What are the humanities?

What are the humanities?

Despite continuous crisis for half a century and increasing neglect in schools, qualifications in the humanities still represent ‘powerful knowledge’ to which all pupils should have access. The humanities occupy a special place in the public domain. The language of humanities subjects is that of everyday description and their areas of study reflect areas of public interest.

Although the boundaries of the humanities are porous and unstable, in the English curriculum the humanities are seen mainly as history, geography, citizenship .and religious education. These subjects are themselves subject to change and redefinition and often draw on the knowledge and methodologies of other disciplines such as the social sciences. Although the subjects that make up the humanities are each underpinned by distinct concepts and processes, they share a common focus. Humanities subjects share:

  1. a focus on what it means to be human, the interaction between humans in different spatial and temporal contexts and the consequences and human experience of these interactions
  2. an approach to the study of their subject matter which focuses on the understanding of meaning, purposes and goals and a methodology which is primarily analytical, and speculative.

The importance of the humanities

Humanities subjects’ claim to entitlement status rests on their importance in preparing pupils for life in contemporary society, in particular through:

  • the development of identity, a sense of who we are and how our collective past, environment, belief systems and social institutions make us the people we are;
  • an understanding of the causes and consequences of actions and the development and functioning of social institutions;
  • providing the concepts and knowledge to investigate, understand and reach conclusions about key local, national and global issues;
  • the use of a methodology which is both analytical and speculative, and promotes a way of thinking which helps us to make sense of the world in all its complexity.

Humanities in the curriculum

the humanities draw on a range of disciplines, all of which have a valid claim to contribute to an understanding of human experience. These disciplines have their own concepts, ways of seeing the world, consistency and coherence. The practicalities of the curriculum mean that not all can be included as part of a core entitlement for pupils although without all an understanding of human experience is weakened. A curriculum for the humanities should therefore:

  • provide a clear statement of the aims and purposes of the humanities as a core entitlement to guide curriculum provision at each stage of education;
  • respect  the consistent development of the concepts and knowledge of individual humanities subjects;
  • provide flexibility for schools to design their own curriculum provision which meets the core humanities entitlement, reflecting their context and stage of provision;
  • ensure that curriculum provision includes the broadest possible coverage of humanities subjects, allowing for later increasing specialisation.

Knowledge and understanding in the humanities

In no other subject area is the problem of defining content more obvious than in the humanities.  We reject simplistic solutions which at one extreme reject the importance of knowledge and replace it with skills, and at the other seek to provide a detailed selection of knowledge claiming to be all-inclusive or timelessly essential. Humanities content should be based around broad themes together with a clear focus on the core concepts from those subjects. These themes should:

  • be focused on the core functions of the humanities;
  • enable humanities subjects and their concepts to be delivered with consistency;
  • allow schools and teachers flexibility to create a curriculum meting the needs of their context and phase.