In defense of the humanities at Payton

By Paw Print Editorial Staff

Payton offers few history and geography courses, and those that do, such as AP World History, are not broadly encouraged.

It’s lunchtime, and one junior is bemoaning Chicago Public Schools’ four year English requirement, seeing little use for the subject considering that she wants to be a computer scientist. Another weighs her counselor’s suggestion that she take a fourth year of a social studies against her own preference for a second science course. These students are not alone in their frustrations. With course selection season in full swing this March, a number of students at Walter Payton College Prep have expressed similar irritations, asking whether they really need to take another year of a world language or expressing annoyance at the CPS civics requirement. Such sentiments are emblematic of a nationwide trend, as high school and college students are engaging less in the humanities. Yet humanities instruction needs to be emphasized and broadened, not only for the benefit of those who are already interested in those fields, but equally for those who have already settled upon a STEM career.

‘Humanities’ is a broad label typically referring to subjects that, as the name suggests, constitute a study of humanity. At Payton, these take the form of history, English, government/civics, and world language classes. While such topics may not seem applicable to a career in coding, they are invaluable for every student. Whether reading accounts of Native American displacement in Honors US History or taking a position on the use of nuclear weapons during World War II in AP World History, understanding historical processes is key in the formative years when many are developing their social and political ideologies. Meanwhile, a plethora of studies have found that learning another language has wide-ranging benefits for adolescents, from improving cognitive function to employability. Similarly, 73% of employers say they are looking for candidates with strong writing skills, such as those that are taught in third- and fourth-year English classes such as AP Language and Composition.

Other benefits imparted by humanities study are harder to quantify, yet no less crucial. The argumentative and reasoning abilities central to language arts and social science helps develop critical thinking and analytical skills that are necessary for success in any career, particularly in an age when one is exposed to vast quantities of media and information on a daily basis.

Yet Payton does little to emphasize the importance of taking these classes. The school’s own credit recommendations are more extensive than Chicago Public Schools’ graduation  requirements. Three math, science, and social studies credits each are required by CPS, but Payton only recommends an extra year for math and science. Many seniors thus drop social studies entirely their senior year. Another, more implicit factor that often discourages students at the school from pursuing higher-level humanities is the schedule. While Payton does not have official “tracks,” the school’s curriculum map is set up in such a way that, even as underclassmen, students self-place into STEM pathways in which humanities courses seem to have little space. 

The split often begins in sophomore year, when students are faced with both a chemistry and US history requirement and many find themselves choosing between the APs in each subjects, both of which are content-heavy and homework-intensive. Taking AP Chemistry at Payton can thus result in students not taking a single in-depth history course during high school, as they can fulfill their last social studies requirement in the same class as the civics requirement. Other selective enrollment high schools like Northside eliminate this issue by requiring that students take Honors Chemistry before AP Chemistry, thus meaning that students don’t ‘specialize’ until later in high school and freeing up space for a more intensive humanities course sophomore year. Moreover, almost all AP sciences at Payton double blocks and therefore take up an elective, meaning that taking one of the school’s nonrequired humanities courses is often out of the question.

Apart from a lack of emphasis on students taking the humanities courses that are offered, Payton also has a lack of diverse humanities course offerings. The school offers only around 70% of the non-STEM related AP curriculums provided by the College Board, while offering every STEM AP course, save AP Physics 1 and 2. Meanwhile, electives for STEM careers abound, such as Biotechnology, Anatomy and Physiology, or Kaleidoscopic Applied Mathematics, while none are offered in philosophy, law, anthropology, or other humanities careers. While other high schools across Chicago have extensive introductions to careers such as law or education, the closest Payton students can get to such offerings are select few seminars and enrichments, offered periodically throughout the school year. 

Not only can this discourage humanities students and even prevent them from being informed of careers in their subject of interest, it also takes away opportunities from those interested in STEM to gain an understanding of other job paths and broaden their horizons.

In an increasingly globalized and information-laden world, it is crucial for preparatory schools like Payton to encourage the cultivation of humanities skills along with science and math, regardless of the career a student intends to pursue.

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