Western canon interrogated by Diversified Studies

Diversified Studies.

The name itself invites controversy and discussion and could imply a criticism of the Directed Studies curriculum. While we were mostly interested in mimicking the “D.S.” acronym and only incidentally stumbled on the controversy, we think the questions inspired by the title “Diversified Studies” are exactly in line with the group’s purpose.

We don’t necessarily think that Directed Studies completely ignores the diversity of human experience. As D.S. students and professors know, we have spent time in section discussing women’s issues in the Homeric epics and class issues in Plato’s “Republic,” for example. Instead, we wanted to look more closely at this diversity. We started the group in the spirit of questioning, and we want to complicate, not simplify, these texts.

To paraphrase John Lewis Gaddis: History is broken. In many ways texts from all areas of the D.S. curriculum (historical and political thought, philosophy and literature) reflect this idea. The history passed down to us is incomplete and biased. It has under-represented and misrepresented many groups of people: women, people of color and the poor, for example. Nothing is written in a vacuum, and these texts reference their larger historical context built on inequality and blindness.

Diversified Studies arose out of a number of casual conversations with other D.S. students who all agreed that they wanted to talk specifically about these issues in relation to the historical context of the primary sources, a task which time can prevent us from doing in regular discussion section.

Its development as a formal group was also influenced by a few speeches we heard at the beginning of the semester — President Levin’s speech at the Freshman Assembly, in particular, and our first D.S. Colloquium with Gaddis, Charles Hill and Paul Kennedy. Each stressed the importance of a search for “the good life” and an inquiring mind willing to read critically as well as apply the reading to life. We wanted to give people an informal, yet still rigorous, space in which to question. We might examine, for example, how classical conceptions of government influence how we perceive our own government, specifically the relationship between ancient democracy and our modern ideal.

Also, some students, especially those from historically under-represented groups, have a tenuous relationship with the concept of the Western tradition. Looking closer at how these works intersect with historical oppression offers a way to build a strong relationship with the texts.

This willingness to question and criticize what we read is an excellent complement to Directed Studies rather than an opposition to it. Without Directed Studies, Diversified Studies could not exist.

We think this type of questioning is exactly what D.S. is meant to inspire.

Directed Studies offers an incredible avenue to explore texts that have shaped the course of Western thought; Diversified Studies offers a forum to further examine the contradictory or overlooked elements within this tradition — such as whether Aristotle’s idea that some people are naturally slaves complicates other principles we may draw from him regarding liberty and the proper order of government.

In Diversified Studies, we don’t claim to have reached the truth.

Everyone agrees that the Western canon is complicated and that Western history is equally complex. How we evaluate and interact with both is not easy to figure out. For us, examining that which Western civilization has produced in literature, historical account and philosophy provides insight into the way these attitudes toward women, minorities and the lower class have shaped out thought. We seek to understand how the authors subvert or reinforce these attitudes.

These aren’t small issues, obviously. And they loom especially large at our particular moment in history. For us as students in a university that is the platform of constant debates regarding socioeconomic and ethnic diversity, these discussions are especially important.

How we interpret and criticize these texts and the history that produced them directly affects how we respond to what’s going on around us. Diversified Studies has made us more keenly aware of how history still advises us in a multitude of ways and in how we continuously interact with it in all fields as we try to define who we are and who we will become.

This complication and questioning is integral to the search for “the good life,” a principle that we pursue through both Directed Studies and Diversified Studies.

Rhiannon Bronstein and Elisa Gonzalez are freshmen in Directed Studies. They are the founding members of Diversified Studies.

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