Is it Time to Change the Humanities Requirement?

Is it Time to Change the Humanities Requirement?
The University?s Humanities Core represents a vital though enigmatic aspect of the curricular philosophy. Considering that the Core seems so anomalous compared to the curricula of similar universities, it is interesting to note that the Humanities Core seems to have an especially distinguished significance. For example, humanities is the only sequence which is taken almost uniformly by first year students; it is also one of two or three Core sequences that cannot be replaced by AP credits or placement tests. Perhaps most importantly, the humanities requirement may be the only part of the Core that seems to be almost universally perceived as having no application outside of the Ivory Tower.
Thus we are faced with the difficult question of what distinguishes the Humanities Core from other pursuits and why it is that the University, an institution that prides itself on academic commitment and prowess, continues to place special emphasis on it. In order to confront this difficult question I will first consider the Humanities Core generally and attempt to decipher its value in terms of content and then in terms of utility; I will then turn my attention to a specific work studied in the Humanities Core and attempt to make sense of its inclusion in the curriculum.

As a second-year student, I have pretty fresh memories of my experience in the Humanities Core. I took the auspiciously titled Human Being and Citizen, and although I lacked the perspective held by a student enrolled in, say, Reading Cultures or Greek Thought, I believe that HBC provides an experience which is perhaps most easily generalized in regard to University?s first-year humanities experience. This is because HBC seems to be the quintessential ?great books? course, in which a cross-section of students is given a dose of cultural literacy. With readings ranging from Plato to Kant to the Bible, HBC clearly endeavors to expose students to groundbreaking and seemingly timeless humanistic inquiries.

Despite reverence for the intellectual canon, however, there is the lingering question of how and why such works are relevant to first-year students at the University. Clearly there is a feeling of remoteness. There is a recurring doubt that intellectual endeavors must be so dependent on, as the more cynical might put it, ?old, dead, white men.? Could it really be that when the framers of the HBC core at the University formulated a list of nine works which they deemed most appropriate to explore the complex issues of humanity and citizenry, that five of the selected texts would have been authored over a thousand years ago? Admittedly, there is a certain thrill to being exposed to such aged works. The idea that I could be reading an argument, considering a comment, or following a plot that has been shared by innumerable other anonymous spectators for, in some cases, thousands of years is an amazing thing. But what makes these particular works timeless? How do certain concepts have enough value to be considered relevant in a vastly different social, cultural, historical, geographic, and scientific context?

Perhaps the eternal worth of these texts is conferred upon them by their substance. That is, the works selected take on weighty, ?universal questions??questions such as what makes a great human being, what is virtue, and why should we respect the rights of other people are still at the forefront of the academy, as well as our culture. This possibility, of course, gives rise to several vexing questions. The problem that occurs to me immediately is, if these texts have dealt with our universal questions effectively enough to be preserved indefinitely, why are we still searching for answers to those questions? Additionally, is it the role of the University to provide what would essentially amount to a moral education? Are we here to be shaped as intellectuals or as individuals, and is there a curriculum that could purport to accomplish any sort of comprehensive character training?

An alternative justification for the perpetuation of certain works might be that the methodological and analytical skills demonstrated in these texts are worth learning. An emphasis on form and not function would perhaps undercut the all-too-familiar claim that Chicago dwells in the land of the theoretical and neglects the practical. Perhaps we are studying Plato to understand effective methods of dialogue and Kant to get a sense of analytical rigor (although certainly not fluidity of prose).

However, this possibility also leaves lots of room for doubt. Even if there is something in the approach or methodology in each of these works that is outstanding, the proposition that Homeric literature contains some skill which could not be equally or more effectively conveyed by a work authored in, say, the last several hundred years is a difficult one to swallow. But if utility is the primary motivation of the framers of the Humanities Core, then why be so roundabout in their approach? That is, why not require course work with an explicit and exclusive focus on rhetoric, articulation, argumentation, and whatever other pragmatic tidbits they feel that we should learn? Also, HBC discussions?and presumably this is true of the other sections?devote little if any time to analysis of methods. While I can recall lengthy and challenging explorations into the substance of Aristotle?s points, I am hard-pressed to remember a class session committed to dissecting his rhetorical structure.

