American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 23

Teaching the Humanities:

Essays from the ACLS Elementary and
Secondary Schools Teacher Curriculum
Development Project


Moving to the Other Side of the Desk:
Teachers’ Stories of Self-Fashioning

Linda Wells

Transforming Canons, Transforming Teachers
Edward L. Rocklin

Shaping the Multicultural Curriculum:
Biblical Encounters with the Other

Lois Feuer

Nationalism, History, the Chicano Subject, and the Text
Darlene Emily Hicks


John G. Ramsay

History and the Humanities:
The Politics of Objectivity and
The Promise of Subjectivity

Eve Kornfeld

Toward a “Curriculum of Hope”:
The Essential Role of Humanities Scholarship
in Public School Teaching

Paul A. Fideler

Works Consulted

Ms. Higgins and the Culture Warriors:
Notes Toward the Creation of an
Eighth Grade Humanities Curriculum

John G. Ramsay
Carleton College

Beneatha: Then why read books? Why go to school?
George: It’s simple. You read books — to learn facts — to get grades — to pass the course — to get a degree. That’s all — it has nothing to do with thoughts.
Beneatha: I see. (He starts to sit) Good night, George.
  — Lorraine Hansberry,
A Raisin in the Sun

Meet Ms. Higgins

In September, she’ll begin her eighth grade humanities class with Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. Ms. Higgins knows that much. What her students will read next is uncertain. But at least she is excited about the first book in her new course at her new job.1

She was surprised to learn that Raisin was not already being taught. Then she read Arthur Applebee’s A Study of Book-Length Works Taught in High School English Courses. Applebee found that although Hansberry was the most frequently required minority author in American public schools (grades 7–12), 41 white writers were more frequently assigned. Raisin is required reading in fewer than 30% of the nation’s schools, although that percentage jumps to one-half in schools with a 50% minority enrollment (Applebee 12–17). Hansberry is not one of the recommended authors in William Bennett’s “James Madison High.” Ms. Higgins felt confident she had made the right choice: one of the great, but sadly neglected American plays of the twentieth century.

She had not thought she had a good chance for the job, even as she prepared for her interview back in May. She had a district wide reputation as an outstanding reading instructor, but she had earned that reputation as a third grade teacher, and had never worked with early adolescents before. And, although in college she had majored in both English and history, she had felt daunted by the job title: middle school humanities coordinator.

Still, she did her homework, including the reading of the AAUW’s How Schools Shortchange Girls.3 The report infuriated her and she said so in her interview. She told Ms. Johnson, her prospective principal, that she would not tolerate the “boys will be boys” rationalization for the harassment of her female students. And she would work hard to create an atmosphere and a curriculum that would sustain and build female self-esteem rather than diminish it. Ms. Johnson seemed pleased with these pledges, but then asked: “But what does any of that have to do with A Raisin in the Sun?

As she replied, Higgins was pleased by the certainty she heard in her voice. She said: “I want both my young men and women to meet and understand Beneatha Younger — her intelligence, integrity, dignity, and, of course, her love of reading. She is exactly the kind of young woman they are not going to find on television, or in the pages of Sassy, Seventeen, and Young Miss (Evans et al.). She is exactly the kind of young person, I hope all of them will become — curious, thoughtful, feisty, and loving.”

But now that she has the job and June is slipping away, she is beginning to feel overwhelmed. During the first week of August, she will work with her colleagues, the other members of the eighth grade team, on redesigning the English, social studies and art curriculum. Late in September, she will stand before the parents of her students and explain the role of the humanities in the education of an eighth grader. Each morning when she gives herself a pep talk, she says the same thing: “You better become more like Beneatha Younger, if you expect to pull this off.”

What scares her most about her new job is knowing that she will be inheriting many of the reading problems she saw in the third grade. Only now those problems will be five years older, five years worse. She is shocked by some of the findings reported in Reading In and Out of School. In 1990, 30 percent of eighth graders reported that they never read in their spare time — up 11 percent since 1988. Fifty-two percent of eighth graders reported that they talked about their reading with family or friends “monthly, yearly or never” (Foertsch 29). According to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, the weakest quarter of her readers will be reading only slightly more skillfully than most fourth graders. Since 1971 only the top quarter of all eighth graders have made any significant gains in reading. The skills of the bottom three quarters have declined since 1980 (Mullis et al. 118–119). Each week eighth graders spend 21.4 hours watching television, 5.6 hours doing homework, and only 1.8 hours engaged in outside reading (National Education Longitudinal Study 48). “Somehow we’re teaching them that reading doesn’t matter,” Ms. Higgins has thought during her more discouraged moments.

But at the same time, she feels a growing sense of purpose and direction. She has been working on the questions, “Why read at all?”, and “What is the educational value of studying the humanities?”, and thinks she has found a mentor: Dennie Palmer Wolf. As she read Wolf’s Reading Reconsidered, she stopped and looked down in her notes and found on page after page: “Yes!” She likes Wolf’s insistence that reading — serious, reflective reading — is both a developmental and an investigative process. It involves thinking out loud, talking to oneself, keeping a journal, making connections to other texts and stories. Reading is a way of “becoming mindful,” and all children are, but can become more mindful. Mindfulness is not reserved for her brightest, or best readers. The teacher of mindful students “must be willing and able to unfold for their students the process of wondering and investigating”8 (Wolf, “Reading” 31, 39). Higgins thinks best in metaphors. In her notes she writes: “Good readers and students of the humanities are good detectives of texts.”

