by The Cowl Editor on April 20, 2023
The Development of Western Civilization class does not need to update the books required for the course. There is something inherently special about reading ancient literature, whether that be Greek mythology in works like Homer’s Odyssey or theological texts like the Bible. It forces us to consider elements of past histories and cultures. If we refrain from engaging in ancient texts, how will we ever maintain a basic knowledge of the past?
Understanding our world’s past histories and cultures is crucial in the development of our current world. Ensuring we recognize the mistakes of the past in order to provide a more successful future requires us to acknowledge old literature. Reading ancient literature provides us with this knowledge and also helps us to analyze diverse writing styles. After all, ancient literature serves as the primary source of inspiration for all future works and styles of writing.
The modern literature assigned in the course is of equal importance, however. My colloquium course specifically focused on comparing modern retellings of ancient stories to their originals. This worked effectively to demonstrate the similarities and differences between the two and how literature has developed over centuries. Ultimately, both the modern and ancient texts in the Development of Western Civilization courses can provide crucial cultural and historical information. Thus, the works of literature assigned to students in the course should not be refreshed.
Historians, professors of the classics, and college students can agree that higher education relies on sources that derive from or highlight the victor’s experience. Narratives of and from the opposite side have vanished from the agenda—socially eclipsed and even physically destroyed by the victor. We live in far more modern times than the days of imperialism and empires. It is our duty as inclusive and globally aware humans to discover the “other sides” in history, philosophy, and religion, and to fight to have those stories told.
One topic that already experienced a source-material refresh was America’s past with slavery. Two decades ago, students were reading from matter-of-fact textbooks and classical works like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Classical texts are successful in showcasing a point of view from a particular time, but in this case, students were not reading the most important point of view when it came to slavery; the slave’s perspective is ignored if students only read these novels. Within the past decade, curriculum developers have instead taken the inclusive route and highlighted narratives written by former slaves that showcase exactly what was suppressed for centuries. Works like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers Project replaced the classical texts written by well-off white men.
In terms of editing the reading content within the Development of Western Civilization program at Providence College, I encourage DWC professors to reevaluate their syllabi and ask: how will my students benefit in the grand scheme of things after reading these works? Professors need to include perspectives from both sides of global contentions like wars, all perspectives from landmark socio-political events like presidential elections, and question if the material is truly beneficial to the student in the long run. Yes, reading classical texts is important because they give readers a glance at what a time period was like, but really, how much is there to learn from the entirety of Beowulf? DWC is a core part of the Providence College experience. Instead of requiring students to read entire classical texts that are complicated, lengthy, and traditional, professors can consider shortening some requirements so more time is available to feature the “other sides” of history.