[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


    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
    ordinary life.
    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
    world together.
    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
    campus, too.
    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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