[Paleopsych] CHE: The Humanities for Cocktail Parties and Beyond
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The Humanities for Cocktail Parties and Beyond
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.1.7
By RICK LIVINGSTON
In any introductory-humanities course, there is an
elephant-in-the-room question. I try to wait at least three weeks into
the term before asking my students to face it squarely: Why study the
The students' first response, of course, is because they have to. Most
of my courses fulfill one of the general-education requirements at
Ohio State University, and I usually have a healthy mix of precocious
freshmen and procrastinating seniors.
If I go on to ask why the students think the university has such
requirements, they are initially baffled. After trying out a few
wiseacre responses ("Because they want our tuition money!"), they
almost always say -- wait for it -- that the humanities help you make
small talk at cocktail parties.
With any luck we go on to talk seriously about common knowledge and
cultural expectations. But the cocktail-party comment tends to hang in
the air like secondhand smoke, clouding the intellectual atmosphere.
It suggests that our primary subject is petty snobbery and chitchat.
The comment is a cliché, obviously, but one I have to confront every
Thinking about the cliché sent me back to T.S. Eliot's 1950 play, The
Cocktail Party. Eliot portrays social life as a series of hypocrisies,
deceptions, and embarrassments, redeemable only by religious
conversion. Theological insight alone, the play suggests, can help us
endure the unending round of mannered niceties that make up an
My students tend to shut down when I start talking about their souls,
or they consult the syllabus to see whether I've included a conversion
experience among the course requirements. In confronting the
cocktail-party cliché, I've had to consider how to convey the value of
the humanities without resorting to divine intervention.
Luckily my position as associate director of a humanities institute on
my campus has allowed me to experiment with alternative ways of
engaging students in humanistic inquiry. One of the institute's
missions is to bring students and faculty members together outside
traditional classroom settings, as an antidote to the sometimes
intimidating experience of attending one of the country's largest
universities. Over the years we've learned that it is in such informal
settings that students often begin to tie together the different
subjects they've been studying. Connecting the dots allows them to get
a larger picture of the education they've been receiving. That's why
we've come up with a program we call (only half-jokingly) Big Ideas.
Here's how it works: Each quarter we choose a topic big enough to
accommodate a range of approaches and cover more than one discipline.
Past examples include evil, passion, war, and cities. We invite both
faculty members and outside guests to have dinner with students and to
give us their thoughts about the topics. Brief presentations are
followed by open conversation, with students taking the lead in
raising questions and responding.
Although we do bring in some of the best teachers at the university,
the goal of Big Ideas is not really to teach the students specific
facts. It is to give them practice in taking ideas seriously and to
allow them to experience interesting conversations.
You're probably thinking: "Shouldn't they be doing that on their own?
When I was in college, we would stay up late talking about ideas.
What's wrong with these kids?"
But conversation about ideas seldom happens naturally, and nowadays it
is rarer than ever. As historians of talk like Theodore Zeldin and
Peter Burke have observed, conversation is not a spontaneous
outpouring of well-formed sentences. It is a specific form of social
behavior, with its own settings, tacit rules, and strategies. Like any
social skill, it improves with practice.
Students today have few chances to practice serious talking. Our most
visible examples of conversation come from TV: the political debate
that is little more than a shouting match, and the celebrity
interview. What students lack is experience with grown-up
conversation, in which curiosity and respect can lead to
self-discovery and mutual illumination.
At their best, the Big Ideas classes get students involved in such
conversations. Our course on evil, for instance, picked up on
President Bush's use of a morally charged vocabulary (the "axis of
evil") to orient U.S. foreign policy. We brought in four guest
speakers: a philosopher, a historian of religion, a theologian, and a
judge. Then students talked about personal experiences with evil,
ranging from anger to sexual abuse, and about evil in the world
-- including terrorism and the Holocaust. In the process, students
confronted their own beliefs about God and human nature, and tested
their intuitions about differences among the illegal, the immoral, and
the downright evil. Nothing was resolved, of course, but the students
got a clearer sense of the necessity -- and the difficulty -- of
making such distinctions.
In our course on cities, we began by talking about the places where we
had grown up, and how they had changed over our lifetimes. We met with
an architect to talk about high rises and skylines. Ideas about
consumerism and sustainability became the focus of a class with an
urban planner, and a sociologist talked with us about the effects of
globalization on the shape of cities. Finally, an artist who is
designing a waterfront park came to discuss ideas about making public
art in and out of neglected urban spaces. Students learned a
vocabulary for talking about the changes they can see happening in
their neighborhoods as well as in the world at large.
Inevitably, there is a certain amount of overlap among the sessions;
predictably, discussions sometimes meander and leave the topic
altogether. But most of the sessions include a moment when some of the
students catch fire and carry the rest of us forward, or when someone
gets the idea of dialogical inquiry and asks more, and better,
questions. Sometimes students discover that their intuitions don't
match their convictions. Most interesting, however, are the times
when, as in the discussion of war and peace during the run-up to the
invasion of Iraq, we find ourselves trying hard to make sense of the
I've thought a lot about what makes the courses work. The topics
belong to no one field: Different disciplines may contribute
perspectives to the issues we cover, but when faced with the problem
of evil, for instance, we are all amateurs. We use no set body of
material, and students' own experiences and examples often become
common points of reference.
Each course is for one academic credit -- enough to make the students
take the class seriously; but the grade is pass or fail, so students
don't need to demonstrate mastery of a subject. To keep the atmosphere
informal, we meet in a dining hall rather than a classroom. And mixing
up faculty members with outside guests shows that ideas can live off
Maybe the most unexpected lesson of Big Ideas, however, is that
professors appreciate making conversation, too. It can be tough to
step out of the comfort zones of our expertise, to let go of
disciplinary jargon. But the opportunity to speak, not as a
professional to novices, but as a citizen with other (albeit younger)
citizens, can be liberating. It's not just a cocktail party -- and
that, I think, is the main point.
Rick Livingston is the associate director of the Institute for
Collaborative Research and Public Humanities and a senior lecturer in
comparative studies at Ohio State University at Columbus.
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