Moreover, if the focus is on methodology, it is curious to note the varying themes within the humanities curriculum. If all students are to be imbued with certain skills, why have some focus on literature, others on philosophy, and still others on linguistics? Accepting the proposition that Homer has something to offer us that his intellectual descendents do not, it seems problematic that some students should be deprived of exposure to such a unique methodological exemplar. Once the justification for the Humanities Core becomes skill-oriented, one would hope that the University is working to hone the abilities of all students uniformly; consequently, we would expect that the curricular deities would agree on the selection of texts which most effectively typify these skills and standardize the Core accordingly. But they don?t. Thus it seems that while there might be the incidental advantage of fostering useful skills in students, it is unlikely that that is where we will find a fundamental justification for the curricular structure.

At this point we are left with what seem to be two reasonable yet nonetheless problematic justifications for the Humanities Core?content or utility. I would like to apply these propositions to a typical work presented in HBC. The following is an abridged excerpt from Aristotle?s Nicomachean Ethics, a text read in the Humanities Core which was written over two thousand years ago and has been canonized and preserved.

If this, then, is the way in which even science perfects its work, by looking to the median and by bringing its work up to that point?and this is the reason why it is usually said of a successful piece of work that it is impossible to detract from it or to add to it, the implication being that excess and deficiency destroy success while the mean safeguards it. . . . ?and if virtue, like nature, is more precise and better than any art, we must conclude that virtue aims at the median. I am referring to moral virtue: for it is moral virtue that is concerned with emotions and actions, and it is in emotions and actions that excess, deficiency, and the median are found. Thus we can experience fear, confidence, desire, anger, pity, and generally any kind of pleasure and pain either too much or too little, and in either case not properly.

Similarly, excess, deficiency, and the median can also be found in actions . . . [V]irtue is a mean in the sense that it aims at the median. This is corroborated by the fact that there are many ways of going wrong, but only one way which is right?for evil belongs to the indeterminate . . . but good to the determinate. This . . . is also the reason why the one is easy and the other is hard: it is easy to miss the target, but hard to hit it.

We may thus conclude that virtue or excellence is a characteristic involving choice, and that it consists in observing the mean relative to us, a mean which is defined by a rational principle, such as a man of practical wisdom would use to determine it.*

The question now remains: in what capacity does such a work contain relevance for UC humanities students? Perhaps the value lies in the piece?s content. Certainly, a rigorous conception of what constitutes virtue and prescriptions for achieving such status is highly applicable. These are questions which permeate our culture in a variety of ways. The virtuous behavior of our leaders, to pick only one example, is obviously something with which modern Americans are concerned, perhaps preoccupied. Other protean concepts, business and professional ethics for instance, are also dominant forces. Ultimately, we seem to be highly focused on ethical or virtuous behavior yet unable to reach a satisfactory consensus on what these terms mean. To be able to have a sense of these issues, therefore, might be a requisite background for any constructive and successful member of society. Furthermore, Aristotle addresses particular issues which are pertinent to our current discourse on ethics. His claims that ?virtue or excellence is a characteristic involving choice? and that we can train ourselves to aim towards virtuous behavior are germane not only to long-standing religious questions but also to recent and prospective developments in genetics.

The proposition that we read Aristotle?s Ethics for the purposes of gaining insights into virtuous behavior is a bit troubling, however. Remember, this work predates the foundational documents and events of the Western Judeo-Christian regime. The last couple of thousand years have done quite a bit to shape our conception of virtue and excellence, and it is difficult to imagine that an individual with no sense of these precepts could be a good source. This type of difference in perspective makes the meaning of terms like ?virtue? practically unrecognizable from a modern point of view.

If substance proves to be a shaky justification for work with ancient texts, perhaps methodology or form might be more satisfactory. At the very least, Aristotle?s text might be an example of how to form a complex argument and avoid common traps of flimsy and specious reasoning. He provides fairly uncontroversial generalizations and deduces from them coherent unifying themes; thus he can effectively convince his reader of conclusions that are not apparent, and perhaps counterintuitive. The section I?ve provided, and the work overall, is rigorous without being impenetrable and rhetorical without being dogmatic. Shaping effective and powerful writers is probably a goal of most colleges and certainly an aspect of the humanities sequences. Perhaps framing and delivering argumentation is the justification for reading Aristotle and the other works that have similar utility.

