How We Learn, How We Live & The Humanities Program at 50


T o many Davidson alumni, it doubtless seems that Humes has ever been with us. But, no. The introduction to the inaugural Humanities syllabus, 1962 C.E., says, “The inauguration of a Humanities program at Davidson College was the direct result of official action taken by the Board of Trustees, administration, and faculty of the college. The program has grown out of the following convictions:

  • that the modern educative process has been too concerned with training the specialist rather than educating the whole man;
  • that even undergraduate liberal arts education has been tempted to multiply courses beyond necessity and to over departmentalize;
  • that excessive use of the analytic method has contributed to an unnecessary fragmentation of knowledge;
  • that synthesis can and should accompany analysis, even at the freshman and sophomore levels;
  • that the past, present, and future are inextricably intertwined; and
  • that the life and achievements of Western man can and should be seen in meaningful patterns.”

The core concerns here are as vital and fitting to Davidson’s steadfast-and evolving- liberal arts mission today as ever.

At the time of last fall’s $45 million gift from The Duke Endowment for projects to foster a greater synthesis of “thought leadership” on campus, President Carol Quillen said: “The Davidson experience is characterized by three opportunities-students doing original work, exploring connections between how they learn and how they live, and investigating connections across the arts and sciences.”

Franny Goffinet ’13,
Melbourne, Fla., senior English
major pondering a gig teaching
English in Russia next year, or as an assistant steward on a Caribbean
sailing ship
Unlike many first-year students,
Franny Goffinet ’13 was undaunted
by the infamous Humes reading
load: “I’m an English major.”
“Humes seems to be guided by
the idea, ‘Know where you’re from,’
which for me, broadly defined, is
Western civilization,” says Goffinet.
If a texts feel inaccessible at first,
that’s just part of the process,
says Goffinet.
“You have to interrogate these
works until you understand or
sympathize with something,”
Small-group discussion helped:
“Discussion is pretty much just
asking questions. Why is Abelard
attracted to Heloise? It’s just practice.
Asking questions.”
Writing, a credited curricular
focus in Humanities, presented its
own learning curve.
“In high school, I was used to
essays that I could just free-associate
to the word limit and get an A,” says
Goffinet. At the end of freshman
year at Davidson, by contrast, her
Humes section leader, Professor of
Classics Jeanne Neumann, returned
a paper with the pointed thought that
it had deserved a C-, but she gave it
a C and an admonition,
“You’re notthinking.”
As a senior, Goffinet says: “I
wasn’t finding the gaps between what
I knew and didn’t know, and going
into the areas I didn’t know. I didn’t
know how to ask questions, probably.
Now, I do.”

Humes has been and remains central to those opportunities, ever developing in students what its founders called a “habit of connecting.”

In the Beginning

It was the late, great Professor of Religion Daniel Durham “Colossus of” Rhodes ’38 who guided the genesis of the Humanities program, having returned to his alma mater from Southwestern at Memphis expressly for the purpose. Also present at the creation were Professor of Philosophy George Abernethy, Professor of English Dick Cole, Professor of Greek George Labban, Professor of History John McGeachy and Associate Professor of Bible Max Polley.

Polley, Labban and Cole, as well as Professor Emeritus of Religion Sam Maloney who directed the second-year program, live now at The Pines at Davidson retirement community.

“The faculty worked harder than the students!” Labban recalls.

“The really hard thing was deciding what needed to be included,” Polley says. He notes that the initial proposal passed the faculty by one vote. “People said, ‘If they’re crazy enough to do this sort of thing, then let ’em try it. I just wanted to do something besides teaching three sections of Old Testament every semester.It’s boring.”

After an arduous planning period in the summer of 1962, the college paid these Humes pioneers’ way to “take it to the mountain” for a weekend retreat at Highlands, N.C. Come Sunday morning, the story goes, Cole asked, “Are we going to go to church?” To which Rhodes responded, “We’re not here to go to church. We’re here to decide what goes in the Humanities program, and we’re not leaving until it’s done.”

The professors drove down the mountain with a full syllabus.

Was Humes to be a Great Books course with history, or a history survey with some Great Books? Well, yes, no, and that depends. Many variations of that question and others like it have provided the liveliest points of Humes conversation for 50 years. The general approach has been to create a broad sweep of what can be termed “Western civilization,” and then to allow course content to evolve year-to-year.

In 1962, the broad sweep turned out to be deep, also-so much so that the whole gang of 102 inaugural Humes students, not to mention their professors, nearly burned out en masse from sheer reading. Polley recalls one day telling students to skip their homework, to take the day off and “go play golf or something.” The tradition of regular syllabi adjustments commenced that day.