Still Higgins has lingering questions. Wolf seems long and true on process, but short and vague on the question: “Mindful about what?” Higgins agrees that her students need to read a variety of genres: essays, letters, poems, novels and plays. She would add biography and autobiography to Wolf’s list. And, “Yes!”, Higgins agrees that “we have to offer them books worth entering, worth groping toward, or worth being crisscrossed.” But what are those books? Or doesn’t it really matter? Will any reasonably interesting offerings do for this year? Should she just return to Applebee’s list (or Bennett’s, for that matter), and do what everyone else is doing? Or should she accept Wolf’s challenge “that teachers in a school might spend time thinking about a core of works they want to be able to build on. . .” (“Reading” 53).

She turns to Tom Holt’s Thinking Historically, and finds it helpful. A humanities curriculum cannot be comprised entirely of literature. And in any case, she knows that literature cannot be taught apart from the history which educated its author. “Is there a scene, or even a line in Raisin that is not informed by the history of race and racism in the United States?”, she asks herself. What she wants to avoid is the approach of some of her old English teachers: If you know just one key biographical or historical fact, then the entire story, play or poem becomes crystal clear. She agrees with Holt that history needs to be taught as an “ongoing conversation and debate rather than a dry compilation of ‘facts’ and dates, a closed catechism, or a set of questions already answered” (13). She wonders what primary historical documents could be used to illuminate Raisin and vice versa.

But what she finds most interesting and challenging is Holt’s insistence that to study history is to be confronted by one’s own assumptions, myths, values and value hierarchies. He writes:

The act of interpretation cannot be value neutral or entirely objective. The “discipline” we aspire to is to bring the values and subjective influences out into the open. In other words, we must ask questions of ourselves as well as of the documents. (Holt 26)

She begins to reexamine her admiration for Beneatha, her instant dislike of Walter Lee, and her ambivalence toward Lena and Ruth. She scribbles in her notes: “Raise the questions: To what extent does Raisin dramatize the folly of allegiance to a single governing value? How have certain stories shaped the values of family members? In what ways do the values of each member of the Younger family change and why?” She has heard numerous quotations and slogans about the self-revelatory capacity of the humanities, but now for the first time she begins to believe she can describe, and explain how that process works — and sometimes does not work.

Higgins now recognizes that she has two distinct paths ahead of her. She can stick with what got her this far: her skills as a reading teacher, her passion for literature and history, and her love of children. When she meets with her colleagues and addresses the parents of her students, she can trot out the goals and justifications she already knows. “Studying the humanities this year will make your children stronger readers, better thinkers, and skilled detectives of texts.” Echoing Wolf, she can vow to close the skill gaps between her strongest and weakest readers: “We cannot continue to create a kind of two-tiered literacy” (“Reading” 53).

She could employ the humanities as tools metaphor: tools for higher order thinking, more effective problem solving, more advanced academic tasks. She is willing to argue that the development of increasingly skilled and insightful readers is an educational end, in fact, an incomparable end in itself. Reading is the key to a self-educating life, and a deliberative, democratic society. She has no doubt that she could pull it off convincingly. She believes, in other words, that she can develop a persuasive, impregnable rationale for her curriculum without having to address the issue of the distinctive educational virtues of the humanities. Then she pauses and looks at her notes again: “To what extent does Raisin dramatize the folly of allegiance to a single governing value?”

The other path leads back to her question for Wolf: “Mindfulness about what?” As an elementary reading teacher she was quite comfortable with a professional conception of self as skill builder. But Holt’s concern with values is leading in another direction. What bothers her about her skills rationale for the humanities is the worst case scenario. What if it works? What if her young women at the end of the year are still reading Sassy, in fact reading more Sassy than ever before? What if their vocabularies have increased, and they are reading more critically and perceptively, but they are still emotionally and intellectually satisfied by reading articles entitled: “How to Flirt,” “How to Ask the Time Without Hyperventilating,” and “How to Kiss” (Evans et al. 106)?

When she first heard the expression “culture wars,” Higgins had to laugh. She wondered why comfortable academics on cushy campuses were so eager to embrace such a violent metaphor to describe their tranquil lives of researching, lecturing and writing about ideas. Perhaps it made them feel more alive and imperiled, more connected to the front lines, more in touch with the housing projects, streets and playgrounds of her students. She remains skeptical. The last thing she wants to do is spend her summer reading vitriol by people who do not know what they are talking about.

Still she has assembled her reading list and her list of questions. She knows her list is highly selective, if not idiosyncratic, but she is confident that her readings will lead outward to a broader sampling. She is hoping to find some insight, some provisional answers to the questions she believes will help her build a humanities curriculum and a rationale for it. Her questions are: How important is reading to the study of the humanities and why? When students study the humanities, what should they study? How do individuals, groups, communities and societies benefit from the study of the humanities? What interpretation of history and contemporary national circumstances informs a particular view of humanities education? What are the curricular implications of a particular view of the humanities?

Higgins begins her summer reading, strangely comforted by Lola Szladits’ idea: “Research in the humanities is the quest of a potentially unexpected answer to a possibly ill-defined question” (19).

Diane Ravitch’s Common Culture

Higgins is surprised to feel an immediate affinity for the work of Diane Ravitch. She knows that Ravitch was Assistant Secretary for Educational Research and Improvement in the Bush Administration — a regime Higgins found long on rhetoric and short on action. She also knows that Ravitch is often associated with the common culture programs of William Bennett, E. D. Hirsch, Lynne Cheney and other educational and political conservatives. Higgins does not see herself as conservative, however often her students insist that her tastes in clothes and music are very old-fashioned.

But as Higgins reads Ravitch’s The American Reader: Words That Moved a Nation, she thinks to herself: “This woman knows what I’m up against.” The humanities texts in the anthology are organized into historical periods, and Higgins is impressed by their quality and variety — political manifestoes, speeches, poems, letters, songs, essays, court documents and decisions. The number of pieces by writers of color and women is significant — Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Stanton, Lucy Stone, Emily Dickinson, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Booker T. Washington, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, and on and on.

