December 15, 2004

Relevancy of the Humanities and Questions Unasked

Marc Comtois
In the course of yet another article about bias in our univerisities, William Pilger (a pseudonym), a conservative tenured professor in a southern university, managed to both display the value of a humanities education and the reluctance (and reason) that students show for engaging in any type of classroom discussion that may touch on current events. After having taught Virgil's Aenid during the course of a semester, Pilger had finally arrived at culminating point and posed the question
Did Virgil give us a world that is fundamentally just or unjust, fundamentally good or evil?

Getting the typical who-cares-the-guy-died-2,000-years- ago look, I said: "You think this doesn't matter? This is, after all, what the humanities are about. We're reading profound thoughts by a profound poet, and they help instruct us how best to live as humans in a human world. Being a human and thinking humanly and living in a world of contingencies is complex. And Virgil can help us think about what's going on now. Take Iraq, for example. How might we use Virgil's view of the world to comment on what's happening in Iraq? Who's Aeneas in Iraq? Is there a Juno? A Turnus? Where's piety? Who's in the right?"

I had finally pushed the right button to get a reaction, but not the right button to encourage discussion. The students objected en masse to the political nature of the question. So I gave a cursory sketch of two opposite ways one might relate the Aeneid to Iraq, and moved on.

After class, I asked one of the students for his read on what had happened. How could the response be so heated but the question left unengaged? He replied: "You know how it is. Students don't want to disagree with their professors. Most of the students around here are pretty conservative, but they get the strong sense that their professors are liberal. And on issues like these, they're afraid to disagree." They had made assumptions about how I would think and were reluctant to contradict me.
Notice how the students objected to the posing of the question, not it's content? They felt threatened by any contemporary topical discussion because experience had informed them that their grades could have been at stake. Rather than voice well-reasoned dissent with their instructor on the topic, and risk a poor grade, they chose silence. Not exactly an atmosphere in which open dialogue and intellectual diversity is flourishing, is it?