Sunday, November 21, 2010

Paradigms Lost

What happens when symbols lose their meanings?

It was a discouraging evening, to say the least. As I entered the scores for my students' second art history exam, the one covering the art and architecture of Greece and Rome, I faced the sort of existential crisis that every humanities teacher confronts on an increasingly regular basis: what exactly is the point of this course?

Sometimes, learning for the sake of learning just isn't enough. Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy doesn’t, for example, put food on the table or pay for prescription medication.

I know that better than most, since I was a Classics major. No, not classical music, though I do know how to rock a harpsichord. No, not Shakespeare, though I also have a decent grasp of iambic pentameter. Classics, as in everything connected to "the glory that was Greece and the splendor that was Rome." Classics is the uber humanities degree, the equivalent of Aristotle's Prime Mover of academia. "Because I say so" only wins arguments when you can plausibly claim that you have read and possibly even understood not only Aristotle in Greek, but also the German commentators on his texts.

Seriously, what is the point? What can you do with a humanities degree, besides ask "Do you want fries with that?" in five languages, two of them dead?

Harvard English professor and Pulitzer prize winner Louis Menand’s libellus, The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University, is not as incendiary as its title promises. A fascinating treatise on the development of the modern university, Menand traces the two-phylum core vs. elective evolution of General Education requirements, the rise of professionalism, and the largely unconscious process of homogeneity that the professionalizing of academia has inflicted on its practitioners; i.e., people like me.

But while Menand poses some interesting questions, he doesn't go all the way to the conclusion I want. What is the role of general education in a for-profit career college like the one where I run a general education program? Why does my school, which focuses on practical education with immediate post-graduation earning potential, require its bachelors degree seeking students to take a two-term course in the History of Art?

    My school follows the prescriptive core model of General Education, wherein the university determines which courses students “need” in order to become well rounded health care administrators or accountants. History of Art is one of the few upper division GE courses we offer, and from the start, my students complained about the course’s rigor.

But is this really rigor? On that second test, fewer than one in four of my students correctly identified the Parthenon. Not a single one could tell me who built it, or what it signified. Art and architecture depend on a common language of symbols. If my students cannot correctly identify the building that signifies the cradle of Western Civilization, what does that say about them? About me? About our culture?

    The day after the test, I walked into the classroom. Without a word, I projected a picture of the Parthenon on the screen. I turned to the class and said, "I've been thinking about this class, and about what I want you to take from it. And what I want is this."

    I gestured to the iconic, classic, Doric stricture that in many ways defined western civilization. "I need you to know that this building is the Parthenon. I need you to know that its construction was contemporary with what many scholars consider the dawn of our Western culture. I need you to know that this temple to Athena, the goddess of wisdom, was constructed by the city-state of Athens, where philosophy, democracy, geometry, logic, literature, and western art was born. I need you to see its culture’s influences all around you, in our own buildings, in our own literature, in our philosophical and political thought.”

    What happens when paradigms are lost, when, as Archibald MacLeish famously asked, “images, though seen/no longer mean?” That is the point of requiring an Art History class of the world’s future accountants and healthcare administrators. Learning about the humanities is learning about what makes us human. We few, we happy few, the humanities majors, are "the heirs of custom and tradition" that began with a building on a hill in Greece more than 2500 years ago. But we are also the ones who push the boundaries of what is possible in human thought, because that is what humans do. Why General Education? Why the Parthenon? Because we are human. Without a knowledge of our own humanity, without the language of our customs and traditions, we cannot hope to accomplish MacLeish’s call to “Invent the Age! Invent the metaphor!”