Higgins is pleased to learn that Ravitch is a strong advocate for the idea that reading is an essential and neglected skill. She makes compelling points about the place and importance of reading in American education. First, she points out how self-defeating school book publishers and curriculum designers often are by noting how infrequently elementary school readers “depict boys and girls who like to read, or adults whose education allowed them to make a great contribution to the good of society” (Ravitch and Finn 216). Second, she argues that reading cannot be replaced by other means of obtaining information. Illiteracy and aliteracy disenfranchise politically and culturally: “those who only listen and watch will be at the mercy of those who write the scripts, program the computers, interpret the news, and extract meaning from the past” (Ravitch, American Reader xiv). And she lists Hansberry among the major writers around whom an English curriculum should be built (Ravitch and Finn 220).

Ravitch’s view of the benefits to individuals who study the humanities seems modest, even cautious to Higgins. Ravitch writes: “Knowledge of the humanities cannot guarantee that one will become wise, ethical, or moral, but it engages one in the serious consideration of what it means to be wise, ethical, and moral.” The nation as a whole benefits from a “well-conceived and well-taught humanities curriculum” because such a curriculum “is a means to larger ends: the enhancement of a free, just, stable, and secure society” (Finn, Ravitch, and Fancher 6). Higgins has no quarrel with these ideas, but she has heard them before, and worries that her eighth graders, their parents and her colleagues will find them vague, impractical, and insufficiently rousing.

Ravitch’s vision for humanities education is informed by her forebodings about the renewal and rise of ethnocentrism throughout the world. In her view, the schools must play an important role in preventing the balkanization of American culture:

Ethnocentrism is the specter that has been haunting the world for centuries — causing war, injustice, and civil conflict. Ethnocentrism tells people that they must trust and accept only members of their own group. It tells them that they must immerse themselves in their own cultures and close their minds to others. It says to members of the groups that they have nothing in common with people who are of a different race, a different religion, a different culture. It breeds hatred and distrust. (Finn, Ravitch, and Fancher 243)

The United States will be a society held together by cultural glue, only if educators reject the ethnocentrism of particularistic multiculturalism and embrace the pluralistic version of multiculturalism, which she favors.

Higgins finds four key elements to Ravitch’s concept of a common culture. First it is a civic culture, “shaped by our Constitution, our commitment to democratic values, and our historical experience as a nation.” Second, it is multicultural, “the creation of many groups of immigrants, American Indians, Africans, and their descendants.” Third, it is dynamic, “we remake it in every generation.” Finally, it assumes that our common humanity binds us together culturally “transcending race, color, ethnicity, language, and religion” (Ravitch, “Multiculturalism Yes” A44). Higgins finds this conception of a common culture desirable as an ideal, but not a very accurate description of the cultural world of American public schools. She wonders: “If this is true, why is Lorraine Hansberry read in only a third of our schools?”

On closer inspection of The American Reader, Higgins discovers that Ravitch really cares most about the first element of her concept of common culture: civic culture. The emphasis is clearly on our national political life, the democratic experiment, as the subtitle says: “words that moved a nation.” What Higgins finds lacking are those texts which address intrapersonal issues of identity development and interpersonal issues of love and betrayal within friendships, families and cultural communities. She knows that these issues of the heart are often the most compelling for eighth graders — and central to her own reading of Raisin.

Higgins would like, at some point, to place the play in the context of the national movement for black civil rights. In theory, Ravitch would endorse that approach. In her view some chapters of the black quest for civil rights illustrate “milestones of oppression”; others “our national commitment to justice and equal rights.” She argues in favor of white and black students studying the history of racial discrimination in the United States: “This is not a black story, but an American story” (Ravitch and Finn 249). And Ravitch is in full agreement with Holt about the educational value of teaching conflicting historical interpretations: “Where genuine controversies exist, they should be taught and debated in the classroom” (Ravitch, “Multiculturalism: E Pluribus Plures” 352).

Unfortunately, The American Reader would not be of much help in supplying the supplementary historical curricula for situating Raisin during the civil rights movement. Although she does include both Martin Luther King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” and his “I Have A Dream” speech, they are in a section entitled “Troubled Times.” There are no other texts on the civil rights movement by people of color. Still, Higgins has to concede that Ravitch’s framework is provocative and worth exploring further. Certainly racial discrimination, civil rights, and assimilationism are important themes in Raisin. If Higgins’s approach to the play is to address these issues, she will have to know more about the biographical and historical events and ideas which influenced Hansberry. She makes a note for herself: “Find a copy of Hansberry’s The Movement. Documentary of a Struggle for Equality.”

The Multiculturalism of David Mura

At the outset, Higgins is confident about her approach to multiculturalism. Part of her intention in selecting Raisin as her first book is to send a message to her students and their parents: multiculturalism will be an important theme this year. We will not just be reading books written by and for the white middle class. We will read and study the literature and history of people of color for aesthetic, cultural, and educational reasons.

She can imagine herself providing her rationale for a strong multicultural emphasis in the following way. “All students need to learn about the richness of African-American, Latino, Native American and Asian-American literature. Students should read about the issues of bigotry and racism, prejudice and discrimination that inform many pieces of multicultural literature. Students of color should know that many people of their race and ethnicity have answered their calling, served arduous apprenticeships, and then given us some of the greatest literature in the English language.” But as she listens to herself rehearse this rationale, Higgins hears herself reciting the standard liberal pluralist model: “Our country is made up of many wonderful and diverse peoples. We need to learn about as many of them as possible if we are to understand who we are as a people.” She hears Ravitch.

