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Save the Humanities by Flipping the Curriculum

For more than two decades, professors have been “flipping” classrooms to move course material online and use classroom time for student-centered activity and more complex, collaborative thinking. This flip strikes me as a good analogy for a needed reform: Flipping some required humanities courses from the first half to the second half of a college student’s education.

Higher ed leaders should replace lower-level humanities survey courses with an integrated series of upper-level courses that help students to think deeply about humanity and society. Moving most humanities courses to junior and senior years enables freshmen to declare a major and take its initial courses earlier. Students would have more time to explore different majors, settle into one, and prepare for a career in their field of study.

Why should students take any more than a few humanities courses and just train for a career?  The humanities study the human being, and thus, the human context for every business deal and cultural activity, all scientific research, and every use of technology in communication, medicine, manufacturing, etc.

When we ponder new technologies like organ transplants in the 1950s and gene splicing today, we look at insights developed from the ancient world to the present. Those insights aren’t sound because they are old; they are sound because it didn’t take humanity very long to figure out certain characteristics of human success and failure and to explore fundamental human experiences. Great minds have found many ways to express those insights so that future peoples may use their works to sort out our aspirations, achievements, tragedies, and failures.

By humanities, I mean literature, history, art, music, theology, philosophy, and its branches in the social sciences such as psychology and economics. I also include logic and rhetoric—the arts of thinking and communicating. The great minds are great because they have excelled at the arts of thinking and of communicating their insights with great depth and refinement. Among the greats, we find powerful truths and blind spots, the development of ideas and disagreements, and overlapping consensus. Studying their examples develops our own minds so that we may direct our activities by the best possible thinking we can achieve.

The humanities help students evaluate the ideas and arguments they encounter, to accept some truly good ideas for credible reasons, and to reject others as legitimate but not preferred, or as distorted ideologies that no one should accept. There are many pitfalls in thought that a strong humanities education can help students avoid, such as evaluating past authors based only on today’s accepted standards, importing anachronistic assumptions about what an author or artist may have meant, and overlooking the complexities of human experience. And there are great rewards if humanities faculty teach students a range of humbling intellectual skills: to interpret texts and works composed in cultures unfamiliar to them, understand each author’s or artist’s meaning on their own terms before evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of that person’s thought, and relate what has been learned to life and work.

If the humanities have been well-situated within the Liberal Arts tradition, why are they so marginalized today in undergraduate curricula? First, the humanities are intellectually demanding and thus more difficult for freshmen and sophomores. But by the time those students become juniors and seniors, they are immersed in professional majors and miss the best moment for undergraduate humanities study. Second, younger students are less equipped to address a course’s political agenda, if there is one, and feel they are being indoctrinated, not challenged to deepen their thinking.  Finally, humanities study is seen as impractical when people can study math and science and feel more confident about future employment.

By “flipping” the humanities to an integrated set of courses in the latter half of the curriculum, colleges could provide more professional preparation alongside a deeper humanities education.


The First Year

How can a humanities curriculum better serve students?

First, teach grammar, logic, and rhetoric but not philosophy, literature, or other humanities courses to freshmen. Many freshmen are smart, ambitious, and motivated, but they do not yet have the intellectual capacities or the life experiences that they will bring into their junior and senior years. Some high school students never encountered the classics of any tradition. They arrive on campus without ever having struggled with difficult-yet-rewarding texts and artistic works.

Freshmen should study writing, math, and logic so as to develop solid intellectual skills—and they should begin studying in their major. If they are undecided, they should choose introductory courses in one or two majors that are most attractive to them. They can then take more time to investigate and change majors if they need to.

Students are often worried about money, wondering what career they’d find rewarding, and in college to develop the skills to succeed. Colleges will have a greater positive impact on new students by helping them find a career direction and develop skills before offering them the best of human thought.

Freshmen also tend to expend a lot of intellectual and emotional energy figuring out how to live more independently. Whether partying, working, studying, or just “doing whatever they want,” they are making important life transitions. The students who enter college several years after graduating from high school are reviving, or just now learning, productive study habits, often while handling greater work and family responsibilities. Neither first-year nor returning students are in a position to study humanistic works deeply and enjoy the experience.

I am not arguing that freshmen should never encounter the humanities. Writing and logic courses illustrate great thinking and writing with humanities texts. Professional programs may use history to introduce their fields and philosophy to explain their methods. Many colleges already teach life skills, career development, and personal finance where students explore their values and aspirations. Those courses provide a fertile field for students to encounter literary and philosophical texts in an accessible, personal way and prepares students for a more mature, complex, and satisfying experience of the humanities later.


