‘Revolutionizing’ Humanities: A new approach to ideas that matter

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The United States and other western nations fret over events in Russia. Europe seems to be fraying. Global politics and culture are being upended.

Is it 1917 or 2017?

Exactly.

Davidson is marking the centenary of one of the most pivotal and still controversial events of the 20th century, the Russian Revolution, just as Brexit, Donald Trump and populist movements across Europe
create a new normal almost daily. Western angst about Russia often sounds like Cold War admonitions.

The college’s transdisciplinary initiative, Russian Revolution 1917/2017, seeks to engage critically the Russian Revolution of 1917, as well as the theme of revolution more broadly understood. The series prompts us to revisit not only the history, culture and consequences of 1917, but also to wonder what lessons it might hold for us, as we navigate our own shifting political and cultural landscape.

Davidson’s Revolution began three years ago when Davidson faculty from Russian studies, art, dance, political science, theatre, English and psychology traveled to Moscow and St. Petersburg for a two-week immersive experience. That “Studio R” trip, so named with an idea to validating learning on site as a “lab” for the arts and humanities, resulted in numerous collaborations, new courses and productions this semester.

Perhaps nowhere have the diverse intellectual and creative opportunities on campus surrounding revolution been more apparent than in the newly designed Humanities program.

The launch of the Humanities course itself was a curricular revolution in 1962 (year of the Cuban missile crisis, we might add). In the early sixties the idea of a multi-department, multi-term, team-taught course represented a bold departure from the norm. The founding faculty sought synthesis across ways of knowing in fields of humanistic inquiry: religious studies and philosophy, literary studies, history, art history, and, to the extent possible at the time, the study of the performing arts. The content was defined as “Western” with little sense of the contingent nature of that term.

We are revolutionizing, again, seeking to find synthesis across wide areas of human experiences as represented in all kinds of artifacts, but with a clearer awareness of the pitfalls of imagining a coherent, progressive narrative of cultures and civilizations within what we have inherited as the Western tradition.

While pundits and cranks and elected officials attract brief attention to themselves and demean others by bashing the humanities in the media—not STEM! no job training! nattering nabobs!—or by reanimating the revanchist culture wars of the 1980s—the mind is closing! the canon is changing! the disciplines are undisciplined! examining difference makes us nervous!—we have been rethinking how to teach critical reading, clear writing, perceptive listening and reflective seeing in ways that do not simply rehearse cursory study of inherited lists of great books through time.

Over the last few decades the college’s humanities curriculum has expanded to reflect our engagement with new and new found fields of knowledge and inquiry. The old Western Tradition humanities course no longer represented adequately the kind of humanistic inquiry happening in the academy today; it represented coverage of Western civ—from Gilgamesh to postmodernism—and presented versions of progress narratives.

Of course, we teach some texts on the original list. But the new course, “Connections and Conflicts in the Humanities,” spends more time on fewer texts that are not necessarily from within the Western tradition, but which we read from various positions within the West, as people at Davidson in 2017.

We built the revamped course around a theme—for 2017 through 2020 that theme is revolution—with each unit centered on one central artifact. The motivating question we ask for engaging each artifact is, “What do I need to know to understand this, on its own terms and in historical context?”

For example, in the first unit Professor of English Randy Ingram chose Martin Luther King Jr.’s, “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” To understand that well, we read Plato’s cave allegory and Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience, as well as King’s contemporaries Malcolm X, Steven Biko, and James Baldwin. The timing coincided with the march of neo-Nazis, white supremacists and white nationalists at Charlottesville, so we talked about that event in light of King’s letter.

The forces at work relate at a fundamental level. While we have jettisoned chronology and depth of coverage in favor of developing better connections around a theme, we remain deeply committed to humanistic inquiry into ideas that matter.

Go to hum.davidson.edu to follow along with the course, or if you’re on campus, attend one of the plenary lectures—they are all open to the public. If you’re a Humes alum, see if the course is feeling a little revolutionary and let us know why.

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About Author

Scott Denham and Amanda Ewington

Scott Denham is the Charles A. Dana Professor of German Studies and E. Craig Wall Jr. Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Humanties, and Amanda Ewington is professor of Russian Studies and inaugural Bacca Professor in the Humanities.

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