Humanities requirement should reflect diversity of iconic literature

The Curricular Design Working Group, which was formed this semester to propose changes to the Geneseo curriculum following the Geneseo Learning Outcomes for Baccalaureate Education guidelines, recently sent out a campus-wide email soliciting suggestions on how to improve Geneseo education. 

One key component of the group’s mission is to evaluate and recommend changes to the general education requirements. They are working within several kinds of restraints—including working within SUNY’s general education requirements—but the process is an exciting one. Who hasn’t complained about a course they were required to take?

Since the group can only make changes that conform to SUNY requirements, they have the most power over features of our general education requirements that are specific to Geneseo. The most notable of these is the two-semester Western Humanities requirement. 

Much ink has been spilled in criticism of the HUMN requirement, some of it within HUMN classes themselves. Critics argue that the rigidly controlled list of what texts can be taught is too inflexible, the requirement that every student—regardless of major—take the classes too demanding. 

The humanities provide a moral and imaginative education that is central to the goal of a liberal arts education and to the life of a thinking person. My HUMN I class—which I took last semester—remains one of the top three courses I’ve taken at Geneseo. The requirement is important, but it has significant flaws.

The biggest problem with HUMN is that its stringently controlled list of required texts makes it too strongly focused on “traditional”—meaning white, non-queer, male, European—experiences and perspectives both within the body of Western thought and within the discipline of the humanities. 

To an extent, this focus is exactly the point of a course intended to focus on Western intellectual history. There is certainly an important role for learning about the ideas that have driven Western civilization within a liberal arts education, and Geneseo should retain this component of the HUMN requirement in some form. 

The focus becomes harmful, however, when it diminishes the role of other cultures, perspectives and experiences in shaping the intellectual landscape, both within the history of Western civilization and in the modern globalized world. 

It also limits students from engaging with the humanities in ways that help to explore diversity, which is a powerful capacity of the humanities. The current HUMN requirement functions in this way.

HUMN is notoriously inflexible, but a lesson can be taken from the creativity of professors that work within the constraints Geneseo imposes on them. Different sections of HUMN have mini focuses on gender issues, environmental issues, political issues, specific cultural traditions and even business perspectives.

Geneseo should recognize the value of allowing the humanities to engage powerfully with other areas of intellectual inquiry while also maintaining the rigor of its humanities requirement. 

One compromise would be to require two semesters of HUMN, but require only one to be focused on Western civilization. This would allow the other HUMN requirement to be counted toward various majors and minors, like women’s studies and environmental studies. 

It would also allow professors to take the emphasis off studying the Western canon itself in order to facilitate more emphasis on bringing its contributions into conversation with other perspectives, experiences and cultures. 

Such a flexible system would align well with GLOBE’s goal of ‘Integrative Inquiry’ and would better prepare Geneseo students for the complexities of intellectual life in the modern world.