Tuesday, August 26, 2008

'Aw, why do we have to take World Civ?'

Today I sat in on the first World Civilizations lecture in which our professor introduced the course to a room full of about 230 bleary-eyed freshmen. I was impressed to see that he spent a good part of the time answering the question that nearly every one of them has: why should we be taking this course?

The short answer is "because this state says that you have to". And there are times, in my darker hours, that I think maybe it's a bad idea to require all of them to take the course. But, there really are a number of good reasons to take one of these generalized introductions to history and culture.

Just off the top of my head, I can think of:
1. To get a sense of the historical context that you were born into,
2. To understand the traditions and beliefs of your own culture,
3. To understand the traditions and beliefs of other cultures,
4. To learn how to read primary documents more closely,
5. To gain a base-level cultural competency,
6. To see how other human beings have responded to eternal problems,
7. To learn to think of yourself as living in a specific time and place,
8. To get some sense of humanity outside of time and place.
And there are many more reasons.

The professor focused on the idea of citizenship, which sort of contains all of these things. We study World Civ in order to get an idea of what civilizations are and how they work, since we're going to be living in them. We want them to become citizens of their country and the world. I like this approach: a lot of "experts" will say things like, "30 is the new 20" and the assumption seems to be that this generation just won't take part in adult life for some time to come so we should let them opt out. But that sort of defeats the purpose of going off to university.

It's also interesting to me just how "traditional" many of us in the profession actually are. There certainly are some political radicals in the academy, but the majority of us in the humanities are cultural conservatives, whether we realize it our not. Fundamentally, we believe that culture is worth preserving and it is worth creating adults who can preserve it after us. We are stewards of culture.

To be honest, it's not my concern what they do with their lives; but I think that one of our tasks is to give our students the mental tools they need to take part in the adult world that they will be entering, whenever they choose to do so.

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