacy).

This is an opportune moment for us to not only increase social studies for students in urban elementary and middle schools (and some high schools). It is also a time to use that content to help students make the world more just.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

"All Boston Public Schools Exist to Serve All Boston Students": Why I Support Dropping the Test at BLS, BLA, and the O'Bryant


Above: Boston Latin School, commonly referred to as BLS, which is considered by some the "top school" in Boston is also one of the Whitest schools in Boston. Below: The Kenny School in Dorchester (where my kids attend). It is home to the city's only elementary school marching band and is one of its most racially diverse schools.

Last night, around 1:40 am and after about 6 hours of public comment, the Boston School Committee voted 7-0 to support a one-year change to the admissions process at Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the John D. O'Bryant School of Mathematics and Science (commonly referred to as the "exam schools"), which include suspending the entrance exam. 

Many Boston Public Schools students, parents (including myself), teachers, and community members (including Ibram X. Kendi, the Boston Branch of the NAACP, and the Boston Coalition for Education Equity) spoke out in support of the changes and encouraged the School Committee to make them permanent.

My testimony is below.


Hello. My name is Chris Martell. I am a BPS parent with two daughters at the Kenny School in Dorchester, a BPS Citywide Parent Council rep., a former classroom teacher and current education professor at UMass Boston, and someone who deeply believes in racial justice. I ask that you support the Working Group’s recommendations related to exam school admission.

My daughters attend what may be the most racially balanced elementary school in the city. It represents the diversity of Dorchester almost perfectly. It even has its own marching band. It’s a special place. Yet, every year students leave the Kenny and end up at very different BPS middle and high schools. I can only imagine how confused Kenny students must be when they enter the doors of BLS. They must wonder, am I still in Boston? They interact with far fewer of their Dorchester neighbors, or peers from Mattapan or Roxbury. There are noticeably far fewer Black and Brown classmates. I wish BLS was more like the Kenny. I wish its student population was a better representation of this city’s neighborhoods. I wish all Boston students had equitable opportunity.

The racial imbalance is not surprising knowing our city’s past. However, the current admission process heavily based on standardized test scores exacerbates our city’s structural racism. Before the McLaughlin case, while not perfect, the diversity of the exam schools more closely resembled our city. After the McLaughlin case, instead of creating an equitable system that adhered to the court ruling, that School Committee took a pass. I ask that this School Committee do the right thing today. Especially in light of this pandemic, which has only widened racial and economic gaps. You have a chance to experiment with a new fairer system.

Finally, while the Working Group focused on this year, I strongly encourage this committee to eliminate an exam as an admission criteria beyond that. Our exam schools were not always exam schools. We do not need an exam to confirm their prestige. All Boston public schools exist to serve all Boston students. Let’s create a new process that centers on racial justice. Let’s make our school system a national beacon for equity. Let’s do what’s right. Thank you. 


Above and Middle: Racial demographics for the Boston Public Schools and Boston Latin School (from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education). Below: A map showing the projected shift of the new admissions criteria system. Students from Dorchester, East Boston, Roxbury, and Mattapan (neighborhoods with the largest Black and Latinx populations) would see increases, and students from West Roxbury and Roslindale (predominately White neighborhoods) would see decreases (from the Boston School Committee Working Group).