Living in Conversation

Kathy Gratto Revell ’85,
arts fundraising professional
for Alvin Ailey American
Dance Theater, Miami City
Ballet, and other arts groups
“Being in the Humanities program
broadened our view of the world
around us,” says Kathy Gratto Revell
’85. “It taught us that the world is a
lot closer together than we thought.”
She and husband Keith ’85 live in
South Florida.
“We have lots of friends from
many religions and nationalities.
That’s one of the reasons we like it
here,” says Gratto Revell (who, full
disclosure, often sat next to this correspondent in Humes lectures in
fall trimester 1981).
“When I came to Davidson, I
thought I’d be pre-med, and Humes
was a way to get a lot of requirements
out of the way. Then, I found
out I really enjoyed the literary work
especially, and I became an English
major. I think Humes made me
a better writer.
“I do remember staying up late at
night to get through all the reading,”
she says.
“It wasn’t so much the things that
I studied as it was the connections
I was able to make between them
across genres,” says Gratto Revell,
who went on to earn a master’s
degree in art history. “All those roots
were laid in Humanities.”

It’s not always easy being Humes. Balancing into and out of seismic shifts in the academic calendar, while sailing forth steadfastly in the ever-trending winds of higher education; running gauntlets of barbed internal faculty memos of self-searching; weathering departmental budget realignments while surviving enrollment fluctuations; and always examining and reexamining itself in what Professor of Political Science Brian Shaw termed a “persistent identity crisis”—through it all, Humes has ultimately thrived.

The basic question of canonicity has always been central, perennially rearing its head to snap at the syllabus: “Why is that in there?”

Case in point: a cursory scan of the current first-year syllabus reveals salient features Gilgamesh, Genesis, Homer, Aeschylus, Thucydides, Plato, Ovid, Corinthians, Mark, Thomas, Augustine, the Qur’an, Charlemagne, Crusades, Dante, and the Black Death.

Why those topics and not others?

“Any canon, by definition, excludes voices, it silences voices, it looks at things from one particular point of view,” says Burkhard Henke, E. Craig Wall, Jr. Distinguished Professor and Chair of Humanities and professor and chair of German Studies. “You have to know the canon before you can debunk it.”

Hansford Epes ’61, professor emeritus of German and of Humanities, makes the point that all courses, involve a selection of material. He sums up with characteristic pith: “We choose to do Humanities like this. We also choose to say it is not an exhaustive treatment. A course like Humes must live in conversation.”

Particular conversations arising from that broader one can be fascinating, too, Henke says, often as much for faculty as for students. “You profit from different bodies of knowledge and different questions that people ask of texts, events and people,” Henke says. “At its best, there is frantic email traffic before each class. Sometimes it’s just pure gold!”

Cultures and Civilizations

In the mid-90s, Humes leaders saw that, once again, change was necessary for continuity. They began looking for a way “not to eliminate the old program, but a new way to think about it to attract new faculty,” recalls James B. Duke Professor of International Studies and Professor and Chair of History Jonathan Berkey.

John Douglas, M.D. ’74,
Chief Medical Officer,
National Center for HI V/AI DS,
Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB
Prevention, Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention
By the time John Douglas got to
Davidson Humanities as a freshman,
he recalls, the Old Testament already
seemed to him, well, old news.
“Then I had Dr. Rhodes for my
first trimester of Humes,” Douglas
says, “and suddenly I was studying
the Old Testament in a way that I
had never done before. Seeing it in
the light of the history and literature
of the period was a strong
memory to me.”
He recalls an exercise with Professor
of English Tony Abbott, in which he
wrote an essay in the style of Michel
de Montaigne. “It was like acting on
paper,” says Douglas. “It was a great
way to learn the material.”
“Public health is where the strands
of thinking and synthesis have come
together in my career,” he says. “The
need to do interdisciplinary thinking
is as important to me now as my scientific training.”
A few years ago, he was involved
in reporting on an unethical research
study involving Americans in
Guatemala in the late 1940s, a pre-conformed-consent era of war and
imperialism. Douglas’ report made
it to the desk of President Obama
and resulted in a public
apology to Guatemala.
“That work didn’t involve Plato
and Aquinas, but it did involve some
sort of historical context and ethics
and politics of the era. Could I have
done that work as well if I hadn’t
taken Humanities?”

Berkey and Dana Professor of German Studies and Director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies Scott Denham sought support from the administration and money from the National Endowment for the Humanities to form a faculty reading workshop. It centered on texts from outside the traditional Western canon, and explored new ways of delving into the texts and the cultural questions they raised.

