Sunday, December 3, 2017

Teaching Western Civ Backwards

As someone who has both taken a Western Civilization sequence as an undergraduate and taught it as a teacher (my school has an interdisciplinary program that all Sophomores take) I have spent a good deal of time thinking about the scope of such a comprehensive undertaking. What is the best way to introduce students to the thought and culture that connects Greece and Rome all the way to the good ‘ol US of A? Which thinkers should we teach? How do we do proper justice to the tradition and confront the darker aspects of Western culture as well as acknowledge its achievements? There aren’t easy answers, of course, which makes the task even more interesting and keeps me coming back to the question.

The nice thing about playing around with hypothetical solutions is that you don’t have to deal with the limits presented by time, space, and personnel. One such pipe dream that I have is teaching Western Civ backwards—that is, starting with our own post-modern age and moving into the past, into the World Wars, Victorian Age, Enlightenment, Renaissance, and pushing through to end the year with the Greeks.

A crazy idea? Maybe. But here’s my thinking…

It’s been my experience that if you want to inculcate desire in students (especially in high school students), you have to present them with things they can recognize. Unless they can see the patterns of their own lives in the patterns of, say, Medieval Europe, its history and ideas will remain for them so much information to process. And the best teachers understand this, so they teach Medieval Europe through human stories—its most famous lives, its feasts, its codes of behavior, and so on, which brings the time period up close, and allows us to see it in terms of what we understand—narratives.

Any effort to make things relevant for students can go too far, of course, and curriculum designers have to be careful about being so “hip” that they end up reading young-adult fiction in English class or asking the kids to put together musical playlists in response to reading a book instead of having discussions and writing papers. But at the other end of the extreme, a philosophy or history class that remains stuck in terminology or in names and dates remains at arm’s length from the lives of students. And that’s perhaps a greater danger, for education then ceases to be an occasion for self-examination, for self-knowledge, and ultimately, for conversion, religious or otherwise.

Programs that start with the past and proceed to the present have the built-in handicap of beginning with what students don’t know. Immediately there is an obstacle to be overcome. How do you make what is ancient seem alive? The teacher is tasked with finding the tangents which reveal that the only thing different about Ancient Greece from 21st century America is situation. The easiest way to overcome this obstacle is, like I said, to teach through stories, which is why Literature is perhaps the best way of doing a survey of Western Civ course. Instead of reading facts about Mycenaean Greece, read the Iliad, and supplement with historical lectures. Instantly that culture is brought up close, and we realize that we are not that far removed from the days of the Trojan War.

But why not remove the hurdle altogether? Why not start with what students know, and from there dip into the currents that have brought us to where we are today? The burden then would not be on the teacher to make things appear familiar but instead to make them appear strange. If students begin to realize that what they thought they knew actually is far more complex, we have lassoed their natural curiosity, without which everything else is a struggle.

I haven’t really thought out this experiment to the point of crafting a reading list, but here's an idea off the top of my head. Perhaps the year might start off by discussing students’ plans for the future, about what they hope to study in college and do for the rest of their lives. No doubt the plans would be as varied as the students themselves, but everyone would be able to recognize the pressure of choosing and acquiring a skill in the upcoming years in order to earn money so that they can live a comfortable life, if they so desire it (and who doesn’t)? But this kind of career-searching is a relatively new phenomenon. What else was a career, and why? Start with a study of the information economy (the students could probably teach that one!) and work backwards into the post-war boom, and the rapid mechanization of daily life at the turn of the 20th century. Read Kafka’s Metamorphosis, study Henry Ford and Karl Marx. Continue working backwards into the Industrial Revolution, Bentham and Mill, and read Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Mary Shelley, perhaps some Hopkins, and so on.

Or you could pursue another current, and start with the modern ideals of equality and diversity, and push backwards into the Civil Rights era, reading King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and trace the religious/utopian ideals back into Aquinas, St. Paul, and the Gospels. Or take the fork in the road and go from King to Emerson and Thoreau, and from there to Rousseau and Descartes and the modern individual.

The more I’m thinking about this the more complex it seems, actually. The problem is that the thinkers you’d be reading were themselves working off of previous thinkers, often self-consciously so (think of T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” for example, which is a buffet table of Western references). And there are so many forks in the road—think of subway lines converging into a central station—that you would have to consciously stick to one theme at a time or else the class would turn into a sampling of the greatest hits while you’re frantically trying to cover everything.

But I think there’s still something to this idea. One impetus for it was watching parts of James Burke’s Connections, a British documentary from the late 70s that explored the history of ideas and inventions by starting in the present and making—you guessed it—connections to the past. The series starts out by looking at a major power outage, and revealing the “technology traps” that the modern age has set us up for. What if that power outage lasted indefinitely? How would we provide for ourselves? We would be thrust backwards in time, out of our “technological wombs” (one of Burke’s great coinages) into the necessities of survival. Here’s a clip of that sequence:

Perhaps a better way to proceed in crafting a syllabus would be to start with a present reality and then leapfrog back to the past, using the present situation as a framework to understand the line of thought studied. As an example, start with our current legal system and the specific laws in the U.S. that affect teenagers (voting, driving a car, drinking alcohol), . How does Crito or the Republic speak to that present reality, that meeting place between the ability to choose on your own and the duties to the larger community? How does Aquinas do the same? Or More’s Utopia? Or Hobbes, Locke, etc.? The key would be to always keep the modern moment at hand so that the discussion of the ideas remains real, the connections that tether the present to the past in the foreground.

I guess I don’t really have a plan here, but I’m convinced that in teaching the history of thought, we need to keep a proper balance between presenting the familiar and the strange as our students begin to understand the past. If we can help them see that the everyday realities they take for granted are actually much more unfamiliar upon closer inspection—that what they think they know is actually a mystery—then we have conquered a tremendous pedagogical obstacle. Like Oedipus, perhaps, our students can be driven by their own desire to uncover the secrets of the past in the reality of the present, and come to a much more profound understanding of themselves, and of their surroundings.

Has anyone encountered a program like this, or a book that takes this approach? Or am I missing something that throws a wrench in my whole crazy idea? I would love to hear your thoughts.

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