As she reads several of David Mura’s essays, her doubts about a liberal pluralist rationale for a multicultural approach to humanities education deepen. Mura is a Sansei, a third generation Japanese-American poet, writer, and political activist. He grew up in Chicago in an assimilationist family: eating American junk food, rooting for the Cubs, and identifying with G.I.s in movies about World War II. He writes: “Much of my life I had insisted on my Americanness, had shunned most connections with Japan, and felt proud I knew no Japanese. . .” (Turning Japanese 9).

But Higgins learns that the story of David Mura is the story of his complex evolution and his emergence as a writer for whom “the issues of race were central” (“Secrets” 19). As Mura married, became a father, steeped himself in multicultural literature, traveled to Japan, and established new literary reference groups, his assessments of himself as a Japanese-American changed markedly. As he began his journey to Japan, he questioned whether he had a stable, tangible identity at all. He writes: “I was constantly sinking into the foam of formlessness, a dissolving identity. . .” (Turning Japanese 32). As he matured as a multicultural writer and artist, he began an inner journey “to discover myself as a person of color, to discover the rage and pain that had formed my Japanese-American identity” (“Secrets” 21).

In one sense, Mura’s multiculturalism claims to be both a world-wide political movement and an historical, although denied, reality of American life. In the American context, it is the story of how and why the dominant white, middle class culture miseducates and distorts the individual and group identities of people of color. In part, Mura’s version of multiculturalism is a political movement whose goal is just compensation for property stolen from people of color during the history of the United States (“Strangers”).

But in another sense, Mura’s multiculturalism is an educational project in which teachers must be skilled at addressing issues of race and willing to do so. For students, it entails becoming readers who are knowledgeable about race and racism. Higgins begins to realize that becoming a multicultural reader is a more complicated, challenging process than Ravitch seemed to acknowledge. From Mura’s arguments, Higgins infers four principles for multicultural curriculum design and pedagogy.

First, one of the virtues of multicultural art is its capacity to “challenge the denials and comforts of being a member of a privileged group, whether that group be whites or men or heterosexuals or middle or upper class.” Multicultural texts offer a not very flattering mirror for readers sitting in comfortable social, economic and political positions. To avoid taking on these issues of privilege and denial is to rob multicultural art and literature of its force and power. To avoid the issues of race in multicultural literature and art is to miseducate students about what it means to read intelligently and sensitively.

Second, multicultural literature (and all literature) is political — addressing, tacitly or overtly, the relations between the powerful and powerless, society’s elites and the dispossessed. To read multiculturally is not just to begin to study a literary tradition, as Wolf suggests. It is to embark on an arduous investigation of the author’s cultural and political circumstances — the local, national and international settings in which the text was conceived, published, read and reviewed.

Such arguments [that all literature is political] are long and complex; to understand them completely requires numerous close readings of texts, along with forays into biography, sociology, history, economics, and any number of relevant areas. (Mura, “Multiculturalism” 60)

In reply to the charge that such an approach “reduces literature to sociology,” Mura replies: “But why should we regard such an approach as a reduction?” Multicultural literature presents white readers with the opportunity to see human suffering and their proximity to it more clearly through the development of what Mura calls an “empathic imagination” (“Multiculturalism” 72).

Third, multicultural art brings readers into a direct confrontation with the anger of the oppressed, and its potentially liberating power. Mura argues that the liberating process is “both long and complicated”:

one must first learn how liberating anger feels, then how intoxicating, then how damaging, and in each of these stages, the reasons for these feelings must be admitted and accurately described. (“Strangers” 21)

Higgins is ill-at-ease with the prospect of her classroom becoming an arena in which students of color vent their rage at their society, white students, and her. But on the other hand she is embarrassed to admit to herself that it never occurred to her to explore the anger of the Younger family as a central theme in Raisin. The pages bristle with anger at whites, each other, wealthy blacks, the ways in which their dreams have dried and festered. She wonders: “How will my students read that anger — its expression, and depth? How it is assigned and misplaced? How do I read it?”

Finally, the serious study of multicultural literature should not be read in a narrow context of national literature, since these works “confront lives which bear greater similarity to those in the Third World” (Mura, “Multiculturalism” 75). Higgins realizes that for the most part she had been assuming an American studies approach, even if she rejects Ravitch’s democratic experiment framework. But now she pauses, and considers the role and character of Joseph Asagai, the Nigerian student so smitten with Beneatha. She realizes that she can only get at the issues of political hope and despair, historical progress and reaction so central to the play by a close treatment of his character.

There is irony for Higgins in Mura’s claim that multicultural literature can fulfill the white liberal need for hope, “the need to find some link with people of color.” On the one hand he argues that “whites must exchange a hope based on naiveté and ignorance for one based on knowledge.” But on the other, his writings are filled with examples of well-meaning, well-educated white liberals who are unwilling or unable to “face their whiteness” (“Multiculturalism” 64).

Mura’s own sense of hope seems very precarious to Higgins. At one moment he has boundless confidence in the power of multicultural literature to rid society of racism. Of the successful political and educational efforts to gain reparations for Japanese-Americans illegally interned during the Second World War, Mura writes: “If every American child had read Yellow Light by Garrett Hongo or No-No Boy by John Okada or other works by Japanese-American authors, such education would not have had to occur.” But in the next moment, he claims that the de facto segregation of American society “keeps whites from having to confront directly and intimately the lives, views and emotions, of people of color” (“Multiculturalism” 75).

Higgins realizes that she can embrace Mura’s literary agenda by teaching about the politics in Raisin without publicly endorsing his political agenda of compensation. She’s uncomfortable with the idea of tying her developing vision for a multicultural curriculum to a specific political goal. And she anticipates having enough to do by way of unfolding the complexities of Asagai’s character and his role in the play.

