Monday, January 27, 2020

How Would You Set Up a Non-Racist, Non-Sexist Introductory Humanities Course?

The Yale Art History Department has announced that they are eliminating an old and popular course, Introduction to Art History: Renaissance to the Present. According to the Yale Daily News,
this change is the latest response to student uneasiness over an idealized Western “canon” — a product of an overwhelmingly white, straight, European and male cadre of artists.
(Straight? Really?)

I get this; there is something narrow-minded about a course solely on western art whose title doesn't even bother to mention that it is solely about western art.

But what, you ask, will replace this introductory course? In a word: nothing. Unable to agree on what a non western-centric introductory course would be like, they are declining to offer one.
Instead of this singular survey class, the Art History Department will soon offer a range of others, such as “Art and Politics,” “Global Craft,” “The Silk Road” and “Sacred Places.”
Perhaps they learned something from historians, who have spent decades trying to create World History courses to replace Western Civ, only to find themselves offering a grab bag of random facts at something like a high school level. What, exactly, can you say about world history in a semester?

The underlying message is, I think: all art is cool. All people are important. It doesn't matter which art or which people you study as long as you are learning about something.

Which is a defensible position. But if no knowledge is more important than any other knowledge, why study art or history at all? If there is nothing in particular that an educated person is supposed to know, why go to college? If there are no great books that might change you in important ways, why read any books other than the ones that most amuse you? If no art is greater than other art, why not skip the museum and watch Buffy reruns?

I can imagine a university that moved gracefully from a too-western, too male-canon to a more inclusive canon while still holding on to old-fashioned notions of excellence. But I don't see that happening. What I see is a surrender to chaos.


David said...

Based on my memory of Yale, I would say you're trying to close a barn door that's been open for decades. Distribution requirements in the early 80s were so loose as to be non-existent, and they already involved no indication that the university had a judgment about what was most essential to learn. One could easily attend without ever taking a math class (as I did) or art history (ditto) or philosophy or a foreign language; one could avoid the Greco-Roman classics entirely, if one chose. Most intermediate level courses did not require students to have taken an intro first.

My experience, then and now, is that students themselves rapidly create a sense of what's valuable to study, apart from major requirements--and that sense centers almost entirely around professors rather than subject matter. When I was in school, one didn't take the survey of western art, one took Scully; one didn't study the Cold War, one took Gaddis, Blum, and Leonhard. And so on.

In the same vein, if a given prof teaches a brilliant, thought-provoking class on Buffy, who are we to deny students that possibility? My experience is that students don't tend to walk away thinking there are no standards and Buffy is as good as Plato--in fact, why wouldn't a good Buffy class involve some reading in Plato and Aristotle? Some of the students might come out actually wanting to read Plato.

John said...


What you say about Yale is certainly true, and honestly I don't think it matters much what Ivy League schools teach. They have highly intelligent, highly motivated students who are on the whole very well prepared, and they have strong student-to-student networks sharing the info about which professors are the most mind-blowing. It probably does not matter for most of them if they ever get an introductory course in most humanities subjects, since they can jump in at the 300 level and figure things out as they go. The evidence suggests that elite students get a lot out of their educations and do very well in life.

But what about all the non-Ivy League schools and the not so well prepared students?

I don't really know, and I don't have any data, but I suspect that many of them would benefit a great deal from introductory courses and a sort of ladder of increasing difficulty. Why about your own students? Do you have any sense of how this works for them?

G. Verloren said...

I would think an introductory course would be primarily concerned with meta-information about the larger topic.

Lay the basic groundwork of the field - what even is art history? What is it for? What sorts of careers does it produce? What are the different sub-fields and specializations? What is the standard methodology? Are there actually multiple competing standards? Who uses them, when, and why? What are the major differences between those standards? What are their unique strengths, unique weaknesses, unique insights, and unique biases? Et cetera.

An introductory class exists to introduce something in broad strokes, not to drill down in fine detail. It's sole reason to exist should be to lay out all the various options and avenues of study and employment that are available, and help students figure out what they want to pursue in particular. Because people can't study what they don't know exists. And similarly, people may only want to study because they have inaccurate preconceptions, and once told differently will study something else.

David said...


My own students need a lot of introducing to things. Their knowledge of even very basic vocabulary is pretty limited. It can take a while to get them comfortable with terms like "ambassador" or "shogun." Every year I need to remind some students that Hitler was not in charge of Germany in 1914. The idea that nationalism doesn't necessarily mean that you're enthusiastic about whatever government you happen to be under (eg., Serbs under the Ottomans, German nationalists under the little duke of Baden, etc., etc.) takes time. Repetition is key. Exotic names and terms can be a real stumbling-block. And I think it's important to drill down into the details of things, at least sometimes, so that they get a sense that that level of reality is there, and that it can be the most interesting part of things. And every day you spend on one thing is a day less you have for everything else.

All of this means that, in practice, issues like the west and the rest, what is history for, why should anyone take history, how do we decide what students should know, what history even is, etc., etc., get lost in the shuffle.