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Notes from a Davidson classroom

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by John Syme

Sixty -one fresh souls, Class of 2014, put on their bravest faces the first day of Humanities. Slowly they ascended the endless stairwell to Hance Auditorium (9:26 a.m.) like it was Madame Trelawny’s lair at Hogwarts (9:27 a.m.), all formless knowledge with a residue of fear (9:28 a.m.).

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Ah yes, ye old dome room, previously Perkins,
where many afreshman has met The Fates—(cackling)
“Welcome, my pretties!”

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Ah yes, ye old dome room, previously Perkins, where many a freshman has met The Fates—(cackling) “Welcome, my pretties!” The lighting is diffuse, mellow, almost dim. On a wall clock by a glowing red exit sign, the big hand moves toward the six. Murmurs hush too low to eavesdrop. Pens and notebooks appear, a few laptops. One last kid strolls in, confident but not cocky, no accoutrements at all, just folded hands and focused attention.

lecture: “Take Me to Baghdad, or How the West Began.” Professor and Chair of History Jonathan Berkey starts with hermeneutics, the science of interpreting texts. “The story constructs the thing,” he says, deepening a basic explanation. “Each of you will have to construct the story with building blocks provided in this course.” So, on to the Fertile Crescent. Not? Berkey flashes expertly through an allur ingly ironic PowerPoint, blasting the notion that so-called Western Civilization necessarily started in Mesopotamia. One might just as well begin such a study in, say, south Asia, whence many a Western word of Indo-European etymology traces its roots. Or if one were to make the case for an Americo-centric study of Western Civ, one would start with the Native Americans, see? Nods ripple ’round. One guy actually leans back and strokes his chin. As clincher, Berkey tosses in an alternate translation for “temple prostitutes” of biblical reputation, “harlots from the temple of lo-o-ove.” Humes got hermeneutics.

“Go read Gilgamesh. And have fun!”

Photo: Archives

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  1. Philip Jones '68 on

    I read John Syme’s piece on the class of ’14’s first Humanities lecture with a warm feeling of nostalgia. In the fall of 1964 I found myself in the Dome Room listening to my first Humanities lecture. I remember the combination of excitement and the feeling that I was in over my head. And I remember the anonymous cry of anguish that issued from a freshman dorm the night before our first theme was due — “Gilgamesh sucks!!” Humanities was a grueling struggle but for me it has yielded a lifetime of benefits. Becuase I took Humanities I get Bennet Marco’s comment in Richard Condon’s Manchurian Candidate — that listening to Raymond Shaw talk about his mother is like listening to Orestes bitching about Clytemnestra. I found Woody Allen’s “Mighty Aphrodite” doubly hilarious for its use of a Greek chorus. I reread Dante’s Inferno without getting bogged down in the footnotes. Humanities provided me with a framework that has enabled me to separate the truth from the BS.

    I had many great classes at Davidson, but I regard Humanities as the real heart of my education. So my advice to the class of ’14 — persevere. You will find it worthwhile for the rest of your life.