She writes in her notes: “Re-read Achebe’s Things Fall Apart ahd Fugard’s Master Harold . . . and the boys. Get a hold of Studs Terkel’s Race: How Blacks and Whites Feel About the American Obsession.”

The Critical Pedagogy of Maxine Greene

Higgins knows that Maxine Greene is a philosopher of education, but she is trying not to hold that against her. Higgins had several required courses in philosophy of education as both an undergraduate and a graduate student — each more ponderous and pointless than the last. But Greene does not seem to write, think, or even experience in the same way as her colleagues in the profession. Yes, she can ramble on about Plato, Rousseau, and Dewey. But she seems especially skilled and insightful about the poetry of Wallace Stevens and Marianne Moore; the novels of Walker Percy and Alice Walker; the prose of Frederick Douglass and Carol Gilligan.

Greene’s vision of humanities education goes beyond the study of literary texts to include music, painting, film, and dance. She argues: “they [these art forms] have the capacity to defamiliarize experience: to begin with the overly familiar and transfigure it into something different enough to make those who are awakened hear and see” (Dialectic 129). Higgins remembers the battles for the record player in the Younger household and wonders if it would be a good idea to approach some of the identity issues by having her students examine the clash of musical tastes. What attracts Higgins is Greene’s audacious commitment to using the humanities to illuminate and clarify issues of educational theory and practice.

Greene’s vision for humanities education is informed by her cultural and political critique of American society in the late twentieth century, in what she calls “this peculiar and menacing time.” In part her critique addresses systemic problems of corporate capitalism: “there are unwarranted inequities, shattered communities, unfulfilled lives.” But she is equally concerned about the ineffective responses to these inequities and oppressions; the failure of our institutions to offer anything but “technical answers.” On a personal and community level, she is disturbed by how easily and thoroughly Americans have accommodated themselves to the “Complacency and malaise; upward mobility and despair,” that surrounds them. In her words: “no population has ever been so deliberately entertained, amused, and soothed into avoidance, denial, and neglect” (“In Search” 439).

In its simplest expression Greene’s critical pedagogy is an education about and for freedom. It is a way of organizing curricula and classrooms, reading texts, initiating and sustaining dialogue which allows students to discover a variety of cultural and political oppressions, and to imagine how greater degrees of freedom might be achieved. In Greene’s words:

Perhaps we might begin by releasing our imaginations and summoning up the traditions of freedom in which most of us were reared. We might make audible again the recurrent calls for justice and equality. We might reactivate the resistance to materialism and conformity. We might even try to inform with meaning the desire to educate “all the children” in a legitimately “common school.” (“In Search” 441)

Higgins is stirred by these words. Here is a woman after Beneatha’s own heart. Critical pedagogy is less a set of principles than an approach — a process of teaching students how to name problems, imagine alternatives, and embrace a commitment to be faithful to their imaginings.

In many places Higgins finds that Greene’s critical pedagogy is restrained and self-conscious, inviting students into a process of thinking while protecting them from manipulation — even by their teacher. Greene’s memorable teachers “were able to communicate, by the way they handled their materials or gave assignments or spoke with us, the idea that people actually begin to learn when they begin to teach themselves” (“How Do We Think” 59).

Education about freedom begins in the recognition of the myriad ways in which we oppress each other, violate each other’s dignity as people. It attempts to convey to innocent students and respond to students who know all too well “what it must be like to be made into an object by another human being” (Greene, Dialectic 104). What makes this step so difficult — both politically and educationally — is the fact that this subjugation thrives when the oppressed have internalized the oppressors’ image of themselves. But this moment of recognition can be made by students who read about literary characters and historical figures who have spoken the truth, named their oppressors, identified the ways in which their self-images have been distorted, their senses of self-esteem disfigured. Higgins finds this framework compelling, but she also has her doubts: “Is every grievance an oppression? Is Mama oppressing Ruth when she meddles in her rearing of Travis? If not, what is a teacher to do with interfamilial tensions and conflicts of this sort?”

Education about freedom ends in praxis in “intentionally organized collaborative action to repair what is felt to be missing, or known to be wrong” (“In Search” 439). This is why reading imaginative literature is so important for Greene. In her words: “The idea is to challenge awed passivity or a merely receptive attitude or a submergence in pleasurable reverie.” Literary characters can serve as models for students in that they are both “straggling for moments of wide-awakeness” (“What Happened” 52–53). Greene’s critical pedagogy challenges students to name the voids in their lives, imagine a transcendent vision, then move collectively toward the creation of alternatives: “spaces of freedom.”

Higgins finds that her reservations about Greene’s education for freedom are similar to Gerald Graff’s concerns about the ideas of other advocates of critical literacy and pedagogy. The unaddressed question of the cultural left, in Graff’s view is this: “what is to be done with those constituencies which do not happen to agree with them that social transformation is the primary goal of education? In a democratic culture, planning a curriculum inevitably means organizing ideas and approaches that you often do not like very much” (“Teach the Conflicts,” 70). Higgins thinks that Graff has a good point. She asks: “Even if I embrace critical pedagogy as an individual professional, can I justify it as the organizing principle for the entire humanities curriculum?”

As Higgins sets Greene aside it occurs to her that the culture warriors are really fighting over what, for lack of a better name, she calls value venues. Higgins thinks of value venues as the cultural and political locations in which certain values arise, are maintained, debated, contested, and revised. In her experience there are many different kinds of value venues: intrapersonal, interpersonal, intergenerational, intracultural, intercultural, intraracial and interracial, civic, international and on and on. Ravitch is most concerned about the national, political value venue. Mura is devoted to exploring intercultural and interracial value venues. Greene is more difficult to pin down, but she seems especially concerned with the community value venues, which inform public school theory and practice.

