The future of the Humanities in Secondary Education

International competitiveness, the demands of a high-skill, knowledge-based economy, and the global nature of technology-based industries, are all factors that have shaped the increasing prioritisation of STEM in UK government thinking in recent years. This trend has been sharpened by anxiety over international comparative data for pupil numeracy and scientific performance, resulting in significant policy and resourcing decisions, such as the establishment of Maths Hubs.

The prioritisation of STEM has also helped to inform the establishment of UTCs, and the setting up of centres that bridge and integrate knowledge between schools, colleges, universities and employers. STEM subjects have attracted specific bursaries for initial teacher training places, while subject knowledge enhancement provision is noticeably focused on these disciplines, reflecting the continuing challenges of recruiting and retaining suitably qualified graduates. Coding is now a feature of the curriculum in primary as well as secondary education, and the study of Artificial Intelligence will doubtless follow in due course. Schools are increasingly seeking to create new managerial and organisational carapaces to integrate coding, Engineering and computer-aided design with Maths, Physics, Chemistry and Biology, while the most fortunate are investing in new physical plant and technology to realise the anticipated synergies of integration.

This much-needed investment in, and focus on, science education is to be wholly welcomed, but it does pose important questions for the equilibrium of the educational culture of our schools and, more fundamentally, the relative value we attach to the acquisition of particular sets of knowledge and skills. In particular, we need to understand the potential impact of an increasing STEM focus on those subjects that are essentially text and language based, what we might term the “broader” Humanities, including English and MFL.

Two fundamental questions need addressing: why do we need the Humanities; and what is their future? In recent years a key rationale for the study of the Humanities has been founded on the proposition of ‘transferable skills’. This argument has much to commend it, as annually many thousands of Humanities students successfully embark on a variety of career and further or higher education pathways. Students of the humanities bring aptitudes and capabilities that are particularly developed through the study of text and language-based subjects, notably by the framing of argument and debate, critical questioning, close reading, analysis, evaluation and judgement.

But to justify the Humanities principally against a yardstick of utility to particular occupational sectors and economic activities is a very incomplete proposition. To truly understand the importance of the Humanities we need to take a step back and frame our understanding in terms of the dynamic interrelationship between the component disciplines and subjects. The Humanities are at their most powerful when the constituent disciplines and subject areas are integrated to enable us to form a textured, layered and multi-dimensional understanding of human experiences. Studying the Humanities helps us to bridge the interior domains of emotion, spirit, faith, imagination and understanding, and the external domains of political and social organisation, economic activity, and associational life in all its varieties – religious, familial, cultural, sporting and intellectual.

In the opening minutes of his 1969 television series Civilisation, Kenneth Clark turned to the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris with the words “What is civilisation? I don’t know. I can’t define it in abstract terms, yet I think I can recognise it when I see it.” It is through the study of the Humanities that we gain an understanding of civilisation – the endeavours of the human race to apply philosophy, culture, religion and structures of law and governance, as well as economic activity of all forms, to bring order to, and find meaning in, the shared experience of existence.

Inevitably, the Humanities will never command the same investment of resources and governmental attention as the Sciences. (The Sciences do of course need particular equipment and resources.) However, steps can and should be taken to ensure that the Humanities do not become marginalised in the future of secondary education. Action is required across two axes: the better integration of teaching and learning between subject areas within schools; and (as has been done for years in the sciences) the coordination of research and knowledge between groups of schools, universities and those vast treasuries of collective knowledge – our museums, libraries, archives and learned societies. We need Humanities Hubs as much as we need Maths Hubs.

The objective of de-siloing knowledge is not to dissolve individual academic disciplines (or indeed traditional timetables) with their distinct and valuable competencies and stores of knowledge, nor to sweep away established assessment systems, but rather to structure opportunities for cross-subject teaching and learning in as impactful a way as possible. In some respects this already happens (often unconsciously) in many schools – for example pupils in the same year studying the First World War in History, and the poetry that emerged from it in English.

But this is merely the beginning. What we really seek is an arcing effect in the mind of the student, when the mental spark leaps from the filament of their understanding of one subject, to that of the next. To achieve this we need more imaginative steps, to break down artificial barriers between humanities subjects by creating short courses, lecture series and online resources that explicitly integrate knowledge content. For example, Sixth Form students of subjects such as Philosophy, Economics, History or Politics should be accessing at least some material in a second language. The requirement of students taking the IB Diploma Programme to study a modern foreign language across both Years 12 and 13 brings considerable advantages here.

