By Invitation
Great Books and Global Brutalities (3 of 6)

“How do we teach the humanities all over the world?” has been the explicit question at the heart of all the workshops that the Humanities Core has hosted this year. This time, in the third workshop held online on January 25, 2022, the discussion foregrounded a previously implicit question: not only how to teach the humanities, but why.

In line with previous workshops, guest speakers Professor Nasrin Rahimieh, of the University of California Irvine, and Professor Najeeb Jan, of Habib University, each delivered a presentation on their roles in their humanities core programs at their respective institutions. These talks, valuable sources of information for scholars interested in the nuts and bolts of different pedagogical approaches, provide listeners with clear insight into how humanities education is structured at each institution. Whether and how often the curriculum changes, and who designs and teaches it, are questions that reveal a great deal about the educational philosophy of a department, university, or college, though they rarely get discussed outside of closed-door faculty and administrative meetings. Yet, as always, it was during the wider discussion that the question of how such teaching varies globally really came to life. Prof. Jan led the group in this direction by remarking that he has taught extensively in both Karachi, Pakistan, and Boulder, CO. One of his signature classes, “What is Power?,” evolved as it moved from Boulder to Karachi, in no small part due to the higher concentration of specifically imperial power in Pakistan. Though his emphasis on climate catastrophe, imperialism, fascism, and nationalism has always been pertinent, Jan maintains that this engagement with crisis has become easier in Karachi classrooms due to the students’ own heightened awareness of the distorted influence of American domestic and foreign policy. But this sustained critique carries pedagogical responsibility. Unlike his peers in related fields like economics and anthropology, said Jan, scholars in the humanities seem to carry, in the eyes of students, an outsized responsibility to have all the answers in the face of immense questions of what it means to be human. “It’s a question, of course, that demands an answer now more than ever before. And I often feel like I don’t have an answer. I can maybe help them diagnose the crisis in more interesting and fanciful ways, but I don’t really have a solution. There’s this intense sense,” he said, referring to teaching the humanities, “of the entire [pedagogical] project being a failure. Are we talking about global humanities or global brutalities?” he mused.

Both Profs. Jan and Rahimieh pointed to the COVID-19 pandemic as a watershed moment in their pedagogical treatment of crisis and failure. This is not the moment, said Rahimieh, for the Humanities Core at UCI to focus on the “greats”—the achievements, the classic works—not when her first-generation students are forced to sit in their bathrooms to participate in Zoom classes. What is our ethical responsibility to these students, asked Rahimieh, and how should we represent the humanities within that responsibility?

At this point, pushback from the audience began. Are we not always already living in crisis? asked Professor Dan Edelstein. Is this moment any different from that of the nuclear age with its fears of complete annihilation, from the rule of the Thirty Tyrants after the Peloponnesian War? Is there not a small degree of parochialism in the present claim to be living through a uniquely challenging moment? And, more to the point, ought not our responsibility as teachers be to provide our students with the energy and peace of mind they might need to go out and solve the problems to which we in the humanities have no answers and will not be able to solve?

Prof. Edelstein drove the conversation to the implicit question at the center of the workshop: what is the point of the humanities right now? Do they help us save the world? Become a better person? Develop empathy? Which line of reasoning do we use to justify our own existence to administrators, to students, to donors? This question and its subsidiaries form the center not only within our own discussions at HumCore, but of the larger discussion about core humanities curriculum design (popularly known as “Great Books courses”) at a national level in the United States. One need only briefly scroll through the charged debate about the moral value of a humanities education, sparked by Louis Menand’s review of Roosevelt Montás’ 2021 book Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation and the multiple responses to said review, to see how hotly contested the seemingly straightforward claim of moral betterment through the humanities can be. We might, however, want to note the focus of these male writers, all publishing their takes in high-profile publications, on mostly elite institutions like Columbia University and the University of Chicago. This also highlights awkwardness of posing such a question to faculty members at diverse public universities and small liberal arts colleges

It is in this vein that Prof. Jan asked, pointedly, what it means to talk about the humanities in a place like Kabul right now. What does it mean to teach and study the humanities in Pakistan, given that humanities majors in the United States go on to futures in the military industrial complex, foreign policy, and the corporate worlds that have directly produced the kinds of the precarity and economic deprivation seen in places like Kabul and Karachi? How can we talk about global humanities and their democratic ideals, when some global players are responsible for the destruction of humanity and democracy of others? The result, according to Jan, is simply disinterest: students subscribed to a pragmatic, economic, market-driven certainty about their own future, represented by a commitment to computer science and engineering, feel the very existence of a humanities core to be irrelevant to them. Jan responds by telling students upfront that his class “is probably one of the most useless classes that you’ll ever take. So if you don’t have to take it, don’t.” In simply refusing the question of the value or purpose of the humanities, Jan is then able to contemplate different kinds of intellectual avenues that do not rely on capitalist notions of utility to collectively vision new futures with his students.

Yet, as long as these debates about the value of humanistic teaching continue to be held within an (elite, privately-funded) U.S. frame, we will necessarily privilege certain arguments, certain narratives. Even when initiatives like HumCore intentionally open out to center scholars from institutions like Habib University, the op-eds and books that circulate to perpetuate and shape this discussion within the United States and beyond still emerge from a narrow group of thinkers. Prof. Rahimieh acknowledged as much, recounting exchanges with Iranian colleagues who are more eager to teach Western histories of comparative literature than those that unfolded at Tehran University, along with U.S. institutions’ readiness to privilege applications to their graduate programs from international students who nonetheless recapitulate methodologies and approaches from the Global North, perpetuating the entrenchment of the discursive center as distinctly American.

Shifting the discussion to remember that “it’s not always about us,” as Rahimieh put it, is perhaps a first step in tackling our own participation in this hierarchy. Though the HumCore workshops are but one small effort in making this shift, those of us at Stanford are nonetheless privileged to be able to participate in this deeply necessary movement.


The discussion continues on the next post, available here.

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