In Higgins’s view, each of the culture warriors is arguing for the supremacy of their value venue. Each is arguing that humanities curricula should privilege the concepts, issues, and debates of their favorite value venues. But Higgins is wary. She is inching up to the conclusion that a middle-school humanities curriculum should be arranged around a multiplicity, rather than a hierarchy of value venues.

The Brain Race of the Human Resource Educators

One scene from Raisin keeps flashing through Higgins’s mind. She winces every time she thinks about it. Walter Lee is needling George Murchison, Beneatha’s upper-middle-class suitor, for wasting his time at college. He demands that George tell him what he is learning at college: “How to take over and run the world? They teaching you how to run a rubber plantation or a steel mill? Naw — just to talk proper and read books. . .” (Hansberry 85). What was not clear to Walter Lee and many other people just after World War II is very clear to Higgins in 1993. The opposition between reading and doing, learning and working, studying and producing, knowing about books and running the world has evaporated. Still she knows that some of her students may believe in these oppositions as strenuously as Walter Lee. And with these concerns about the relationship between reading and working in mind, she turns to the writings of the human resource educators.

Higgins finds their relentless listing of various kinds of reading, knowledge, performance and skills gaps rather numbing. First, The National Commission on Excellence in Education conferred status on this group by highlighting reports of the gap between the reading skills of high school graduates and the instruction and safety manuals of corporations and the armed services (A Nation At Risk 9).

Then, George Bush’s America 2000 advanced the idea that American taxpayers had financed an expensive performance gap, claiming that between 1981 and 1991, the nation increased its spending on education by 33 percent. He wrote: “and I don’t think there’s a person anywhere who would say — anywhere in the country — who would say that we’ve seen a 33 percent improvement in our schools’ performance” (3).

Most recently, there is concern about the reading gaps between American and the foreign students who will one day make up the work force of competing economies. Stevenson and Stigler found a disproportionate number of weak readers among American fifth graders. One third of the Americans, as compared to 12 percent of the Chinese and 21 percent of the Japanese, were reading at the third grade level (48). Furious, Higgins wonders: “What really is the point of all of this American student and teacher bashing?”

The point, according to Ray Marshall and Marc Tucker, is that the most serious national crisis of the late twentieth century is our lack of economic and educational competitiveness. Unlike many of their competitors, American businesses have been slow or completely unable to move from a mass production to a human-resource form of capitalism. In Thinking for a Living: Work, Skills and the Future of the American Economy, Marshall and Tucker argue that the decline of mass-production economies places a premium on workers, and firms that know how to learn from their competition. In a global economy driven by high technology, productivity, and quality products, the education of the work force becomes a key factor. In their words: “The successful firm is the firm that organizes itself as a learning system in which every part is designed to promote and accelerate both individual learning and collective learning — and to put that learning to productive use.” In their estimation only 5% of American firms are responding to this challenge by embracing both high-performance work organization and Total Quality principles (Marshall and Tucker 102, 103).

Higgins has trouble simply dismissing the concerns and arguments of this group. She knows that the parents of some of her students are laid-off routine production workers with marginal literacy skills. She would consider herself a failure if any of her students lost opportunities, or jobs, because of their inability to read in the work place. Higgins asks herself some hard questions: “Will my students read well enough to hold high-skill, high-pay jobs in organizations facing international competition? Does that mean I should direct all of my energies to trying to build a better work force for the nation’s corporations? If it is true they are spending 200 billion dollars annually on training, why shouldn’t I give up on humanities education and go to work for them?” (Eurich 18). She decides she needs to know exactly what they are proposing.

She is not surprised to find ambivalence about humanities education among the human resource educators, but she is frightened by how narrowly some of them have defined reading. In June of 1991, then Secretary of Labor, Lynn Martin issued What Work Requires of Schools, the recommendations of The Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS). Reading is designated in the report as a “basic skill,” rather than a “thinking skill” or a “personal quality” — all part of the foundation of a competent worker of the future. But as Higgins sees how reading is described, she decides a more accurate label would be “highly specialized sub-skill.” Martin informs parents and teachers that “all employees will have to read well enough to understand and interpret diagrams, directories, correspondence, manuals, records, charts, graphs, tables and specifications.” Higgins groans; she knows “High Tech Business English,” when she sees it.

But what Higgins finds most inexplicable and ironic is that Martin’s notions of “thinking skills” and “personal qualities” are by no means minimalist and narrow. When employees think, they should do so creatively, know how to learn, and employ reasoning, so that they make decisions and solve problems. Among their personal qualities, Martin lists “responsibility, self-esteem, sociability, self-management and integrity/honesty.” What she does not explain is how young people will achieve any of these lofty skills and qualities, if all they are reading is reams of corporate correspondence. “Integrity/Honesty” is defined as “chooses ethical courses of action.” The possibility that students might learn about ethical courses of action by studying the moral quandaries of literary characters seems to be lost on Martin (What Work Requires of Schools xvi, xvii).

But Higgins perseveres and does find two human resource educators who advocate a core curriculum of rather traditional humanities texts. David Kearns, former Chairman and CEO of Xerox, and Denis Doyle, Senior Research Fellow at the Hudson Institute published Winning the Brain Race: A Bold Plan to Make Our Schools Competitive in 1991. For Kearns and Doyle, the problem is that “We are producing a generation of young Americans that neither understands nor appreciates our democratic society” (85). As Higgins reads, she realizes that they are never clear about whether they want teachers to emphasize the “understanding” part or the “appreciating” part.

