Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Open Letter to the Ideal Dean of Humanities

There is no man who knows so much about, let us say, a passage between lines 100 to 200 of the sixth book of the Odyssey that he can't learn something by re-reading it WITH his students, not merely TO his students.

Ezra Pound


Imagine a Department of Modern Language. Its faculty would be selected on the basis of expertise in one of six books, which they would be responsible to represent both in their teaching and their scholarship. In addition, two full professors would be responsible for intertextual integration, again, both in teaching and research.

In the first year of studies, students would read and be examined on the six core works in the programme.

Shakespeare's Hamlet.
Cervantes' Don Quixote

Joyce's Ulysses.
Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu.

Heidegger's Sein und Zeit.
Wittgenstein's Philosophische Untersuchungen.

While all these books would be approached through their English translations, students would also be introduced to the originals and the problems of translation. Very little would be done to contextualize them; the task in the first year would be to get them read.

In the second year, they would read them again. And again, these books would constitute the only background for examination.

In the third year, students would read them again. But this time with an eye to selecting one of the following two groups of three works to concentrate on. It is only the works of one of these two groups that they would then be examined on. They would also be asked to explain their decision.

Shakespeare's Hamlet.
Joyce's Ulysses.
Wittgenstein's Philosophische Untersuchungen.

Cervantes' Don Quixote.
Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu.
Heidegger's Sein und Zeit.

In the fourth year, they would study those three books and be examined on them in various combinations. Honours students would write a thesis and take a comprehensive oral exam.

Extra faculty would be retained to cover Dante's Divine Comedy, Virgil's Aenied, Homer's Odyssey and Illiad. Students would only be examined on these if granted special dispensation (based in part on a language requirement) to replace one of the three books chosen for the third and fourth years

Before this idea is dismissed it is important to keep in mind that no student would be advised to read only the six core books. The list does not indicate what students would not read, but what all students would read.

The real challenge in thinking this sort of programme through is to imagine what one would have to know, or how many different combinations of things it would suffice to know, to make useful sense of the core curriculum. Each book simply provides a focus, both for students and faculty, to develop their mastery of the grammar; along the way, students might also learn one or two languages. The possibilities, I would argue, are endless.

Imagine someone saying, "I only know Hamlet, Ulysses and the Untersuchungen."

5 comments:

Andrew Shields said...

When I was at Stanford, there was a "Western Culture" requirement. It was being criticized extensively, among other things for being focused too much on Dead White European Males. (I'll refrain from saying more about your list in these terms.) One thing I was struck by was a comment by the head of the committee that had first worked out the Western Culture requirement, to the effect that the members of the committee had simply thought it would be useful for all instructors to know that all Stanford students had read a certain set of books. It was supposed to provide a common ground of references for discussion of other things.

Thomas said...

Yes, that's my view. The benefits of a canon understood as a shared list of readings far outweigh its limitations as a valorization of certain books over other ones.

Andrew Shields said...

But if the shared list is more important than the valorization, then a completely "non-canonical" canon would work just as well, which I am not entirely convinced is the case.

Thomas said...

Yes, that's true too. And, as you've noted before, my list is decidedly canonical. I think it's important to pick books that are essentially inexhaustible. The six books on my list are books that you will get something out of even if you've read them before. In fact, I sometimes argue that you'll get more out of rereading any one of these books than reading any other book for the first time.

That's probably too strong a claim. But the way this program would be designed, reading any other book would have to contributing to your understanding of a book on the curriculum.

So, you could read non-whites like Ralph Ellison, or non-males, like Virginia Woolf, or non-Europeans, like Yukio Mishima. And you could read living authors like Toni Morrison and Haruki Murakami, but always in order to improve our understanding of the classics (for the purposes of examination). It provides a focus, but not a horizon. Let the students widen their horizons, without losing the center.

BTW, I sort of like the breadth of the canon I'm suggesting even though they're all dead, white, European males. Two of them are homosexuals. One of them is a Nazi and one of them is a Jew. One them (the greatest of them all) was a common man and another descended from nobility... You can't have it all in 6 works, but these certainly contain multitudes.

profacero said...

My program, that I studied in, was pretty much like this.