Mon

30

Dec

2013

Preliminary Thoughts on "World Humanities" in Undergrad Curriculum (1)

Let's settle on using the term "World Humanities" as the designation of a field that studies World Canonical Texts, such as those listed on this site. As I have been analyzing how different programs are structured for Harvard, I will continue to use its undergrad curriculum as the framework.

 

1. For an academic field to exist, it needs to distinct itself from existing fields. The distinctiveness of "World Humanities" vs. other related fields would be:

a) Vs. other "Languages and Civilizations," "Languages and Civilizations," or geographically-focused departments ("South Asian Studies," "African & African American Studies"): seeks to include the whole world in some sense - clearly it can't  be literally everything in the world, so this needs delineation.

b) Vs. "Literature" or "Comparative Literature," the key difference is that this is not just about literature in the aesthetic sense, but broader to include other textual canons - at least religion and philosophy, and also some canonical history texts; also, as I mentioned before, the focus of the department is mostly Western/European literature in the last 500 years; and so there will be a difference in the broader focus and deeper engagement beyond the Western canon.

c) Vs. "Religion," this is more about just the textual portion of religious practices as one component of study.

d) Vs. "Philosophy," this is less about thinking about philosophy problems but about reading canonical philosophical (and religious) texts to understand "intellectual history" in the broader sense.

d) Vs. "History," the focus is not about what happened, but what was written down and became influential - so there is "intellectual history" in this sense, and also in the sense that canonical historical texts need to be read to understand the "history of history." In analyzing courses offered by departments, I find I am interested in many History courses, but then I realized that this is an interest that is academic related but distinct from the interests in "World Canonical Texts."

 

2. So, what are the fundamental interests in having "World Humanities" as a field?

a) Just like World History and World Literature have emerged in the past decade(s) from traditional western-based History and Comparative Literature disciplines, World Humanities is the outgrowth of the old, western-focused Humanities.

b) Ultimately, what is at stake here is that an educated person in the early 21st century, or more specifically, someone with a good "liberal arts" education, cannot be like someone in the 16th century in Europe who knew the canonical texts in Latin (and Greek if top-educated), or in the 19th century in Britain who knew the canonical texts in Latin (and Greek), plus the languages and literatures in French (and German; plus Italian for the top-educated)

c) Now, in top US universities like Harvard, it defines its own undergrad "General Education" requirement - 1 writing class, meeting foreign language requirement (if none before, just 1 year is good enough), and 8 classes distributed into different disciplinary focus. This is good General Education, yet I feel it is less structured enough and does not address the need for a structured program of study of humanities on the world scale.

 

3. The above-considerations, together with the analysis on what differentiates Humanities and Social Science, the "flavor" of "World Humanities has the following components:

a) Geographies: not just the West (incl. Russia / Latin America), and not just West and non-West. Needs to seek some coverage in 3-4 big regions: 1) West; 2) East Asia; 3A) Near Eastern (and Africa); 3B) South (and Southeast Asia). The last two can be thought of as the "South." 

b) Time Period: not to start in archaeological time, and not to get too close to contemporary period. Maximum span from 1000BC to around 1900AD, but realistically focus is more around 600BC to ~1800.  Potential subdivision of period into two: 1) 600 BC to 600 AD; 2) 600AD to 1800AD.

c) Objects of study: texts, their formation, subsequent interpretations and impact. Only canonical texts - more interest in currently living traditions than "dead" texts; and not in all fields - primarily "scientific" texts not to be included in the tradition of Humanities. Key type of texts are 3-4: 1) Literature; 2) Religious; 3A) Philosophical; 3B) Historical - the last two could be thought of as "intellectual history," which would also include political thought (btw, taught in Harvard's Government department).

d) Methods of study: in the tradition of Humanities - close reading; questioning the texts, philological study, which require; Potential levels of studies are: 1) World-comparative; 2) Surveys of large-scale traditions; 3) Individual authors and/or works.

e) Languages: cannot be all languages in which relevant canonical texts are written. But needs to be important ones -  in the sense of texts as originally written, and (taking the cue of Ph.D. requirements in different Languages/Civilizational study programs), "modern scholarly languages."

 

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