Kearns and Doyle place three sets of values on their curricular agenda — democratic, citizenship and workplace. Workplace values are summed up in three words: “Punctuality, neatness, and civility” (97). The problem, she decides, is that they can’t make up their minds whether they want students to “learn values,” or learn how to think critically about values. In her experience, critical thinking does not necessarily yield appreciation for the ideas under consideration — or even for critical thinking itself.

Then there is the issue of their curiously self-defeating pedagogy. They write: “To know something about the great documents of citizenship is a prerequisite to assuming one’s duties and enjoying the opportunities of citizenship.” Later they write: “The key here is exposure” (Kearns and Doyle 100, 102).

“Exposure” makes Higgins gag. “This is the problem with these half-hearted efforts to teach everything. They all aim too low, at a smattering of this and that, as though the whole point was to have students who would hold up their end of a conversation by saying: ‘Oh yeah, I heard of that.’ They are content to raise awareness, sensitize, expose, but not to help students understand.” She finds herself siding with Wolf: “Don’t expose! Teach fewer works for deeper understanding.”

In the end, Higgins is left with two troubling conclusions. On the one hand she is certain that the human resource educators have little to offer someone trying to conceptualize a humanities curriculum. On the other, she worries that they may prevail in their attempts to shape the American curriculum. As she reads Secretary of Labor Robert Reich’s The Work of Nations, she feels a mixture of envy and loathing for America’s “symbolic analysts” — “those who solve, identify and broker new problems,” and who, unlike the other four-fifths of the American work force, are “succeeding in the world economy” (208).

The education of symbolic analysts consists of the development and refinement of four basic skills: abstraction, system thinking, experimentation and collaboration. These are the skills, so Reich argues, taught at the nation’s best schools and colleges to the nation’s most affluent young people. He criticizes “the compartmental fallacy” of most schools because it obscures a student’s vision of large, complicated systems of problems. The teachers of symbolic analysts do not practice the compartmental fallacy. Symbolic analysts “are taught to examine why the problem arises and how it is connected to other problems” (Reich 229, 231). Higgins is ambitious for her students; she wants them to have these skills, and she thinks Walter Lee would want them too.

But the other side of Reich’s success story evokes no admiration. Higgins learns that it is these same symbolic analysts who are destroying public school systems around the country by retreating into their private residential communities and taking all of their tax dollars with them. In Reich’s words:

. . . symbolic analysts are quietly seceding from the large and diverse publics of America into homogeneous enclaves, within which their earnings need not be redistributed to people less fortunate than themselves. (268)

The human resource educators have not provided Higgins with any governing principles or organizational frameworks. But in a curious and circuitous way, they have allowed her to see more deeply into Raisin. She returns to the themes of work and underemployment, social class and social mobility, poverty and the trappings of being middle class that are critical to Walter Lee’s anger and ambition. She returns to the words of Mama: “My husband always said being any kind of a servant wasn’t a fit thing for a man to have to be. . . . And my boy is just like him — he wasn’t meant to wait on nobody” (Hansberry 103). Higgins writes in her notebook: “Reread the testimony of workers in the ‘Cleaning Up’ section of Studs Terkel’s Working.”

The Claims of Visual Literacy

It did not take Higgins long to learn what she had been suspecting: that the heat and fury of the “Which values?” debate is matched, if not exceeded by that of the “Which medium?” debate. For Higgins the issue becomes: To what extent should our humanities program make use of film, and television to develop visual literacy at a time when many of our students are reading so infrequently, with such disinterest, and with such weak skills? Higgins answers without hesitancy: “very little.” For every single hour of pleasure reading her students do, they watch 10 hours of television. Higgins’s dream is to reverse this ratio, not make it worse. “Why should I spend my time indulging the habits of the overindulged?”

The complication is that Higgins loves both the Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee and the American Playhouse films of Raisin, and intends to show parts of one or both of them in class. And so she wonders how she can justify this use of class time to her colleagues, the parents of her students and herself. The last thing she wants is a snide remark from a math or science teacher: “Oh so that’s what the humanities are — having a VCR baby-sit your students.” And, of course, there are the larger questions of if and how to use the other visual forms of popular culture: political cartoons, music videos, advertisements, magazines, video games?

In her heart of hearts, Higgins thinks that Neil Postman is right. Television has caused the reading crisis by insinuating the criterion of entertainment so deeply into our culture, we are, to use his phrase, “amusing ourselves to death.” In his words: “Books, it would appear, have now become an audio-visual aid” (Postman 153). But she also finds herself in agreement with the views of those, such as former Chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities Lynne Cheney, who argues that Postman’s position is unduly pessimistic. In Humanities in America, she expressed confidence that there were a variety of successful programs and approaches that use the “image to increase appreciation for the word” (Cheney 20).

The most successful program, in Higgins’s estimation, is the new PBS television series “Ghostwriter.” She is very impressed with the work of Colette Daiute, the series’ senior educational adviser. She finds little to argue with in Daiute’s description of “Ghostwriter’s” stories, and their possible benefits for her students:

They [the episodes] involve plots that center around such problems as injustice, clashing points of view, and poverty, and they include such varied interests as comics, video games, and friendship. The characters approach text confidently and resourcefully, while acting pretty much like real kids. Since these mystery stories hinge on reading and writing, viewers become involved with literacy as they become involved in the character and plots. (Daiute 42)

Higgins wonders why there are so few books and bookcases on the sets of “Ghostwriter,” but she is grateful to be able to recommend at least one show to her students and their families. Still she has her own dilemma to work out. She decides she needs a clearer understanding of exactly what visual literacy is.