The result was Cultures and Civilizations, a one-year course that could be viewed as an alternative sibling program to Humes.

Facetiously nicknamed “Inhumanities” during its formative time, Cultures and Civilizations incorporated larger sections of 25-30 students team-taught by two professors. The curriculum was organized around themes and global civilizations and common fault lines, often drawing on a “call-and-response” pairing of related texts to evoke connections. As in Humes, negotiations among professors about what books to read in a given semester served as a source of academic creation.

“What happens when I throw Junot Diaz on top of Howard’s End and Zadie Smith?” Denham asks by way of example.

While differing in form and content from Humes, Cultures and Civilizations remains true to several markers of its progenitor course, notably as a “W” (for “writing”) course credit, “to provide students with a strong foundation in rhetoric, analysis and research skills.”

Continuity and Change, All Over Again

For five decades Humes, also now a “W” course, has been challenging students to hone their research, analytic and rhetorical skills via reading, writing and lively discourse.

“Don’t let the passage (being studied) set the agenda for your paper,” Associate Professor of Religion Anne Blue Wills tells her students. “Don’t tell yourself, ‘I can’t say that!’ Yes, you can, you just have to back it up! You are the agent. I know it’s a challenge to take up that control, but that’s why you all are here. What is your interpretive claim? Get in there and claim it! Use those SAT / ACT high verbal scores. Unleash them!”

And of course, any good liberal arts professor will want to throw his or her students a little off balance now and then, on principle.

In a Humes discussion on monasticism and martyrdom, Professor of History Vivien Dietz expertly deploys a well-timed bit of relatively mundane data—that the notion of purgatory is not found in the New Testament—to the nearly audible effect of religious assumptions crumbling.

Professor and Chair of Education Rick Gay took the Humes message all the way from Hance Auditorium to the op-ed pages of the Charlotte Observer. Gay won the Feb. 8 caption contest for a Kevin Siers cartoon depicting Gov. Pat McCrory dressed as a professor and standing in front of a chalkboard with a hole blown through it to represent McCrory’s recent comments about the liberal arts. Gay’s winner: “Oh, the Humanities!”

Rachel Andoga ’07,
Faculty Associate, Arizona State
On the 10th anniversary of her
freshman year as a Cornwell Scholar
at Davidson, Rachel Andoga ’07 finds
herself teaching English to freshmen
at Arizona State University, where she
recently completed her M.F.A. in creative writing.
Cultures and Civilizations was formative for Andoga.
“Having my freshman year span the
globe that didn’t really focus on things I
had read in high school, at
least in clips, was
wonderful,” she says. “I was a freshman
who was nervous about
everything constantly,
and I remember going to the bookstore
and pulling the Qur’an off the shelf
and realizing the book was ‘backwards’!
Epic of Gilgamesh? No, but Sundiata:
An Epic of Old Mali, yes, and Arabesque,
and Wide Sargasso Sea, and A Passage
to India…. Reading iconic cultural
texts from around the world gave her an
exceptional view during her fellowship
teaching English in
Singapore as a master’s
candidate. Being in Professor of
English Suzanne Churchill’s “W” section
gave her an exceptional view of her
English major—to the tune of 11 more
classes with Churchill in the
years that followed.
“Cultures and Civs gave me a key
to access a lot of literature that I’ve
encountered in the years since,” says
Andoga. “I do think it cracked my world
open a little more thoroughly than if I
had taken a longer way around. I am a
more conscientious citizen of the world
for having had
that particular experience
at that time in my life.
“I tell my students all the time that
my W professor changed my life. And
I may or may not do that for them, but
I’ll be damned if I’m not going to try.”

It is worth noting that, since 1962, Humes lectures have been held in the Chambers’ Dome Room, known as Hance Auditorium following thorough renovations and upgrades at the turn of the century.

The same, yet different.

It was with continuity and change in mind that President Quillen delivered the inaugural Hansford M. Epes Distinguished Lecture in the Humanities last fall. Established in 2012, the lecture
series commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Humanities Program at Davidson College and honors Epes’ nearly five decades of service to the program.

The title of Quillen’s lecture: “The Uses of the Past and the Humanist Tradition.”

Watch President Quillen’s lecture video.

Visit the Humanities department blog.

Watch slideshow.

Senior Writer John Syme ’85 tried to drop Humes after one trimester in the fall of 1981. His freshman advisor, Max “The Ax” Polley, talked him out of it. For that Syme would eventually become, and today remains, extremely grateful.


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