The Magazine

Culture Shock

There’s a reason why they call it the humanities.

Aug 12, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 45 • By JONATHAN MARKS
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Especially now, when great bets are being made that massive online courses will open education up to people who cannot otherwise afford to attend college, it is worth bearing in mind Shorris’s model, which depends on teachers who can earn the trust of students who, in the absence of such teachers, would have little hope of succeeding.

Shorris was a man of the left, and not every reader will agree with some of the ways in which he understood the success of his course: “They all had notably more appreciation for the concepts of benevolence, spirituality, universalism, and collectivism.” He also adhered to a kind of multiculturalism; and while few will argue with his claim that wisdom speaks many languages, not every reader will agree with his decision, in at least one version of the course, to set aside Western texts entirely. 

But in The Art of Freedom, Shorris nonetheless champions an idea of the humanities as something that transcends politics and against which the works of any culture can be judged. The idea of the humanities as the source of reflection is the means by which “the Greeks first stepped back from nature to experience wonder at what they beheld.” At the first Clemente graduation, Shorris had his students “recall the moment when [they] had come to the denouement of .  .  . [Aristotle’s] Nicomachean Ethics” and, in particular, when they had encountered “the idea that in the contemplative life man was most like God.” 

“One or two, perhaps more, of the students closed their eyes,” says Shorris. “In the momentary stillness of the room, it was possible to think.” 

Had Shorris told us in the beginning that this was the very moment at which his course was aiming, I would have thought, “That will never work.” Amid increasing calls for us to recognize that college is not the best path for everyone, it is worth recalling, too, this quiet moment—and its democratic promise that the humanities will sometimes find its lovers in surprising places.

Jonathan Marks is professor of politics at Ursinus College.