I teach a range of courses at Geneseo, and just completed reading thirty-one essays for my section of Western Humanities. I teach the first half of the two-semester sequence, a great-books course on the University of Chicago model. The students begin the semester reading Antigone, and finish with another tragedy, Hamlet. In between they struggle through Thucydides, Plato, Cicero, the Bible, Augustine, Aquinas, and More.
I teach the course in an explicitly ahistorical manner: the authors of these works raise questions that we still are struggling to answer. Teaching during the final months of a presidential campaign that left some of my students frightened for the future, others angry, and still others deeply cynical; while we watched the Assad regime backed by Russian bombers shatter the lives of many hundreds of thousands of people; it was easy to see that we might learn some things from the past. Jeez. A little humility.
All students at Geneseo are required to take Humanities. For the past several decades, students take both halves of the course, reading a broad range of important works. Resource issues lamentably have forced us to consider changing that requirement, and allow students to take only one half of the course to fulfill their requirement. I am not sure if that proposal will go through, but I understand the practical realities.
I love teaching this course. In many ways, when I began teaching it several years ago, it revitalized my career, and renewed my enthusiasm for teaching. Because Humanities is a required course, I get a mix of students from across the campus, and no more than a small handful of history majors. I like that. I like the mix, the different styles of thinking, and the different perspectives the students can bring to our discussions. This past semester, the most beautiful essays were written by a student who was a bit older than the rest–at Geneseo, non-traditional students tend to stand out. He was a veteran who had seen combat in Afghanistan. In all of his essays, he used the readings to wrestle not only with the big issues we discuss in class, but with his own experiences in a war zone as a soldier. Thucydides, of course, spoke directly to his experiences, but the other works raised questions about human nature, about power, and about justice that spoke to him deeply. And this student, more than any other, struggled with the question of how we find beauty and good in a world that at times can appear so vile.
On the last day of class, I hand out this beautiful poem by Jack Gilbert,
“A Brief for the Defense.”
Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafes and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.
This student, who had seen first hand so much of the brutality of the world, could find that beauty. I have had students like him in this class: a refugee who had seen his family killed in front of him, students coming out of abusive relationships, and soldiers. I learn this from reading their essays. And I find my faith restored in the goodness of humanity by reading their work, even during very dark times. So I wrote to this student yesterday. I sent him an email, thanking him for his work this semester, telling him how much I had learned from reading his essays and how they had given me so much to think about. I told him that I did not know what he was majoring in, but that if he needed a letter of recommendation, and thought that one from me might do him some good, that I would be happy to write in his behalf. I was stunned by his response. He thanked me for my note, told me how much he had enjoyed the class, and how the assignments allowed him to work out some of the things he had been carrying around with him. But he was not going to return to Geneseo for the spring semester. He had decided to work full time, and had withdrawn from the college. Student essays can be difficult to read sometimes–if you teach, you know how bad grammar, poor punctuation, and sloppy organization can be exhausting. But the best student work, man, it can make your day, change your life, and alter your thinking. It is a loss to my college when students like this feel the need to leave, and we–all of us–need to do more to make sure that all students who want to and who have the academic ability can attend the college of their choice. There are big questions out there that we have not answered, questions that great thinkers have been wrestling with for thousands of years. I do not have all the answers. Someone out there just might.