After the First Year

Colleges should teach a few humanities courses to sophomores and expand humanities offerings for juniors and seniors. By their sophomore year, students have pretty well figured out how to “do college.” They have improved their thinking and communication skills and have some professional preparation. The second year is a good time to use works from the humanities to raise topics such as what it means to be human and live in society, what lifelong aspirations have proven most compelling, and what great minds have thought about love, suffering, death, friendship, character, sexuality, marriage, and work.

Students then receive a much richer college experience if, in the junior and senior years, the bulk of humanities study accompanies the highest level of specialized, professional study. This arrangement enables students of diverse disciplines, professions, and industries to discuss our shared humanity, even though people interpret it differently and contradict each other. In this way, the curriculum fosters the kind of conversations that adults have in families, neighborhoods, and workplaces.

The strongest core humanities curriculum would thus be an integrated one, not a menu of courses.

Juniors and seniors are privileged to engage with some of the greatest minds in history as they examine the trends, possibilities, distortions, and great ideas in the culture around them. Colleges graduate future workers, leaders, philanthropists, citizens, spouses, parents, and neighbors of greater human depth and ability for lifelong learning.

The strongest core humanities curriculum would thus be an integrated one, not a menu of courses. In an integrated curriculum, students follow a prearranged series of courses that build upon and “speak” to each other. For example, what people think about being human influences their view of ethics, and both influence their view of how society should be organized. Thus, a college may offer a series of courses presenting various views of being human, followed by ethics, political philosophy, economics, and culture. “Great Books” programs offer another integrated solution. Over at least four courses, students would trace the development of salient ideas via some of the most prominent thinkers in a tradition.

In an integrated curriculum, students typically have fewer options but choose how to interpret, evaluate, and respond to the material in the courses, which is the more valuable sort of freedom. Whatever integrated program a college offers, it will likely provide a deeper, more relevant, and more enduring learning experience than the lower-level survey courses so widespread today.



During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, colleges tried to preserve liberal arts education by shrinking the liberal arts curriculum from four years to two. They identified core liberal arts subjects and devoted the first half of college to skills in language, math, and logic, to introductory science, and to the humanities. Then students proceeded to specialized majors in natural science, social science, business, and technological production.

Based on that reform, colleges still teach the arts of thinking and communicating early in the undergraduate curriculum but teach the rest of the humanities too early, leaving their greatest insights less accessible to many students today. It would be better to help incoming students expand their social relationships and begin addressing professional concerns before they think more deeply about fundamental human questions.

If colleges flipped the humanities, students would be happier because they would find and begin a professional major that prepares them for employment. Less-experienced students would no longer sit in humanities courses wondering when they’ll get to the “real stuff” that gets them a job. More-experienced students would get more out of humanities courses and relate what they learn to their lives and careers.

Some people may not like this proposal because humanities courses will become more prominent when many students and employers have written them off as irrelevant and when administrators have eliminated them from curricula. Depending upon the institution, administrators may, or may not, need to increase the number of required humanities courses.

Humanities faculty would be happier teaching more in-depth courses to more experienced students. They would lose some early required humanities courses that they count on to recruit majors, but if declining numbers of humanities majors are any indication, that recruitment strategy is not working anyway. For the majors they do attract, humanities faculty would offer higher-quality courses that complement the humanities curriculum that all students receive.

If colleges flipped the humanities, students would be happier because they would find and begin a professional major that prepares them for employment.

Non-humanities faculty would find less-experienced students in more of their program’s early courses. But those students would bring the motivation of having chosen the subject they study. As non-humanities majors enter their junior and senior years, they will have to spend more time in humanities courses. But non-humanities faculty could take the opportunity to help students explore the human dimension and the ethos of their disciplines, especially if students are also applying what they learn in internships.

Imagine engineering or biology courses speculating about the next decade’s technological innovations by using knowledge from both science and the humanities. Such courses would succeed much more easily if non-humanities majors took humanities courses in the same or nearby semesters rather than having to remember the little they retain from humanities-lite courses two to three years ago.

College students grow immensely from freshman through senior years. During three to six years, they not only study more broadly and learn a major subject in-depth, but may also develop or change a worldview, gain a sense of mission, hold part- and full-time employment, study abroad, enter and exit romantic relationships, lead organizations, volunteer, and learn to manage time and resources.

The humanities can have a powerful effect on this growth and plant the seeds of lifelong learning, but colleges should flip their humanities courses later in the curriculum to achieve these goals.

Grattan Brown is a Roman Catholic theologian and the Academic Dean of Thales College, a new business and liberal arts college opening in Fall 2021 in Raleigh, NC. He has written and taught about Catholic moral theology and capitalism, democracy, and bioethics and has collaborated with professionals of religious and secular backgrounds in health-care, business, and criminal justice.