Goldberg: HUMN courses must relinquish committment to “western tradition”

After over 30 years, it’s time to change Geneseo’s Western Humanities general education requirement to better reflect our globalized society and diverse student body.

Let me begin by saying that I love the humanities courses we have right now. In fact, I want to teach courses like them one day myself. I do not believe there is any flaw in requiring students to take courses in the humanities, especially at a liberal arts school, and I do not believe there is any flaw in the way in which the courses are organized around major historical movements and fundamental questions. I do, however, find fault in the courses’ content.

By content, I do not mean to assert that there is not value in studying the works of Shakespeare, Dante or Mary Wollstonecraft. I simply want to assert that there is value in studying the works of people outside of the “western tradition” as well. Khalil Gibran, Lao-Tzu and Chinua Achebe would also offer rich value.

But I have to point out that in the 21st century, I find it puzzling why we are still committed to this idea of the western intellectual tradition, as if there is some kind of a tenable divide between the western and eastern (if we’re going to speak in arbitrary binaries, I prefer that positive term to the term nonwestern, which suggests absence of a norm rather than presence of an alternative).

Some want to say that this is “our” intellectual tradition. But again, in the globalized 21st century on a campus that makes more of an effort every year to attract students from countries other than the United States, I am puzzled by this notion of “our” tradition. Who is included in “our?”

Not everyone at Geneseo grew up in the so-called west – plain and simple. And as the economies of individual countries become more intertwined as we become increasingly globalized, the kind of binary thinking that constructs a significant divide between west and east is becoming more and more impractical and problematic.

But I would argue this is not merely a case of the times changing the kind of education that we need. This is not purely a practical argument. In fact the canon of texts around which we have built the western humanities courses is problematized in already well-documented ways by its exclusion of socially peripheral voices.

Not only were women and poor people excluded from western canons, but the west also likes to tell a story of itself as a “pure” body of knowledge. For example, the lineage from western Europe to the United States is thoroughly discussed in Western Humanities, but the convergence of western European cultural forces with Native American, Caribbean, Middle Eastern and African cultures within the space of the American colonies receives little or no attention, except perhaps when we talk about a place like New Orleans, La. where it’s more visually obvious.

So not only is it more practical to learn the greatest influences on global as opposed to merely western culture, but it is a matter in intellectual honesty. If we are honest with ourselves, the selection of western texts and thinkers will reveal itself as problematically limiting.

I do not have a concrete proposal for how the requirement should be restructured. It should absolutely not be eliminated. We need our HUMN, but perhaps we could think about replacing that “M/” requirement with a third HUMN course and organize the sequence thematically as opposed to geographically? It’s just one undergraduate student’s suggestion. I offer it humbly but sincerely.