Last updated on June 11, 2021
A past version of this article cited two male Humanities teachers, Jeremy S. and Curtis H., even though the Humanities department is composed of 16 teachers, 10 of whom are women. This was a case of consulting the people who were most available to me, but in the process I neglected the perspectives of women in the Humanities department, including the department chairs for the 2020-2021 school year, some of whom have been at Northwest significantly longer than either of the male faculty I interviewed. Gender discrimination is very much present at Northwest and I neglected this issue by rushing an important article and overlooking women who are very well qualified to speak on behalf of the Humanities department. I have removed Jeremy S. from this article to focus primarily on the new department chair. As a female-identifying person myself, this was an important reminder to always be on the lookout for gender discrimination at this school and beyond, both intentional and unintentional. I urge everyone else to do the same. For more information, I hope you will check out this article by Ceci O. ‘21 about toxic masculinity at Northwest.
Over the past year, in the wake of last summer’s protests, schools all over the country have begun to acknowledge that white supremacy and settler-colonialism are woven into historically white institutions, and that private schools are often founded on some form of elitism. Northwest is both a private school and a historically white institution, so, obviously, these forces of white supremacy are present here too. Specifically, the Humanities curriculum directly speaks to the social justice orientation of the school’s mission so it has often been a focal point for criticism and political backlash from parents, students, and administration. Because new teachers often have a unique perspective on the school, I spoke with the incoming Humanities department chair, Curtis H, about the history of Humanities at Northwest, the work that has and continues to be done to ‘decolonize’ the curriculum and the department, and the plans for next year.
In recent years humanities faculty members noticed, in particular, the underrepresentation of BIPOC authors in the Humanities department across all grades. From here, faculty initiated an effort to audit and revise the curriculum with the goal of decentering whiteness and euro-centric historical narratives. They were also aware of the ways that Northwest delivers content and the need to hire more faculty of color. In many cases, it is white faculty who teach indigenous or Black history, for example. The faculty really tried to restructure the curriculum, including changing teaching texts. At this point, the large amount of momentum towards ‘decolonizing’ the curriculum prompted some backlash from (mostly) families as well as from faculty within the department – this was not necessarily a conflict between veteran and new teachers, but generated a healthy debate on how to approach revising the scope and sequence of our curriculum. The school was criticized for focusing too much on social justice, and according to objectors, therefore neglecting ‘critical thinking,’ ‘classic’ literature, and ‘rigorous’ college prep education. This objection still happens, and when this criticism comes from families, the administration is somewhat caught in the middle: it must decide how to balance protecting teachers and working for private school parents.
Last summer, a group of students sent out a letter which outlined the steps Northwest must take in order for all students, especially QTBIPOC (Queer, Trans, Black, Indigenous, People of Color), to feel safe here. The letter specifically called out the Humanities department for portraying itself as diverse, while not not fully examining and reflecting on the work of WOC (women of color) and QTBIPOC authors. Students also asked, “Is the presence of a “classic” book worth the long lasting trauma and damaging ideals?” Many faculty in the Humanities department took the student letter as a strong reminder to always be self-analytical and constantly audit the curriculum to become more anti-racist. Another goal is to create a culture of real critical thinking and racial analysis, where students ask (of anything),“how is this perpetuating or fighting white supremacy/settler-colonialism?”
This past year was far from normal, and as we move into next year it’s a natural moment to re-examine the Humanities program at Northwest. For context, about 40% of the Humanities curriculum for each grade was cut during the 2020-2021 school year because of remote learning (there were simply less hours of class time) – entire texts were struck out. This was apparently a point of tension within the department as teachers decided what to cut and what to keep.
Recently, there has been a lot of faculty turnover, which means there are lots of new ideas in the room. This was Curtis H’s first year at Northwest, and he is the incoming department chair for next year. I spoke with him about his perception of Humanities at Northwest and his goals for the future (I edited his responses a bit for clarity).
