Thursday, August 6, 2015

Meryll Levine Page - Saved by the Humanities

Meryll Levine Page served on the board of Minnesota Humanities Center from 2004-2012.  Following her tenure on the board, she served as a consultant, drawing on her thirty-nine years of teaching experience. Meryll also blogs at:  More Jewish Luck. Together with her sister, Leslie Levine Adler, Meryll is the author of the nonfiction work:  Jewish Luck:  A True Story of Friendship, Deception and Risky Business.

Picture a life preserver bearing the word ‘Humanities’ thrown out to a struggling young girl. She grabs hold and doesn’t let go until she reaches dry land.

Until I researched the lives of two Jewish women under the Soviet regime for our book, Jewish Luck:  A True Story of Friendship, Deception, and Risky Business, I would have thought “saved by the humanities” was hyperbole. Hours of interviews taught me that books and the arts were truly a lifeline for girls who understood from a young age that school and Soviet ’culture’ were intended to squelch individuality, creativity, and free thinking.  Both women remember — with an emotion approaching rapture — the books that promised them hope, a future, and a sense of identity — books that were smuggled into the USSR and shared among trusted friends at the risk of imprisonment. For others, underground music or the underground art scene offered a way out of the gray Soviet life. Humanities meant possibilities.

Our American educational system is not designed to create automatons and robotic allegiance to our country like the USSR’s schools. Yet, many students feel alienated, estranged, and ill-served by their schools. Can the humanities serve as a life preserver for them?

In May 2014 I attended an Omaha Public School District teacher’s meeting to review the efficacy of their partnership with the Minnesota Humanities Center. I felt like I was part of a revival meeting. Teachers ecstatically testified to the power of the ‘absent narrative’ and building an ‘innocent classroom.’ The stated goal of the initiative — to build and strengthen relationships, recognize the power of a story, learn from multiple voices, and discover that solutions to problems are often entrenched in the community — was endorsed and celebrated. The humanities approach made students, parents, and community members of all races and ethnicities feel welcome and affirmed. Children saw themselves reflected in the curriculum and they flourished.

What struck me more than the statistical proof that adjusting curriculum to include absent narratives was successful was the emotional impact it had on teachers. Teachers want to succeed with every student and this approach supplied them with tools to be the best teacher — a teacher who begins by building relationships with students.
Unlike the women who grew up in the USSR, we don’t live in a dictatorship where the humanities are proscribed and conformity is celebrated; yet, students are marginalized by curricula that ignore multiple viewpoints and cultural realities. I urge all Minnesota teachers and administrators to investigate the Minnesota Humanities Center’s Educators Institute. Learn about the possible. 

It could be a life preserver for a Minnesota teacher and Minnesota students. 

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