RE: The Humanities

Sam Bock ‘21

The following article was submitted to the Perspectives section in response to last week’s article “Valuing the Western Tradition through Humanities” by Wells King ‘16 and Daniel Samet ‘16. Submit additional responses for online publication to

I appreciate critiques of the newfound structure and curriculum of the Humanities Program at Davidson. The self correcting nature of the program necessitates introspection in the aim of renovation and refinement. However, this critique struck me in a few ways that internal commentary often does not.

Wells and Daniel present a solid argument to teach a course titled “The Western Tradition”. However, I do not find their rationale befitting of a course titled “Humanities”. My first issue with their argument lies in their reverence for what they call the “Great Books” (yes, they capitalize it as well). To posit that a set of predetermined books should comprise such an ambitiously titled course as “The Humanities” is close-minded. It is comprehensive, but close-minded nonetheless. The Humanities impress, converse, and develop over time. Therefore, in reading MLK, we do in fact “step into the venerable courts of the ancients and converse”, but we don’t abstract those conversations to a level of triviality that we inevitably associate with the distant past. Instead, from our current temporal position, we interact with the ubiquitous notions of the human condition that have managed to permeate between works of Shakespeare, Dante, and Gambino.

This ability, unique to the Humanities, impassions the student to create connections and breathes life into the “Great Books”. We have not thrown out these famous texts, we have restored their relevance by stressing this aspect of the Humanities.

Their second point with which I take issue is that we, as current Humanities students, “cannot challenge the canon without having studied it first.” Had we not studied their definition of the canon, that being the “Great Books”, for fifty years before realizing that some development was needed? Does that not give the department as a whole the authority to challenge in new ways? I propose that this curriculum allows us to challenge the canon more so than the former because we carry with us texts of the same DNA from different eras. We can now ask: What changed? What is the same? And most importantly, why?

I understand the desire to place emphasis on the staple texts of humanity, however they certainly do not deserve all of it. After all, there is something to be said for having that reservoir of monumental texts to draw from. The answer is not binary, but the new curriculum presents a way for the great books to live on as important rather than die as monuments.

So, upon a future visit to campus as alumni, I invite them to pay “witness to the ongoing evolution of timeless questions” by joining us for a lecture on Sufism, a panel on “This is America”, or a screening of “The Russian Ark”. I would love to get their takes.

Sam Bock ‘21 is a Math and Economics major from Vienna, Virginia. Contact him at

Comments are closed.