Letter to the Editor: Professor defends Humanities after calls for change

I want to take the opportunity to address some misconceptions about Western Humanities I and II at Geneseo.

Misconception #1: The courses "privilege" Western civilization. Fact: The courses no more privilege Western civilization than calculus "privileges" numbers. The courses are about Western Civilization. Most colleges and universities have some sort of Western Humanities requirement, and rightly so. We have an obligation to understand our own values and institutions. To require a similar Non-Western Humanities course at Geneseo would be fine, if it could be staffed, but it should be required in addition to Western Humanities I and II, not instead of one of them.

Misconception #2: The courses foster a "white male" point of view. Fact: There is no such thing as a white male point of view, any more than there is a "female" or a "black" point of view. There are only points of view. Does Clarence Thomas speak for all people of color? Does Anne Coulter speak for all women? White males disagree among one another on a broad range of issues ? political, social, religious, etc. A "white male" viewpoint does not exist.

Misconception #3: The courses presuppose a biased conception of the great books. To require them, most of which were written by white males, gives the wrong impression. We need other "role models." Fact: The required works in Western Humanities I and II are not considered great because they were written by white males. They are great books that happen to have been written by white males. Similarly, many of the great scientists, composers, etc., have been white males. Should we not read Newton's works? Should we not listen to Beethoven's music? There are objective criteria for determining greatness. Does it follow that white males are intellectually superior? Of course not. It is a tragedy that, for so long, the voices of women and others were muted. What a waste of talent! Almost certainly, there would have been a female and/or black counterpart to Newton or Beethoven. Anyway, the "role model" argument is feeble. Five-year-old children need role models. Our students do not. Most Geneseo students are intelligent, strong, independent thinkers. To suggest that they might believe themselves incapable of achieving their full potential merely because they are required to read books by white males is absurd.

Misconception #4: The courses should deal primarily, perhaps exclusively, with issues of gender, race and class. Fact: Western Humanities I and II ask broad, general, universal questions such as the following: What are human beings in general like? Are they rational? Are they good? What is the basis of government? What is the basis of morality? How can we be happy? Does God exist? These questions transcend issues of gender, race and class. Certainly, there is much room for instructors in Western Humanities I and II to discuss some of these more particular issues, but they are not our primary concern. The Humanities emphasize the things that we have in common. Some folks may be confusing the Humanities with the Social Sciences. The disciplines of psychology, sociology and anthropology focus on these more particular issues of gender, race and class.

Misconception #5: The courses should foster a "politically correct" point of view. Fact: No instructor should impose a particular political view on his or her students. Education is neither "consciousness raising" nor indoctrination in a particular ideology. The antidote to ideological thinking is critical thinking. We should equip our students with the knowledge and skills that will enable them to form and criticize their own beliefs.