In the late 20th century, secondary public school education in the U.S. experienced a movement away from the traditional liberal arts focus to the functionality of hard science and mathematics. The emphasis shifted from a well-rounded education to the provision of skill. Biology and algebra were stressed over history and music. When this trend was coupled with fiscal budget difficulties, as often happened in urban settings, the humanity programs experienced cuts in the face of expanded spending on the more "useful" skills such as computer literacy and business programs. Further, with the specialization that developed in the modern curriculum, various departments within schools became isolated from one another. Topics were taught out of context, creating a "skill and drill" atmosphere that divorced students from the general conceptual issues lying behind their newly acquired skills. The purpose of education became lost in day-to-day practice.
In Los Angeles, California, the state educational system created Humanitas to address this problem. Specifically, Humanitas is an environment in which public school humanity teachers form interdisciplinary teams and are entrusted with the education of a specific group of students for a whole year. They are provided minimal administrative resources with which to act, including scheduled meeting times, some materials, and access to "teacher centers" in which experienced teams coach and advise them. The purpose is to bring a concept-structured curriculum of literature, philosophy, history, and fine arts to the urban student and create an atmosphere of interdisciplinary understanding.
The Humanitas curriculum is significantly different from its counterpart in the traditional setting. Students write frequently and at length: there are no short-answer tests. They read and study human artifacts such as books, poems, and paintings; there are no textbooks. They experience teachers interacting within an academic setting. As the teachers teach the same or similar material from different perspectives, sometimes in the same classroom, students see adults disagreeing and being the better for it. Instead of creating an escalating conflict, students draw interest and understanding from controlled disagreement. Students in the Humanitas program also note that teachers now recognize them as whole persons, not merely for their performance in this or that subject, but overall in their acquisition of conceptual ideas.
Yet, in some ways the classrooms are the same. Students are intentionally recruited to represent a cross-section of the system's population, which means, in L.A., underprivileged, poor, minority (mostly Hispanic) kids with dismal educational prospects. The costs of the program are also the same as the conventional education in the L.A. system.
In teacher training, Humanitas has structured a number of activities, all directed by practicing teachers. One activity is a two-week summer academy, with stipend, that features both university and Humanitas teachers presenting topical issues in the humanities. It also introduces teams of teachers to model interdisciplinary lessons and allows the exchange of promising practices and appropriate materials across schools. Another Humanitas activity is the construction of Academic Alliances, built with different institutions of higher learning to facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration between university and high school faculties.
The outcome of the program has been an increase in students' ability to synthesize ideas and to organize essays around concepts accompanied by a decrease in the dropout rate. These students now recognize the purpose of education, and despite the higher workload that characterizes the system, the new atmosphere has created interest, ambition, improvement, and understanding. Teachers also appear more satisfied with their work environment and believe that Humanitas has given them more opportunity to develop their talents and to innovate. Rooted in the conviction that all students need to understand their world and will perform well when they have good reason, Humanitas is revitalizing education in Los Angeles.