In their book Visual Messages: Integrating Imagery and Instruction, David Considine and Gail Haley define visual literacy as “the ability to comprehend and create information that is carried and conveyed through imagery” (14, 15). Higgins has reservations about both halves of the definition. On the “comprehension” side, she is not convinced that this is as serious a problem as Considine and Haley suggest. In their view, children and adolescents can be easily manipulated by visual media and have a difficult time distinguishing image from reality. They report the case of a 14-year-old who allegedly poisoned two of her friends after viewing the movie Heathers. They conclude:

Although such instances are rare, they demonstrate how impressionable young people can be. Adults who are trying to help young people deal with the pressures and problems associated with substance abuse, sexual experimentation, and other issues cannot afford to ignore the allure and social sanction often afforded by the silver screen. (Considine and Haley 190)

But from Higgins’s perspective this argument, its implied threat aside, does not add up to an endorsement of a visual literacy approach to the humanities. What it suggests to her is that she needs to continue to see teen movies, not teach them.

She finds the “creation” side of the definition more plausible, but still not convincing. Yes, she agrees that her students need facility with a wide range of communications skills and media. Nor does she have a quarrel with Considine and Haley’s list: photographs, cartoons, advertisements, computer programs and videotapes. Yes, she agrees that a humanities curriculum should include them. But still she wonders: Isn’t this the responsibility of our art teacher? My business is imagery created through words; hers is imagery created in other ways. She will make a point of asking the art teacher if she could design an art project connected to the characters, setting, themes or props of Raisin.

Higgins is of two minds about Considine and Haley’s other ideas and classroom suggestions as well. Yes, she thinks it is important to challenge stereotypes, myths and factual distortions in movies about historical events. No, she will not have the time to show Oliver Stone’s JFK in order to do that. Yes, having her students write an essay comparing Sidney Poitier’s interpretation of Walter Lee with Danny Glover’s would qualify as one of Wolf’s “performances of thought.” No, she does not think this is the kind of culminating project which brings her students to the heart of the play.

Visual Messages actually contains analysis and suggestions for teaching the original film version of Raisin. Higgins finds thus section the most disappointing of all. Raisin is described as “essentially a Black film in which Whites are only incidental to the plot.” Teachers are instructed to have students “make a list” of the “difficult conditions” the Youngers live in, find evidence of Walter Lee’s many prejudices, and discuss what they think the Younger family should do in the face of this [Lindner’s] opposition” (Considine and Haley 227–8). As Higgins reads this, Mura’s point about how difficult it is for white liberals to face their whiteness becomes more forceful and disturbing.


As Higgins pauses in her reading, she is filled with misgivings. She is bothered by the question: “What have I really learned that will make me a better teacher?” After weeks of reading, she is haunted by a Robert Coles quotation: “the humanities do not begin in a student’s reading experience, but in our lives — the moral preparation we bring to school, to our reading experience” (32). Now, halfway through the summer, she has to face the fact that she knows nothing more about the “moral preparation” her students will bring to school than she did back in May.

She also realizes how much she has been taking for granted. She has assumed that once again her new students will find her likable, fair, caring, organized, interesting, smart and clear. In other words, she has assumed that her students, at least at the outset, will give her the benefit of the doubt, follow her lead, give her a chance to teach them. She has temporarily forgotten the warnings in Herbert Kohl’s I Won’t Learn From You! Kohl wrote that many children cope with school through the conscious strategy of “not-learning,” convinced as they are that learning the teacher’s version of the truth “can sometimes destroy you”(10). After all of this reading, she does not even know how she will explain and justify her humanities curriculum to her students. What will she say as she introduces Raisin on the first day?

She is tempted to adopt the humanities as tools metaphor, and let it go at that. She feels a strong need to put these books behind her, and get to her school, get into the community, and start meeting with colleagues, parents, and students. But she decides that the first step is to try to develop some consensus about a curricular direction among her colleagues. Right from the start she needs to present herself as a well-informed, self-aware leader, who is receptive to good ideas, insightful criticisms, and cogent arguments. Her plan is to present each of the six humanities curriculum frameworks — including her own — for discussion and debate.

She begins to rehearse her introductory speech to her colleagues: “What I would like to do this morning is lay out six different humanities frameworks, which we might adopt to guide us this year. I will be as candid as possible about my likes and dislikes, and it will not take you long to locate my biases, and to recognize my debts. I’m trusting that you will be as critical of the Higgins model, as I am of the others.”

“I’ve spent most of the summer reading and thinking about the frameworks of the culture warriors, various theorists of humanities education. At the outset, I assumed that I would find one best one, or be able to combine the best features of several of each. But then I concluded that the most appropriate framework for our students is one informed, but not overridden by theory. I reached the conclusion that what we need is a vision of our work which arises out of our reading of our humanities texts, rather than descending from on high. At that moment I realized that I was no longer a reading teacher. At that point I knew I had become a humanities professional, on an equal footing with the scholars and policy makers I had been reading. I realized that the culture warriors had won at least one battle: I had become one of them.”

In closing I’d like to say that I have tried to think of some way of being fair to George Murchison. But I’ve decided that I cannot abide his instrumental view of reading. I agree with Beneatha: “Mama, George is a fool — honest.”


1. To my knowledge, Ms. Higgins first became interested in educational theory in Jencks, “Whom Must We Treat Equally for Educational Opportunity to Be Equal?” Her dilemmas were frequently on my mind during the University of Minnesota Workshop of the ACLS Elementary and Secondary Schools Teacher Curriculum Development Project. Credit for whatever insights this paper holds is shared with my friends and colleagues from the seminar: Marcia Eaton, Michael Kennedy, Lyn Lacy, Mary Oberg, David Rathbun, John Ouellete-Howitz, Cynthia Rogers and Rohn Stewart. Responsibility for the paper’s shortcomings rests entirely with its author. [return to text]