Data Forum

From Higher Education to Preschool: On a Mission to Shrink the Humanities Opportunity Gap

Miranda Restovic and Sarah DeBacher

This essay—and that by Hope Shannon of Omnia History—is a response to the debut of the National Inventory of Humanities Organizations.


Louisiana is a complicated place. From the Delta to the neutral ground, we change shapes, add flavors, and remix sounds. Genius runs deep in our cane fields and bayous, and every generation emerges with new views on what it means to be from Louisiana. We have food, fortitude, tragedies, and creativity for days. We also have long-standing and persistent challenges. At the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities (LEH), we believe the humanities play a critical role in addressing these challenges. We believe that every Louisianan can realize their own potential through the humanities—so long as every Louisianan has access to them.

Unfortunately, the humanities have historically not always been accessible to all. State councils of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) can play a key role in rewriting that history, but it takes intention and innovation—which we have learned through our own organizational journey. In our early days as the 17th state council of the NEH, the LEH acted mainly as a regranting agency for federal funds. Our programmatic strategies and offerings focused on cultural preservation and the support and promotion of humanities scholars with Louisiana roots and research. This approach, while worthy both then and now, limited our reach to Louisianans fortunate enough to enjoy access to higher education and the annals of our rich historical and cultural archives.

Today, the LEH maintains a singular presence throughout Louisiana as the only private agency dedicated to making an impact in the cultural and education sectors in all 64 parishes (counties) of the state. We reach Louisianans working in the annals of higher education and the historical archives, to be sure. But our multiple programming avenues—including education programs, grants, and cultural content—now reach audiences in public libraries, public schools, housing authorities, and, most recently, the hallways of the four humanities-focused early childhood centers in rural Northeast Louisiana which we run as direct-service providers of PRIME TIME Head Start. Throughout this organizational journey, the LEH has been on the front lines of challenging the very real and long-held perception that the humanities are an elitist enterprise accessible only to those lucky, smart, or privileged enough to make it to postsecondary education.

Twenty-eight years ago, the LEH launched PRIME TIME, Inc., an initiative aimed at engaging vulnerable families in quality humanistic educational experiences, when we recognized that our own work, as well as the work of our communities and state, was not meeting a crucial need for a critical audience: high-quality, humanistic education for low-income children and families. Since the early 1990s, the LEH has developed and sustained reading and discussion programs that actively engage young children and their families through the exploration of ideas that promote creative and critical thinking and, most of all, asking questions. Through our award-winning methodology, families attending PRIME TIME connect Max’s journey in Where the Wild Things Are to their own lives, as well as to the rich tradition of the hero’s journey. A five-year-old points out that Max became a monster only after he was punished. His mother beams with pride and brims with concern. Has she been a “monster” lately? Where does that behavior have its roots? What makes a monster a monster, anyway?

Our decades of experience with PRIME TIME programs have taught us that children are natural humanists. Without trying, their strategies for absorbing, interpreting, and applying acquired information mimic those of philosophers and scientists. Over time, however, that natural thirst for knowledge can be diluted or even stunted by interactions and experiences that reward quick recall and rote memorization over questioning and thoughtful exploration of information. We see this as evidence of an opportunity gap. What would Louisiana’s future look like if every Louisiana resident, regardless of how young or poor, had access to the humanities and to a humanities-based education?

At the LEH, our latest commitment to shrinking the humanities opportunity gap is our PRIME TIME Head Start program. Head Start was a part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty and began as a pilot summer program in 1965. A response to research showing that children raised in poverty were less likely to do well in school and more likely to be poor in adulthood, Head Start was developed to break the cycle of poverty by providing preschool children and their families with comprehensive services to help them prepare for success in school. We share the federal program’s goal of lifting families out of poverty and narrowing the achievement gap. At PRIME TIME Head Start, we get there, first and foremost, through the delivery of tested humanistic pedagogical approaches coupled with ongoing teacher coaching, family and community collaborations, and a commitment to whole child and whole family well-being. While we are in the early stages of this work, we are already seeing encouraging evidence of increased school readiness, well-being, engagement, and connectedness among our 300-plus Head Start families in Monroe, Louisiana.

Our humanities-based Head Start program builds on a foundation of research that supports preschool students’ capacity to be humanists and engage actively in humanities topics. In his book, Big Ideas for Little Kids (2009), Thomas Wartenberg compellingly argues that adults must develop the skills necessary to nourish the natural philosophical behaviors of young learners. This applies to educators and caregivers alike. Additionally, in the seminal child development book Mind in the Making (2010), Ellen Galinsky explores the question, “How can we help children thrive in life and as life-long learners?” Galinsky identifies seven essential life skills children need to achieve their full potential: focus and self-control, perspective taking, communicating, making connections, critical thinking, taking on challenges, and self-directed, engaged learning. These are all skills that are at the heart of a humanistic approach to education. Further, the National Association for the Education of Young Children, endorses humanities-focused strategies on literature exploration, discussion, and questioning as age- and developmentally appropriate.

Researchers and experts agree that humanities learning approaches are valuable tools in educating young children. Leading humanities organizations and traditional funders of humanities programming who are invested in this work stand to benefit from listening to this research and applying it to their own practices. With our focused work in promoting humanistic learning, the LEH is acting on this important body of research and taking an important step toward achieving our vision that all Louisianans realize their full potential through the humanities.

We are happy to know we are not alone in our efforts to expand access to the humanities. Thanks to the National Inventory of Humanities Organizations (NIHO), it is easier than ever to find and connect with like-minded humanities organizations. The database provides a critical resource for collaboration, as well as a broad view of humanities organizations working in communities across the nation. The breadth of the database chips away at the myth that humanities work happens only on university campuses and in other elite spaces. Our hope is that more humanities councils and organizations use resources like NIHO to find a community of practice, expand their reach, and close the humanities opportunity gap.

Miranda Restovic is president and executive director of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities (LEH), the Louisiana affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Restovic previously served as LEH deputy director, as well as director of the LEH’s award-winning and nationally implemented PRIME TIME Family Reading Time program.

Sarah DeBacher is vice president of the Division of Education at the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. She earned her B.A. in English from the College of Wooster and an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of New Orleans (UNO), where she is currently working toward a Ph.D. in education administration.