The weight of this sad time

The adoption of a new general education core at my institution (which I certainly had a hand in) means that many things we do now will have to go away or change.  One of these things is our alternative honors core, a 20-credit Great Books-style learning community that consists of four seminars organized around themes like "The Self and Others" and "Nature and Human Nature."

Only one of the original cadre of faculty members who began the program is still around, and I was one of the of the "new people" who came into the program when its founder moved to another institution.  I'll be the first to admit that the program has lost some of its original vigor and vision.  Indeed, many of my younger colleagues who taught in it for a few years found it stuffy, hidebound and narrow.  They argued the reading list was too patriarchal, too white and too Eurocentric.

What can I say?   Guilty, guilty and guilty.  You need look no farther than the reading list of the seminar I have taught for 10 years to locate exhibit A:  Plato, Aristotle, Milton, Shakespeare, Swift, Emerson, Shelley and Darwin.  See what I mean?  By the way, Mary Shelley was my one pathetic nod to being more inclusive.  I had to let go of Dostoevsky to make room for her in the course.  Dostoevsky!  Ye gods!

But it's 2011.  I can hardly defend my super-annuated, crypto-fascist ideas about literature any longer, but neither will I apologize for them.  Reading what used to be unsneeringly called the "canonical works of Western literature" has been the formative act of my intellectual life.  As a blue-collar kid from a family that didn't read much, the discovery of Homer, Shakespeare and Tolstoy were not a given in need of revisionist interpretation and reevaluation.  No, reading these authors was liberating.  It showed me worlds I never knew existed. 

So I remain a wholly-unrepentant fuddy-duddy, one who has the temerity (or foolishness, take your pick) to say that appreciating a work's genius is more important than unpacking its politics.  How I loathe arguing politics with poetry: the smug two step of enclosing every act of reading into some narrow-minded socio-political box.   Why is it so hard to comprehend that poetry is a lousy way of practicing politics? Oh, yes, dear yes, a poem can be political. No one is denying that. But it had better be something more if it aspires to be art.

It doesn't matter.  I'm wasting my breath, and I'm probably wrong.  It's time for me to let the Great Books model of education go.  In a few short years, Homer will no longer exist as part of our undergraduate experience.  Sophocles, Euripides, Virgil, Dante...  all gone.  A dozen or so English majors will continue to read Shakespeare, and no doubt with the latest critical-analytical tools. 

Please don't mistake me.  I admire my colleagues.  They are wonderful educators and wonderful people..  In the end, whatever they decide to do with the honors program will be fine and quite likely an improvement.  They just see the world differently than I do.  So I have to get out of their way.  I have to let it go.


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