Why the Humanities Matter in K-12 Education

America is finally trying to take the necessary steps to address our growing educational deficit — recent studies showing that American students are falling behind their peers in other countries have made education a priority once again (or at least made K-12 education a politically valuable topic). Most of this renewed effort, however, has been focused on STEM — science, technology, engineering, mathematics — education. What’s left out, in almost every high-level discussion of the future of education, are the beleaguered humanities: underfunded, underappreciated, and undervalued.

Many prominent authors, writers, and intellectuals have noticed this trend and spoken out against it, noting that just because the value of the humanities is not measurable in terms of economic output, that doesn’t mean they don’t have value. You may not be able to build a rocketship or program a network with a keen understanding of Proust or your deep understanding of Picasso’s blue period, but that doesn’t mean that studying those things isn’t important to the overall process of creating them. The humanities, especially now that they are under threat, are more important than ever to K-12 education.4489006272_d64bae672e_o

Reading and Writing Skills Create Effective Communicators

The most fundamental and essential advantages that humanities education provides are proficiency and skill in reading, writing, and critical thinking. Even the most advanced mathematicians and scientists, your Beautiful Mind types, still need to be able to communicate their ideas effectively and absorb the contributions of others. One cannot gain a truly deep understanding of the intricacies of the English language and the nuances of writing a compelling essay or giving a persuasive speech without having read, discussed, and understood the great writers and orators who came before.

K-12 students, no matter how brilliantly adept they are at math and science, need exposure to great writing and great literature in order to develop the skills necessary to succeed in the modern workplace. Government agencies, research labs, and Fortune 500 companies alike consider good communication an essential tool in achieving their goals. A panel at the Oxford Biotech Roundtable went as far as to say that “Hopefully in the future a module in communication will be a prerequisite for any science undergraduate, to ensure that we can help the public and policy-makers to keep up with our ever-changing understanding of the world.” The meritocracy still hinges on you being able to present and sell yourself well, and for that you’ll need the right words and phrases.

The Humanities Produce Creative Problem Solvers

Employers may be looking for STEM candidates to fill their increasingly technically positions, but at the same time they are beginning to recognize just how important creativity is to a successful business. Creative solutions and creative people are trendy, exciting, and valuable in the modern workplace, and how better to teach students creativity than by exposing them to art, literature, music, movies, and culture?

Students often don’t feel that they are creative, or complain that they lack artistic talent, but creating art is just one of a myriad of ways of participating in a creative world. By appreciating, understanding, and discussing creative works, students participate in the conversation and learn to express themselves creatively, improving their critical thinking skills and their problem solving capacity.

Creativity is an essential tool for professional success, and it’s hard to overestimate its value in the workplace — a survey of 1500 CEOs identified creativity as the most important leadership competency for the future. In a world of increasing complexity, being able to think outside the box is crucially important.

Knowledge of the Past Creates Good Citizens and Leaders

It might be old-fashioned, but historically, one of the most important elements of humanities education was preparing students to be good citizens. Essential to a thriving and healthy democracy is an engaged and informed electorate, and without a solid understanding of history, philosophy, and even classics and literature, it is difficult to truly understand American politics.

How can we expect our students to be good modern citizens if they do not know about the three-fifths compromise or the Trail of Tears or the French and Indian War? How can they understand what our Founding Fathers really believed in without having read the Federalist Papers or Common Sense?

Furthermore, how can anyone expect to understand the Israel-Palestine conflict and the War on Terror without knowing about colonialism and the partition of the Middle East after World War II? This isn’t an abstract concept either, it’s fundamentally important to a healthy democracy. After schools were desegregated in 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that “education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society.”

Whether it’s reading To Kill a Mockingbird and 1984, seeing a depiction of Washington crossing the Delaware, or learning about the philosophy of Locke and Paine, the humanities play a crucial role in helping students become informed, conscientious, engaged citizens.

Students Participating in Humanities are More Engaged in Academics as a Whole

Even if you’re not sold on the academic benefits of giving K-12 students a solid education in the humanities, there are plenty of other benefits to teaching art, history, and literature to young learners.

Humanitas, a part of a nationwide network called CHART — Collaboratives for Humanities and Arts Teaching — seeks to help at-risk students by providing them with a well-rounded and comprehensive education that focuses on the humanities. In addition to exposing the students to high art, quality literature, and deep history, the programs provided for by CHART have proven benefits to the schools that include them.

In programs like these, students who don’t enjoy school or struggle to find a reason to be involved are given an opportunity to deal with important issues and think critically about complicated questions. Students are given an opportunity to think and discuss relevant source material and topics like: What are the roots of prejudice? How much should we be guided by reason and how much by emotion? How can we deal with problems of scarcity? Many students who struggle in math and science found themselves engaged in heated debates on humanities subjects. According to a preliminary study, “Students in interdisciplinary Humanitas classes read better, write better, think more critically, attend school more often, drop out less, and go on to post-secondary education more frequently than their counterparts in traditional classes.”

Humanities Matter in K-12 Schools

There is a reason that the humanities have always been a core element of educational curriculum — even though these studies can’t always be directly correlated to an economic benefit, the advantage, and indeed the necessity, of teaching the humanities in K-12 education is clear.

Humanities education is a public good — it enriches the individual, but it also enriches us as a society, adds diversity of thought and sparks creativity, and helps create good citizens, neighbors, workers, and employers. It’s what America was built on, and it should be an important part of the future we build as well.


Robert Guthrie is a Thesis contributor; holds a BA in history from Colorado College and MA in history from Portland State University.

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