Oh, the Humanities!

This is a watershed year for the Humanities Program at Davidson College. It’s been overhauled and streamlined—allow me.

students perform during humanities course

(l-r) Ashley Alexander-Lee ’17, Toler Webb ’20 and Martin Malotky ’19, members of the student group Musicum Collegium, gave voice in a recent Humanities lecture to the pedagogical content of Wall Professor of Music and Chair of Humanities Neil Lerner.

I see the program through two prisms: the rose-colored lenses of a mid-1980s Humes alumnus and as a relatively more clear-eyed campus writer working alongside many a high-minded, strong-willed and good-hearted academic and administrator. I can report that each and all, after their respective fashions, are bound and determined in good faith to continue Davidson’s ongoing reimagination of the liberal arts, to meet and to lead the world in which we find and will find ourselves, today and tomorrow.

That’s a lot.

On the first day of classes in late August, I attended two lectures: the season opener for “new Humes” and the season opener for “old Humes.”

On that day, top internet search results for the term “humanities” included essays about “crimes against,” “morbid fascination with the death of” and “reasons for studying.” I clicked on “reasons for studying.” Notably, an article on the humanities was published in the Scientific American blog “Cross-Check” by John Horgan, director of the Center for Science Writings at the Stevens Institute of Technology.

Horgan writes to his students:

“We live in a world increasingly dominated by science,… But it is precisely because science is so powerful that we need the humanities now more than ever. In your science, mathematics and engineering classes, you’re given facts, answers, knowledge, truth…. The humanities, at least the way I teach them, give you uncertainty, doubt and skepticism. The humanities… remind us that we have an enormous capacity for deluding ourselves. They also tell us that every single human is unique…. The humanities are more about questions than answers….”

Thus armed with an open mind full of ellipses, I climbed the stairs to Hance Auditorium in the iconic “dome room.”

Connections and Conflicts
Neil Lerner, Wall Professor of Music and Chair of Humanities, is leading the current transition from the two-year “Western Tradition” humanities course founded in 1962 to a more global, one-year Humes offering, “Connections and Conflicts.”

In Lerner’s lecture, I noted:

  • Education (from the Latin “to lead out”)—The “liberal arts” as an ancient tradition, were seven in number: the trivium of grammar, rhetoric and logic, and the quadrivium of arithmetic (number), geometry (number in space), music (number in time) and astronomy (number in space and time).
  • Music—Pythagoras first noted musical intervals when a walk past a blacksmith shop revealed to his ear that different sized anvils produced different notes.
  • Words—The Oxford English Dictionary definition of “beauty,” straightforward as it seems, reveals distinct overtones of gender, sensory perception and desire. So, who gets to assess beauty? To declare it? Does beauty matter in a world full of more pressing problems? Does studying beauty matter? Does studying the humanities matter?

The Bell Tolls for Summer
Randy Ingram, Professor of English and of Humanities, delivered the next lecture, “Humanists, Their Antiquity and Ours.”

“The bell tolls for summer, welcome to Humanities!” he began.

“Machiavelli changed how we think about politics, Descartes changed how we think about our bodies and selves, Shakespeare and Milton are the preeminent writers in the language we’re speaking….”

A few notes from Ingram’s lecture:

  • Pedagogy: The presence of students, their attention and reaction in real space and time, is an integral component of good lecturing as well as discussion. Some things just can’t be reproduced on the internet.
  • Meaning: Humanism posits complex meaning of language as precursor to meaningful action. Rhetoric is a complex discipline, though the term “political rhetoric” today has come to mean “empty blather.” The Renaissance humanists are like Neo in The Matrix: they can see the code in the words and ideas all around. Most of us no longer can see humanist code to the same depth and degree, precisely because rhetoric is not a disciplined study anymore. Boom.
  • Time: “Renaissance” as a term of historical designation shows a first reference in 1853. That means the term itself is younger than Davidson College (1837)! Even in the era of what came to be called the Renaissance, the lines of time were blurred: Medieval poet Chaucer was actually younger than inaugural “Renaissance man” Petrarch.

A reflection on time itself seems a fitting note on which to end here: The march of time, be it folly or not, does not unfurl in a straight line, but in fits and starts and curlicues. Whatever forms that Humes programming, or any other program or discipline, take as time marches on, Davidson will indeed continue in its longstanding commitment to reimagining of the liberal arts tradition in any given academic year to meet, and help lead, this whole wide world.

“What discipline or disciplines will you devote most of your time to?” Randy, also a Davidson and Humanities alumnus, asked today’s Humes students. “Maybe you will find yourself not just taking Humanities, but taking humanities personally—in rhetoric, that’s a repotia, repetition with an added element!”

Parting shot: “The study of humanities is a way to explore Francis Bacon’s truth that, ‘People get wiser as they get older. Books don’t.'”




About Author

John Syme '85

Senior Writer John Syme graduated from Davidson with a French degree in 1985. After gigs in newspaper, advertising, translation in France and cross-country travel writing in the United States, he returned to alma mater in 2001. He has no immediate plans to graduate again.

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