SRU expands humanities reach


children learning

Slippery Rock University’s Stone House Center for Public Humanities is moving forward with plans to offer reading programs for children, in partnership with the Slippery Rock Public Library.

Aug. 19, 2015

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. ¬- Are you curious? Are you imaginative? Are you interested in the "big picture" questions about human life and culture? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you'll want to check out Slippery Rock University's Stone House Center for Public Humanities. The CPH seeks to provide insights into the human experience through public arts programs, workshops, forums and service learning.

The CPH, launched by SRU last year, is expanding this fall. Through its new "Humanities Ladder" program, "humanities professors from SRU will conduct weekly team-taught sessions to Aliquippa School District students, beginning in the sophomore year and continuing through the senior year. The objective of these sessions is to provide humanities-based enrichment to students, to develop students' critical thinking, reading, and writing skills, and, through sustained relationships with college faculty and students, potentially encourage them to consider studying the humanities at the college level," said Aaron Cowan, SRU associate professor of history and co-director of the Center. Lia Paradis, associate professor and History department chair, co-directs the Center and is overseeing the Humanities Ladder project.

Students currently involved with the Center have also created and will soon launch Butler County Historical, an online digital archive showcasing local history through stories, photos, movies and other multimedia linked to geographic locations.

Plans for community reading programs, in partnership with the Slippery Rock Public Library, are already in development.

"SRU's mission states, in part, that the University exists to address the educationally related economic, health, environmental and recreational needs of the region served by the University," said Cowan, "the public humanities are really an extension of the core function of the University."

One of the four key strategic initiatives of Pennsylvania's State System of Higher Education institutions, including SRU, is to enhance the quality of life in their host communities.

aaron cowan


"Public humanities are important because not everyone has the opportunity to engage with them," Cowan said. "We too often confine them to the classroom when in reality the humanities ask the big questions about human existence - why are we here? How do we make good choices as individuals and societies? How did our society come to be the way it is today?"

Cowan said humanities education fosters appreciation for beauty, empathy for others and helps people think about complex issues.

"The idea that everyone ought to have access to that kind of knowledge is very democratic, very American," Cowan said. "Our educational system is increasingly focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), but we shouldn't neglect the value found in the humanities."

SRU launched the CPH last year and has offered several public educational opportunities, such as the Center's Historic Foodways cooking courses, community archaeological digs and an exhibit of original World War I propaganda posters.

While the CPH uses the Butler County landmark Old Stone House as its namesake, Cowan said that the programs of the CPH aren't limited to the house site. "It's a symbolic name - in the 19th century, the Stone House was a meeting place at a crossroads," he said. The new center seeks to build 'meeting places' between campus and community through its programs."

The Center's advisory board includes faculty from a number of SRU departments, including English, philosophy, history, art, interdisciplinary studies and social work. The CPH has also established relationships with community partners like the Butler County Historical Society, the public library system and the Bottlebrush Gallery in Harmony.

"The goal is to make the wealth of the humanities available and accessible to everyone, because we believe the ideas and ways of thinking about the world learned through studying the humanities are essential for a healthy and prosperous society," Paradis said.

Humanities provide a framework for exploring morality, discrimination and war. For example, Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn" and Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" provide enduring examples of the search for identity and the importance of moral courage.

"Those unique expressions of 'big' questions can only come from the humanities," Cowan said.

The Center also provides SRU students with a "laboratory" for practicing the essential skills of public engagement. All of the Center's programs are designed to maximize student service learning and "real world" experience, something that is not always emphasized in the traditional humanities curriculum.

"Humanities programs in leading universities around the country are increasingly emphasizing the importance of public engagement and non-traditional methods of communication for scholars," Cowan said. "If our students are to receive a complete education in humanities for the 21st century, they need to learn and practice these skills. The Center for Public Humanities can make that a reality." Paradis said.

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MEDIA CONTACT: Gordon Ovenshine | 724.738.4854 |