The Merits of a Canonical Curriculum
Wells King ‘16 and Daniel Samet ‘16
Our Davidson educations are invaluable. They have gifted us with an insatiable curiosity and a foundation of knowledge on which to explore the world. One of the highlights of our formative years at Davidson was the four-semester Humanities Program (or “Humes”). Aptly named “The Western Tradition,” the program surveyed the Western canon, posed the perennial questions of Western thought, and traced the roots of our present-day liberal order. In exposing students to the competing ideas of the Great Books, Humes taught students to reason humanely about ideas we had never considered and people we would never know beyond the page. In short, the Humanities Program was the Davidson student’s gateway to a tradition of inquiry that has spanned millennia and shapes the contours of our lives today.
We were disappointed to find, upon a recent visit to the College’s website, that our storied Humanities Program has received an extreme makeover. No longer will Humes students survey the Great Books chronologically or comprehensively. The new, one-year program, “Connections and Conflicts in the Humanities,” hardly draws from the Western canon and eschews a chronological approach in favor of a thematic one (the current theme is “revolution”).
Although the syllabus features some welcome additions, such as MLK’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, its omissions are glaring. Shouldn’t a course themed “revolution” feature some writings related to the most consequential revolutions of Modernity: the American and the French? The only “text” related to either is a visit to Cowpens National Battlefield.
According to an article in the Davidson Journal, the updated syllabus is “not necessarily from within the Western tradition, but … from various positions within the West” because the prior course did not mirror “the kind of humanistic inquiry happening in the academy today.” Dismissing charges by Allan Bloom and other defenders of the Western canon as “revanchist,” the new program’s faculty are “rethinking” the humanities itself and, under the guise of helping students “understand and appreciate a wide array of humanistic texts,” have designed a syllabus that hardly pays lip-service to canonical ones. Out with The Prince, in with the postmodern partisans.
Absent are works once considered essential to understanding – much less participating in – humanistic inquiry: those of Homer, Augustine, Dante, and Shakespeare, to name a few. In fact, there are only two texts that pre-date the twentieth century on the fall semester syllabus: an excerpt of Plato’s Republic and Galileo’s “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina.” Students of the new program will emerge with a radically truncated understanding of what the humanities have been historically, leaving them ill-prepared to engage in pressing debates about, for example, the nature and purpose of revolution.
Though we applaud many of the program’s new structural changes – for example, class trips, student “fellows,” and public lectures – we worry that the new curriculum, in the spirit of “revolution,” has disregarded timeless questions for niche topics, such as comparative genocide, and replaced foundational works with contemporary “texts,” such as Childish Gambino lyrics, that seem better suited to social media than a college syllabus. If only professors would have students leave politics and pop culture at the classroom door and, like Machiavelli, “step inside the venerable courts of the ancients …[and] converse with them.”
The conventional Western canon is understandably controversial and often considered too inattentive to the experiences of all genders, classes, races, and creeds. Other arguments dismiss the very notion of a “canon.” These are worthy objections to consider in a Chambers classroom and at a Commons table. Indeed, such criticisms and aspirations for inclusion are outgrowths of the very texts taught in the old Humes curriculum, which fostered such a spirit of progress, but tempered it with an understanding of the ideas and institutions that made it possible. We cannot challenge the canon without having studied it first.
Other nationally recognized institutions have maintained more traditional humanities programs – Yale University’s Directed Studies program, for example. Still other institutions, such as Saint John’s College, have dedicated their entire curricula to the Great Books. These are not reactionary universities quixotically preserving traditions but thriving institutions that prepare students to engage thoughtfully with the world as it is. Davidson ought to join them in a tradition of liberal education befitting its history and statement of purpose.
As alumni we hope to find, upon a future visit to the course catalog, a curricular opportunity for students to study the Great Books chronologically – that they might converse with great thinkers of the past, situate their ideas in history, and witness the ongoing evolution of timeless questions.
Daniel Samet ’16 was a History and French and Francophone Studies double-major from Washington, D.C. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wells King ’16 was a History major from Concord, NC. He is now a Public Interest Fellow in Washington, D.C. Contact him at email@example.com.
The following alumni have reviewed the above letter and offer their support: Will Begley ’14, Rebecca Evans Begley ’14, Sherwood Callaway ‘16, Andrew Evans ’12, Matt Gore ’16, W. Logan Lewis ’12, and Jeffrey Roth ‘12
The views expressed above do not necessarily reflect those of the authors’ or their supporters’ current or former employers.