7 reasons why you should take civilization in question

On June 9, 2019, President Bradley wondered on Twitter whether one of her former students at Yale would have dropped out had they chosen Vassar instead. She expressed this within the context of a New York Times Opinion piece included in her tweet, which is embedded below.

There’s a paywall, so here’s the gist of the article. It begins by describing Outer Coast, a summer-long educational program that seeks to equip students with the tools needed to “figure out what life is really for.” Per the author, these alternative programs have sprung up because mainstream colleges and universities have failed to address the big questions of life: “American colleges are too expensive, too bureaucratic, too careerist and too intellectually fragmented to help students figure out their place in the universe and their moral obligations to fellow humans.” A variety of programs incorporate traditional courses, gap years, personalized tutoring or more to address these needs. Students feel that education should be more than polishing a GPA or résumé, and programs like Outer Coast seek “to prove that it is possible to cultivate moral and existential self-confidence, without the Christian foundation that grounded Western universities until the mid-20th century.” To that end, the programs bring a variety of practices and texts to the task of examining life. 

President Bradley’s former student, Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, dropped out of Yale and went on to co-found Outer Coast.

I take up President Bradley’s open-ended question and argue for a resounding “no.” Vassar’s liberal arts soul is very much alive, and even now there are all kinds of fulfilling intellectual opportunities for every seeker at our college (though we still need more Asian American courses). Most juniors or seniors could probably list several courses that were life-changing or critical to their intellectual growth. Life-changing courses are not limited to any specific department or discipline. Here, I will highlight one such course cross-listed in two departments and as a College Course. I hope my seven points explaining the importance of the class will help illustrate why Kreiss-Tompkins wouldn’t drop out had he enrolled, and why you should take it, no matter your major, class year or future career plans. 

At the heart of Vassar’s esteemed academic tradition of fearless inquiry stands Civilization in Question (CLCS-101, also known as Civ in Q). The course was first taught in 1982 in response to faculty concerns regarding the breadth and unity of Vassar’s education and to “Great Books” courses popular and occasionally mandatory at other colleges and universities, such as Columbia University. The Miscellany News ran an informative article when the course came out of a five-year hiatus and was taught in the fall of 2017. Civ in Q will be offered once again this fall semester 2019. 

You may wonder what you’d study in a “Great Books” course. As Columbia’s website explains, “Lit Hum, as it is commonly known, is designed to enhance students’ understanding of main lines of literary and philosophical development that have shaped western thought for nearly three millennia.” However, there are reasons why Civ in Q isn’t called Western Civ in Q; as the course description itself states, “Today though, the very idea of a Western literary canon has been challenged as a vehicle for reinforcing questionable norms and hierarchies and silencing other important perspectives.”

What makes Civ in Q special is that it brings all the best that we expect from Vassar—critical thinking, nuanced analysis, consideration of power, gender and privilege, among others—to the study of ancient to renaissance literature that spans several disciplines and is itself a sort of history of ideas. 

Before I launch into the 7 points, I’d like to make some things clear. Civ in Q will not answer life’s greatest questions, nor does it pretend to. As a reading, discussion, and writing-based course, you will only get out what you put in. This course will not interest everyone, but it can offer something to everyone. Civ in Q won’t give you any immediately practical skills, but it will sharpen your thinking for a lifetime.

  1. You will be exposed to new worlds of thought. Before I heard about Civ in Q, I never knew that Vassar had a Greek and Roman Studies (GRST) Department, much less that there were books classified as “Classics.” If it weren’t for a book I read in junior year of high school that mentioned the “Great Books,” I likely would have never taken Civ in Q, or even ended up as a double major in GRST. As a low-income, Latinx and queer POC, my ignorance wasn’t an accident. Certain factors prevent some of us from accessing different disciplines and finding out why they can be profoundly fulfilling and liberating to study. Take the chance now to expand and question your intellectual horizons!
  2. Learning the history of ideas is empowering. The assignments and texts lend themselves to the kind of connections that you otherwise aren’t able to make in a regular course. For example, you’ll see echoes of Plato in Augustine’s concept of virtue, and then in Machiavelli again another millennia later, as the ideas morphed into different contexts. Seeing history move through the streams of ideas will help you put in context certain conventions that may seem obvious today but stretch back thousands of years. By interrogating this flow of concepts, you will also situate yourself within that arch of history.
  3. Studying ancient literature is meaningful and relevant to the present. In a way, setting out the case for Civ in Q is also like trying to argue why one should study the ancient past. Suffice it to say that seeing the evolution of justice from bloody revenge to the orderly resolution of the courts in the 2,500 year old plays of Aeschylus can be a special experience, and not for the reasons that you may think right now. You’ll see modern society and its hidden tensions differently. Suspend your assumptions, or they may hold you back from making discoveries that could move your life in a new direction. 
  4. The team of three professors are amazing. They’re interested not just in teaching the material well, but also in students’ intellectual journeys and growth. Part of the magic of Civ in Q happens not only in classroom discussions, but also in office hours with your professors as you tease apart the threads of meaning within these texts or pursue your own questions.
  5. The critical thinking skills you learn will impact the rest of your life in surprising ways. Instead of passively watching and engaging with movies and media, for example, you’ll start to see the broader themes and questions that filmmakers or authors are invoking. I remember being fascinated and intrigued by all the meaning that unveiled itself in my mind because of the interpretative potential that class discussions revealed in Civ in Q. 
  6. Questioning the canon has implications for the self. As previously mentioned, Civ in Q has a special approach to these enduring texts that once belonged to many different civilizations and time periods. The canon itself—and the choices we make about who belongs—says a lot about our society, ultimately reflecting our own values as individuals. Fearless inquiry means we must interrogate the canon, because doing so will help us to examine ourselves as well.
  7. Civ in Q shows it is good and valid to ask the big questions. If you want to think about it in economic terms, there’s an opportunity cost to not asking the big questions at this time in your life. In fact, every moment of our lives we answer them, whether we are aware of them or not. Take a moment to embrace the radical potential that exists within Vassar’s courses—specifically Civ in Q, but in others, too—to guide you to the freedom of truly thinking for yourself. By seeing the ways that various thinkers indirectly or directly addressed these questions throughout the centuries, you’ll be on your way to doing so yourself. 

If I had listened to the little assumptions that told me taking Civ in Q was a waste of time, I don’t know who I would be right now. In fact, I struggled with the first couple weeks, because the class format and content were completely new to me. If you decide to take the course, you might come up with completely different reasons for taking it, and that’s part of the magic of Civ in Q. 

I hope everyone who is intrigued in the least will take a chance. You may just find meaning in a class discussion about the magnificent humanistic dream of learning that Pico della Mirandola intended to express before the papal court in 1486 were it not for accusations of heresy. Thankfully, both for President Bradley’s question and for Vassar students, the essence of that dream may still be found in our classrooms.

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