Words to remember

"Never doubt in the darkness what you believed in the light."

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Humanitates- sed quorum?

One of the things I was happen to learn, upon coming here to Geneseo, was that we had a Humanities curriculum. And generally, that term can connote some very different things. This, however, was a special case. The Humanities sequence at Geneseo was strongly focused on the "great books", the central canon of the Western tradition. Benedicamus Domino! This was the sort of class that interested me. I can remember remarking, however, that this seemed a bit too good to be true. As I learned more about the history of the course, my apprehension mounted somewhat. It has been around for decades now, and hasn't been tampered with to include the homage to the Zeitgeist? Ah, but Et in Arcadia ego....

Debate has flared up on campus several times about it. The emphasis on the Western tradition is problematic, it is said. Why must we teach students about only Western things? What about other traditions? Shouldn't we be teaching students how other cultures think? And what of the Humanities curriculum itself? Several times, complaints from students had been printed that X book was taught too quickly, or that Y topic had not been covered in sufficient depth.

Some of these are entirely valid and proper cultures. That a book was taught to quickly or that this topic wasn't covered enough is easily answered: the student is given, by the Humanities curriculum, the tools he or she needs to successfully find the primary sources in question, and read them in a critical and informed manner so as to gain a greater understanding of the text and its world. Simply, if you didn't get enough Virgil, you know where to find him- go to it. Additionally: Yes, students should learn about other cultures and traditions, by all means. This is a critical part of their education. But the myth persists that this can be done without proper training in one's own culture. This is an error that side makes, even from a practical standpoint. Multiculturalism is such an ingrained modern myth that it is hardly ever challenged. And I think it's a very common phenomenon that students either do not believe they really have a culture, or simply do not reflect on the question and its import. But how, then, are we to understand some tradition not our own when we do not even know the ground we are standing on? This contributes to a sort of intellectual dilettantism, a collection of bits of knowledge, impressions, and quotations from various sources within other cultures that cannot be organized into a meaningful whole because the hermeneutic for doing so is never taught or discussed. In fact, it is frequently assumed not to exist.

I am not unsympathetic to the desire to include "non-Western" components of the general education curriculum; I share it. I believe the mistake, however, lies in placing the burden on the Humanities sequence to make room for it. The simple truth is, however valuable it might be to our academic, economic, political, social, and moral futures to know how, for example, Muslims might think, or Chinese, or inhabitants of Papua New Guinea, the fact remains that those ways of life are not our own. Their philosophy, while bearing affinity to our own, is not ours. More to the point, and in a more practical vein, we are not (presumably) being educated to succeed in a Muslim society or a Chinese society or a society in the Pacific Islands. We live within a Western culture, and by all indications, immigrants into that culture assimilate more to it than it does to them.

I was dismayed, then, to learn of the recent developments in the Humanities curriculum. In the first place, the Task Force solution is highly problematic. Student input into the Task Force is minimal (though I will confess that this is not always a bad thing). What is more irksome is that the Task Force largely conducts its business outside of the mechanisms on campus already in place to provide the most open fora for discussion of such important topics. Efficiency being thicker than wisdom, it would seem, the solution has been adopted to make changes quickly rather than well.

An inclusion of a non-Western component would be a suitable compromise, it seems. 21 credits, however, is excessive. That's essentially a minor. One must also wonder what would happen to the other courses in the General Education curriculum. So that proposal seems like it will, or at least ought to, be DOA.

I will introduce the second proposal by stating that I have a great respect for Dr. Hon as a professor, and have enjoyed his class immensely. But I cannot help but see this as a seriously wrong-headed proposal. Voici les raisons:
1) The first semester: comparing agrarian river valley civilizations and the maritime civilization based on oceanic trade. From the very beginning, the course's overriding assumption does not seem like it would be familiar to students. The chronological method of presentation has much to be said for it in this regard. The problem is that in a few major cases, there were agrarian civilizations which were not particularly rooted in river valleys, and which were also major world players, sometimes linked into oceanic commerce. I speak, of course, of immortal Rome herself.

In fact, we usually hear of "Greco-Roman civilization". This would seem to merely be a composite of the agrarian Roman civilization with the commercial, sea-going Greek civilization. That's not quite the whole story. Greece, strongly commercial and mighty at sea, never quite lost her agrarian roots- this is particularly the case in Sparta. Even at Athens, the organization of the Athenian polity was focused strongly on land. Recall that the basis of their warfare was the hoplite, a distinctly land-based fellow. And even Carthage and the other former Punic colonies were notably more commercial than Greece.

Rome, too, breaks the mold. Thoroughly agrarian and earthy, the Romans nevertheless became masters of the sea, overcoming much more powerful navies and their own fears to make the Mediterranean "Mare Nostrum".

The course's focus, then, of comparing and contrasting agrarian and oceanic civilizations, then, is off-base. Societies did not necessarily progress from agrarian to oceanic, as would be suggested, and the two existed in such close harmony that they formed the most influential civilization to date. And this should also highlight the inherent mistake in classifying a civilization by its economic existence: it is making out the part to be the whole. Rome is more than an economic conglomeration, but a political, legal, artistic, and moral alliance. And so too for every other civilization. No, to begin on such a foot is to risk too much.

The second semester again risks far too much. Here it is not so much a conceptual problem, though, as an organizational and temporal one. It looks, essentially, to cover the Mediaeval and Renaissance periods in Christendom, as well as the contemporaneous events in other countries. This seems a bit too unwieldy. Compressing several centuries of Western history into a semester is bad enough; now we're to give that treatment to the whole world? How will anyone pull anything useful out of that? The Middle Ages alone is too important, vibrant, diverse, and long to be taught in a semester.

The final semester is, in simplest terms, a disaster. Really. This has Maria Lima's claw-marks all over it. A whole semester on "capitalism"? Bollocks. This falls into the same trap as classifying civilizations as if all that mattered was the economy. Only in a much more obvious and detrimental fashion. This blinds students to the obvious facts of the past few centuries. There was a lot more going on in the world than the development of capitalism. This sort of reductionist mindset is only going to hamstring students. It really smacks of forcing the events of history, the literary monuments, the political achievements, and the works of art of centuries into an ideological framework, and that is intellectually and historically unacceptable.

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