A more integrated approach to the Humanities would also present outstanding opportunities for professional collaboration, such as having two teachers from different subjects in the same classroom approaching a topic from different perspectives, or jointly moderating a pupil-led Harkness-style discussion on a common theme, or a teacher from a different subject delivering a whole-class or year-group lecture to another subject, e.g. an Economics lecture on the causes of the Great Depression for GCSE History students studying the crises of democracy of the early 1930s. The permutations of topics and themes is endless.

Many of these opportunities could be realised through collaboration between Heads of Department, but this could be facilitated more systematically by leadership decisions to create curriculum space – and allowing those subject leaders discretion and opportunities to shape collaborative projects. While cross-subject learning can be undertaken at any stage in schooling (and indeed seems to flourish in many primary schools) Sixth Form may be an advantageous environment for such projects, given the increased capacity for independent learning and potentially the greater availability of individual study time.

Due to the growing popularity of combined humanities/science and Liberal Arts degrees within the UK, students aspiring to such courses may increasingly demand exposure to such integrated subject combinations. Another structural way to facilitate integrated humanities study may also be through the creation of powerful Heads of Humanities Faculty roles, with a specific brief for enabling and coordination cross-subject learning. Tutor conversations, year-group talks and assemblies, especially at Sixth Form level, should include a poem or art work, or musical piece of the week.

A transformation in the Humanities cannot be achieved by schools acting individually, but will require a networked solution that combines both vertical integration across the secondary and tertiary tiers, and peer-to-peer school led alliances, of the type already seen in the Teaching School programme. Humanities Hubs could draw upon Britain’s extraordinary density of outstanding learned institutions – not only universities but also museums, libraries and subject institutions and professional bodies.

The increasing power of the digital humanities, especially through virtual reconstructive technologies, presents exciting opportunities to engage pupils in independent learning, as well as to remotely participate in master-classes and other teacher-led provision. The full breadth of the Humanities – including subjects such as Philosophy, Classics and Art History – could be made available to a far broader segment of the pupil population through imaginative and powerful uses of technology to counteract local shortages of expertise. Humanities Hubs could produce online content that could help to bridge the gap between Years 11-12, and also extension material for students in Years 12-13. Our most competitive-entry universities could build further on their existing outreach efforts to ensure that the Humanities do not become seen as ‘luxury’ disciplines for pupils from the best resourced schools.

Britain’s Museums, libraries, learned societies and professional bodies form a national intellectual treasury from whose riches we should draw more fully when delivering Humanities Education. I would like to see more samples from collections brought directly into schools for pupils to hold in their own hands. We also need Humanities equivalents to the perennially outstanding Royal Institution Christmas Lectures in subjects such as English literature, History, Art History and Philosophy. BBC Radio Four has blazed a trail with programmes such as Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time, and Neil Macgregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects, but we need more of these, including material tailored to the smaller screens that are the preferred platforms for senior school pupils.

It would be tempting to argue that the as the study of Humanities in schools is not fundamentally broken, then it does not need fixing. The popularity of some of the Humanities in terms of Sixth Form subject choices, and continuation to degree level study, may make this call to action seem redundant. However it is only through imaginative and collaborative responses that we can ensure the continuing vitality of the Humanities within the constraints of the present educational funding environment, and in the context of significant investment in the STEM subjects.

The Humanities have much to learn from the STEM subjects in terms of clearly articulating where they fit in the bigger picture of the nation’s future, and in the marshalling and deployment of material and intellectual resources across the sectors and tiers.  Although my argument is particularly concerned here with the Humanities, there is no less of an imperative to build in collaboration with the Sciences through the study of eras such as the 17th Century Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment.

The longer term dividend to be gained from a more integrated approach to the Humanities could be a higher quality of discourse and a greater respect for knowledge in our public sphere. The price to be paid for neglecting the Humanities could be a narrowed and diminished educational experience for future generations, and a society estranged from modes of thought and understanding which both complement and balance those derived from other, equally valuable, intellectual disciplines and frameworks.

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