I know a bit about the history of the Humanities department and efforts to make the curriculum less white-people-centric. How would you describe your experience with the Humanities department over the past year and the work you have been doing?
The Humanities department at Northwest is very similar to departments all over the country, including universities, and it’s really responsive. The ‘Humanities’ concept at Northwest has always been unique, and it has always been socially justice minded. But the definition of social justice has changed over time and it is the department’s responsibility to assess the different definitions of social justice that are present at any given time. There are two main ways of creating a curriculum that is grounded in social justice: populating the curriculum with perspectives of minorities, and emphasizing structures of oppression, sometimes in order to contextualize books (e.g. teaching what white supremacy is). I think it is important to emphasize both, but the question is, how do we balance those two things? This is a source of healthy debate within the Humanities department. The second strand, in particular, can feel like hammering down constantly on violence, oppression, and hate. This has the potential to distract from the vibrant lives of the communities we are learning about.
Can you describe some of the conversations that have come up within the humanities department this year?
As a school, we are seeking the most diverse student body possible. So some parts of the curriculum might feel personal for one person but distant to another. This is not predictable on the basis of race. So a main question for the department is, how do we open up conversation on these topics without harming anyone? Who is being invited to bring thoughts into conversation? This can come down to the ways in which teachers ask questions (the wording). At the same time, we don’t want to tokenize students of color/minorities. I know that the curriculum already shuts down some people.
Have there been any barriers or setbacks in your effort to make the curriculum more equitable?
Parents care about their student’s future, in college and as a citizen, and this is what they approach teachers about. I personally haven’t had experience with parents because I am not the chair right now, but one of my main goals for next year is to do a better job explaining to students and parents that goals around social justice are the same as skills for college readiness or student’s futures in general. Again, there is NOT a division between social justice in our curriculum and college prep skills. I know this because I have experience as a university instructor. Some parents think there’s a choice between talking about these issues or, say, learning how to write, but these are the same thing!
What did editing the curriculum during online learning teach you? I know a lot of work was cut, so what gaps are you going to fill next year? How will you choose what to prioritize?
This school year, each teaching team and even individual teachers made their own decisions. My strategy as an eleventh grade teacher was to choose parts of the curriculum that I felt emphasized skills and social issues that are centered by the overarching political questions in the eleventh grade curriculum.
[This year, these questions were: How do different philosophies of both nationalism and internationalism develop, in tension, over the course of the 20th century? How do different ideologies of race, gender/sexuality, and class inform conceptions of nationalism and internationalism? How are these philosophies practiced, expressed, or resisted in the institutions, movements, and cultural forms of the 20th century?]
How could the changes in the Humanities department be translated to other academic departments and other areas of the school?
I am a new teacher so my opportunities to meet faculty from other departments have been limited. However, I do know that the Humanities department has taken the lead on difficult discussions around current events this year just because of the nature of our subject. I hope that we can develop a system where the Humanities can play a consistent role in the conversations in a more sustainable way.
As of right now, what do you think the humanities curriculum and department will look like next year? What is your vision for, say, the next 5 years?
I’m sorry to say that I don’t have a concrete answer to your question. At this point, I feel comfortable saying that there probably won’t be any systematic or curriculum-wide mandates for changes. As we discussed, we had a lot of new humanities faculty this year (myself included) who spent this year learning the NWS system and learning from their more experienced colleagues about how the curriculum has worked. I know that many of us (again, myself included) are looking forward to going into next year with that experience under our belts, and with refinements and more local changes that we know we want to make to improve our humanities courses at each grade level. While we get this opportunity to fine-tune and improve, the department will be engaged in the “scope and sequence” conversations that I mentioned before. I hope these conversations will allow us to build community and consensus around core values and goals, which will then lead into conversations about the curriculum as a whole in the following year.
Thank you Curtis! No matter what happens next year, it is important that the Humanities department and curriculum is constantly reexamined and revised to become more anti-racist, to adapt to the changing definition of social justice, and to meet the needs of current students, faculty, and parents.