Tuesday, April 3, 2018

A College introduced a rigorous Western Civ class, and something weird happened

Demand was double what they expected:
LTRS 3803, the first part of the two-semester, team-taught course at the University of Oklahoma ... goes against all the conventional wisdom. It’s modeled on [W. H.] Auden’s course, with a few changes. The instructors — Kyle Harper, a classicist and the university’s provost; the historian Wilfred McClay; and David Anderson, a professor of English — have spread it out over an entire year, and they’ve excised a few books (Dante’s Paradiso, Baudelaire and Rimbaud, Kafka). But they added The Odyssey, The Aeneid, Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Paradise Lost, Robinson Crusoe, Pride and Prejudice, Nietzsche, Invisible Man, and other 20th-century masterpieces such as Derek Walcott’s neo-Homeric epic Omeros. They dropped most of the operas but kept Don Giovanni and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. They speak frankly in the course description of taking "delight in the Western canon" and hold fast to themes of little currency in the research world: destiny, God and "the gods," a meaningful life, authority. 
When enrollment opened last semester, the unexpected happened. The course filled up within minutes. Harper had already warned his students, "This is the hardest class you will ever take." The syllabus was posted online in advance, so that students knew exactly what they were getting into. The course meets a general-education requirement at Oklahoma, but so do many other courses with half the workload. To accommodate the unexpected demand, the class was expanded from 22 to 30 students, the maximum number that the assigned classroom could hold.
It's higher now.  And while I whine about the rigor of my own study of Western Civ, this strikes me as precisely correct:
One fellow grumbled that he had to do three times as much work as he did in his other classes. The rest nodded. But you could hear in his words the self-respect that comes from doing more work than the norm, from climbing the highest hill while your peers dog it. Another student said that the page-count of the syllabus had flattered her, that it showed the professors respected her enough to demand that she take on a heavy load of historic literature. "This is what I came to college for," another said. One more chimed in, "This class is changing my life."
The flame of knowledge flickers, but has yet to be extinguished in the Fever Swamp of today's Academy.

And the reading list is excellent.  I've read probably two thirds of the list, and cannot recommend Wagner's Tristan und Isolde highly enough - enough that I've posted that it is perhaps the most hauntingly lovely music ever written.  It is said that a civilization can be studied by its deeds, by its thoughts, and by its art.  The art is the only one of the three that doesn't lie.  I'd add this to the canon:

Image via Il Wik
Will Durant's volume on the Renaissance is outstanding about the transformation of art that occurred in the 15th Century, and spends quite some time on this fresco by Raphael.  He wasn't just a turtle, you know.

After all, that's the point - introduce the most important parts of Western Civilization.  Well done, Oklahoma.

Hat tip: Ann Althouse, who has some interesting thoughts on the matter.

6 comments:

Glen Filthie said...

I am a product of Gen X skepticism, the dissident right and the Manosphere, BP. Were it anybody but you singing the praises of a program like this - I would have dismissed them out of hand.

Captain Capitalism calls course work like this 'useless' and he's difficult to refute - in the real world, in today's job market... I don't see this being of any practical value.

Having said that, were I to win the lotto I would give the workplace the finger and sign up for it too. Am I missing something here? Have these guys redeemed the arts and humanities after the beating and corruption that the progressives and fake academics laid on them?

I will have to drop in on A-house, I see...

Steve Kupillas said...

I was given the opportunity to be in an Honors program my first year in college. Nobody ever told me what going to college was going to be like in the first place. By the time I graduated from High school, I was already indoctrinated into socialism as a teaching method. I failed miserably. It was only after working in plywood and lumber mills for 5 or six years, that I realised the wood products industry was doomed, and I forced myself through college only to be a biologist of 30+ years and make 40k a year. Most of college was garbage, even back in the early 80's. The last twelve years have been pretty dissapointing. Things may be looking up. Like retirement!

Borepatch said...

I don't think that this sort of thing pays off in an ROI sense, but it is entirely in-line with what used to be considered the core mission of higher education. It is perhaps a fool's errand these days, but my point was that I hadn't thought that this sort of thing was even going on anymore.

Captain Capitalism's book "Worthless" is a great overview of how to calculate ROI for college. Humanities doesn't make the cut, although if you do it as a hobby (as I do) then there's non-financial value to be had.

Dan said...

I am envious.

Kojak's Dad said...

I originally went to college for journalism. What a joke. Journalists may be able to write a story, but they are ignorant suckers. I quit, then went back to school five years and got a degree in English and History. Best investment in myself that I ever made. No, it didn't get me a job. It gave me perspective. I got myself a job.

LSP said...

What an encouraging post, thanks for that. And belated happy Easter!