Sunday, September 15, 2013

Humanities at Newark Academy

This summer, I was asked to write a brief introduction to the Humanities Department, which I chair, for Newark Academy parents. Below is the text of my essay.

I am often asked what distinguishes Newark Academy’s department of Humanities from the departments of History one finds at many other schools. Names have power, and Humanities not only reflects the aspirations and intentions of my colleagues and me but also shapes our daily approach in the classroom. Surely, history maintains its proper role as an essential element of our Humanities program; helping students develop a deep knowledge of the human past is fundamental to our work. Our program, however, seeks to inspire an understanding of and appreciation for human civilization more broadly.

In our courses, both in the middle and upper schools, we seek to help students examine the human experience using the tools not only of the historian but also of the anthropologist, the sociologist, the political scientist, the economist, the geographer, and the philosopher. We encourage students to consider their own cultural heritage, to wrestle with universal questions, to grasp the importance of the arts, to examine political, social and moral issues, to articulate their ideas clearly in writing and in speech, and to develop the faculties of sense and of intellect that give richness and meaning to their lives. These modes of thinking and skills infuse our curriculum and are often more important than the particular content of any given course.

Last year, I witnessed a perfect illustration of this approach while visiting a 9th grade Ancient World class. The students had been studying Ancient Greece and had just read a translation of Pericles’ Funeral Oration, in which the great Athenian statesman remembers his fallen countrymen and their cause. During the class session, the students analyzed the speech in light of their study of Ancient Greece, observing how it reflected Greek thought during the classical period. Midway through the discussion, the teacher projected the text of the Gettysburg Address and asked the students to compare and contrast the content and structure of Lincoln’s speech with Pericles’. It was exciting to observe the conversation as students made thoughtful connections between these speeches and came to see both in a new light. The last part of the discussion focused on a question about the state of contemporary American political rhetoric, a provocative topic to which the students brought an erudite perspective.

Moments like this occur regularly in our Humanities courses. On any given day, you might find 6th grade students discussing the philosophy of Adam Smith, 7th grade students developing theses on the causes of the American Civil War, 8th grade students delivering oral presentations on Japanese aesthetics, 9th grade students learning about Islamic architecture and arabesque design in medieval Spain, 10th grade students analyzing Frederick Douglass’s autobiography, 11th grade students comparing historical interpretations of the Cold War, and 12th grade students evaluating Aristotelian ethics. Throughout, you would find students actively engaged in the learning process and outstanding teachers demonstrating passion for the subject and concern for individual student development.

If we have done our jobs well, when students leave Newark Academy they are well on their way to becoming young adults who have a deep appreciation for the complexities of the human experience, who can think critically about questions of pressing concern to humanity, and who can articulate their ideas in writing and in speech. While we can proudly measure our success by the graduates who report their personal accomplishments in college and beyond, a more significant yardstick is the role that Newark Academy alumni play in service to their communities and to society at large. 

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