Ariane de Gennaro

Last spring, after a year braving the seemingly endless cycle of readings and papers, I finally completed Yale’s Directed Studies curriculum.

I approached DS with some trepidation. A rigorous humanities sequence, DS promised to thrust me through the Western canon — a few millennia of writings from Ancient Greece to World War II — in just one year. My first year of college, no less! Furthermore, I was aware that I was entering an academic sphere dominated by white men. As a multiracial woman, I certainly wouldn’t see myself reflected in the texts outside of the occasional feminist thinker (a welcome reminder that women do, in fact, exist outside of their role in starting wars between the Greeks and Trojans). None of the readings would reflect my ethnic background.

Yale’s Directed Studies program looks like a vestige of a former time. As intellectual trends of the world move from tradition to innovation, from humanities to STEM, a year-long course on musty Western thought seems not only impractical, but also out of touch. In the name of progress, shouldn’t we just let these dead men die? 

Having shut my final DS book, I’m here to tell you that we should keep the study of the Western canon alive. 

DS has been criticized for its Eurocentrism, its dearth of diverse voices and its retreading of familiar literary ground. In a phrase, it tells the story of the West. Yet the story of the West, I believe, is entirely inseparable from the story of the world. 

The second semester of DS also tells the story of how modernity comes into being. Why does global civilization look the way it does? How did we get here? These questions are at the core of Yale’s liberal arts education, a tradition that is flickering out in many ways. A humanistic understanding of the past seems obsolete in a world barreling towards a mechanized future. But as we move forward, there has to be a place in our institutions for the recognition of what it means to be human, in all of its beauty and terror. 

Modernity, for better and for worse, has been dominated by Europe and its outgrowths that compose the Western world. Western enlightenment engendered both democracy and imperialism. Western technology included both the printing press and the atomic bomb. Western nations secured the rights of some men while systematically denying the rights of others. Western progress concluded not in utopia, but in the near destruction of itself in two world wars. The influence of the West is certainly not due to any inherent Occidental superiority, but is rather an inescapable and often tragic fact in world history. The exact mode of telling the DS story is certainly arguable (perhaps Plato could lose a week or two on the syllabus), but the story itself is essential. 

Our final Historical and Political Thought reading was Hannah Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism. Arendt herself was a student of the Western canon, and the ability to understand her references feels like the reward for the year’s work. She writes before launching into her own astute analysis of modernity: “We can no longer afford to take that which was good in the past and simply call it our heritage, to discard the bad and simply think of it as a dead load which by itself time will bury in oblivion.” 

We must acknowledge the atrocities of Western history. We must study non-Western canons in addition to DS. But the Western canon is central to modernity, a foundation of the very world we live in.

 As Arendt writes, “this is the reality in which we live.” In pursuit of a better future, we cannot ignore the past. It is only by grasping the past that we can grasp who we are in the present, and more importantly, what we can do next. 

The story does not end here. Arendt’s thought is not the period ending a sentence written in blood; World War II is not the twisted “telos, the end goal, of Western progress. DS ends in a question mark. The answer can only be found in understanding the question, in recognizing the books and battles, the brilliance and bloodshed, that led up to the conclusion of DS’s story. And so, in the name of progress, we cannot let the Western canon die. 

ARIANE DE GENNARO is a sophomore in Benjamin Franklin College. Contact her at ariane.degennaro@yale.edu.