But it would seem that if pragmatism is the value that justifies teaching the Ethics then it has to be more than a good example of writing?it has to be an exemplary piece of argumentation. As I discussed earlier, if it is the technique that we should be focusing on then we would hope that as students we are being exposed to ?pinnacle? works; and for a text to have such millennial longevity it would need to demonstrate desirable skills, the applicability of which would be as impressive as the age of the texts. So do we read Aristotle to become good writers? The idea seems almost laughable considering that the text was written in Ancient Greek! Could it be that the work of an individual who had never even heard the word ?English? could exemplify proficiency in the language? Surely, the translator did a splendid job, but it is at least intuitive that authors who have written superlative texts in the English language would themselves be able to make the language articulate their thoughts in an effective and engaging way.

Perhaps utility lies in Aristotle?s method of argumentation, his reasoning skills, or his knack for persuasion. The method of argumentation is, upon first glance, rhetorically effective, but the actual structure of his position is less than exemplary. Upon further consideration the conclusions he draws from the initial premises, which in turn become givens for further conclusions, lack true rigor. For example, first he asserts that we may consider virtuous and vicious acts as a matter of degree: that ?we can experience fear, confidence, desire . . . and generally any other pleasure or pain either too much or too little.? This premise becomes critical to the construction of his position. However, nowhere does he take into account the idea that such human quirks exist as independent entities and cannot be considered relative to one another; that even if courage seems opposed to cowardice, they are not derived from the same source?such a possibility would undercut his entire argument. He then proceeds to assert?but does not establish?that ?virtue . . . is a characteristic involving choice . . .[and that it] is defined by a rational principle.? Again, this is not a given, as one could easily suggest that virtue is defined by some innate characteristics or by divine intervention. These and other similar presumptions seem to mitigate any claim at exemplary logical construction, and it is doubtful that students should be taught to develop arguments which are grounded in problematic assumptions. By no means am I trying to assert that Aristotle was a raving imbecile who lacked reasoning skills entirely. The point is that, while the methods employed in the excerpt I?ve provided are clearly pretty good, their apparent flaws would call into question both the failure to approach skills explicitly and the insistence on preserving the ancients.

Although these justifications fall short, I do not believe that the humanities curriculum is without redeeming qualities. The paradigms which I have been discussing, form and function, are applicable only if we assume that the Core has ulterior motives?or as Kant might have said, hypothetical imperatives. However, the emphasis on humanistic inquiries at Chicago makes more sense if such studies are viewed as independent ends. Perhaps the preservation of the intellectual tradition is a worthwhile justification and can withstand cultural and scientific changes in worldview. Maybe to truly hone our intellectual abilities, to truly be intellectually driven, there is a value in sharing thoughts with individuals who have changed the worldviews of their contemporaries. If this is the case, then even if every word that Aristotle uttered is completely inapplicable for us today we still must not dismiss him. That?s because thinkers like Aristotle or Homer or Kant did not just exist within their societies; they helped to shape their cultures, and, consequently, ours. While the content may not be applicable in a vacuum, taken in context of their roles in intellectual and cultural evolution, these works assume a value which transcends the ideas that they expound. This focus on the intellectual tradition would seem to have applicability to all of the humanities sequences?not just a ?great books? course like HBC. Although the other sequences may address more particular issues, there is clearly an interest in tracing facets of the intellectual tradition which are independent of content or utility: Philosophical Perspectives explores the pre-Socratic philosophical evolution which laid the groundwork for our western philosophical tradition; Readings in World Literature examines the work of authors?Toni Morrison, for example?who have addressed enduring and complex literary questions in unique ways, thus affecting the way in which these questions are conceptualized. Perhaps having a frame of reference which incorporates these thinkers is necessary if we want to understand and shape our own surroundings and thus an indispensable part of a comprehensive education.

Is it Time to Change the Humanities Requirement? 8.9 of 10 on the basis of 1729 Review.