The Liberal Arts Tradition, African-American Legacy, and the Introduction of Diversity to Western Traditions

by

Paul E. Logan
Howard University

"Broad Sympathy -- an understanding of the world that was and is. . . "

I would like to express my appreciation to the Association for Core Texts and Courses for this opportunity to share with you this paper and the essence of a pilot core curriculum in the humanities in the College of Arts and Sciences at Howard University.

Any discussion of the liberal arts tradition and its future in a world in which students must learn to think multidimensionally; must be able to look forward and backward with some degree of balance; must be prepared to see trends, compare situations, and deal with the non-measurable, even the nonexistent; must learn to take facts or concepts and deal with them critically; and will be examined on their ability whether they can perform critical evaluations and analyses, should begin with a statement which explores that tradition in the contemporary context. Attempts to weaken the liberal arts tradition and to substitute curricular responses to "the preeminence of business and technology" have compelled Jacques Barzun, author and professor of history at Columbia University, Edward O. Wilson, PulitzerPrize-winning author and professor of science at Harvard University, and a dozen other scholars to create an organization which reaffirms the value of the liberal arts and redefines the curricular foundation upon which they were built. That organization is the American Academy of Liberal Education (AALE) which has been approved recently by the United States Department of Education as an accrediting agency for liberal arts colleges. In its Handbook for Accreditation , AALE, in "Standard Six" of its "Education Standards," prescribes that "[m]ember colleges include within the general education requirement, mandatory courses which provide basic knowledge of mathematics and the physical and biological sciences, including laboratory experience; intermediate knowledge of at least one foreign language; the study of literature and literary classics so as to expose the student to major ideas, works and authors; the study of the political, philosophical and cultural history of Western Civilization; and the study of the political and economic foundations of American society." In response to the challenges to the liberal arts tradition in the contemporary context, Jeffrey D. Wallin, President, AALE, in his introductory statement to the Handbook offers the following:

Liberal learning -- broad learning about the universe and nature, and about humanity and human achievements -- is needed now more than ever. As the pace of life becomes more complex and fast moving, the need for specialized knowledge and training obviously increases. But specialized knowledge cannot provide understanding of human powers, abilities, or ends, or even about the uses of specialized knowledge. This is why reflective education about what is permanent, and what is common to all, combined with rigorous training in the skills of learning, remains the highest purpose of undergraduate education, regardless of whatever other kinds of education or training may be provided.

The reported "decline" of the liberal arts may in fact be the result of the departure of certain liberal arts colleges from the curricular foundation upon which the liberal arts were established. It is the opinion of many noted educators that, if the prescribed curriculum -- with, of course, some defining refinements -- is proffered by colleges of liberal arts, then there will occur a renaissance and restoration of the liberal arts to their rightful place -- the centerpiece of American higher education.

Colleges of liberal arts have been always and continue to be places where the basic and essential skills in English, mathematics, foreign languages, literature, philosophy, the sciences, and history have been taught. In the large university context, these colleges are wellsprings of knowledge to which schools of business, engineering, communication, fine arts, etc., send their students to be liberally educated. At a time when the world is becoming more technically oriented, there is growing support for a swing back to the liberal arts.

The liberal arts tradition has reasserted and trumpeted itself as the backbone of American higher education. Without a strong, viable, and academically sound liberal arts college or program, no university can stand. Professional schools within the university systems are requiring their students to undergo the rigors of study in the liberal arts colleges, for they impart to students a knowledge of the importance of the highest creative achievements of mankind; an appreciation of these accomplishments; an awareness of other cultures; the means by which they can acquire and develop a greater sensitivity to ethical issues and to the importance of moral choices; and the achievement of skills in writing, foreign languages, critical thinking, the humanities, the natural and social sciences. In the colleges of liberal arts are embedded the singular characteristics which define educated human beings and elements which buttress all of their endeavors.

It is, therefore, the goal of a liberal arts college to assist students in developing their capacities in such a way as to reach the highest possible level of personal achievement and also to make their maximum contribution to society in which they live. Therefore, without regard to the traditional separation among the disciplines, the liberal arts provide students with educational experiences intended to enhance their sense of place in history; their knowledge of art, literature and foreign languages; their understanding of the world of science; and their ability to move freely in a world of many cultures. Colleges of liberal arts seek, therefore, not only to educate students broadly, but also to provide them with the knowledge and understanding which will prepare them for graduate and professional study, particularly in fields in which society has critical needs.

Brand Blanshard, in his essay "The Uses of a Liberal Education" (The Uses of a Liberal Education , The Open Court Publishing Company, La Salle, Illinois, 1973), maintains that one of the direct satisfactions achieved through the liberal arts is "the satisfaction of an understanding mind":

And even if Eliot and Picasso are all that their admirers say they are, we shall not find it out by approaching them jauntily and demanding that they stand and deliver. We cannot see [until] we have eyes to see, and perhaps also some mental spectacles.

As a direct result of studying the liberal arts, our powers of response are enlarged, according to Blanshard, by engaged encounters with the thoughts and ideas of others. "Indeed," Blanshard maintains, "many things remain simply invisible till we see them through others' eyes." The study of philosophy, literature, and history, the understanding of the natural world through scientific inquiry compel "a finer power of response" (Blanshard) and promote, according to The Report for the Project on Liberal Education and the Sciences published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, "intellectual integrity, curiosity, skepticism, tolerance for ambiguity, and openness to new ideas" (The Liberal Art of Science: Agenda for Action ). The liberal arts build minds, "not like a rock pile, but like an organism. If you can add a stone or a thousand stones to the rock pile, none of the original stones will take the least notice or perhaps stir one inch from its place. But you cannot add to [the] mind an understanding of Plato or Milton or modern Europe and leave the rest of your mind what it was; everything you think or feel or do will be affected by it" (Blanshard). Furthermore, Blanshard's 1973 response to the question of the practicality of the liberal arts rings truer today than yesterday:

A liberal education impractical? Why there is nothing in the range or our speech or thought, our feeling or action, that it leaves quite as it was! Because the educated man knows the difference between knowledge and opinion, his thought on everything -- on his business, on his creed, on the devaluation of the dollar ~~ will be more selfcritical and more precise. Because speech is the reflection of thought, his talk on all these matters will have more point and precision and weight. Again, right feeling is largely a matter of right thinking; if a man is honestly convinced that racial discrimination is wrong, the struggle for right feeling is two-thirds won. While the ships, bridges, palaces, fortresses, temples built and erected by the ancient Greeks have come to us as ruins, what remains are the thoughts of Plato, the art of Sophocles, the logic and ethics of Aristotle. Literature, therefore, according to Blanshard, is the immortal part of history, and in this history, "[t]here is a moral, [namely] the usefulness, the transcendent usefulness, of useless things" (Blanshard).

The aforementioned paradigms of study guided the Humanities Program of the College of Arts and Sciences from the 1940s until 1960s exploring the thoughts of humankind from Homer to James Joyce, until, in response to student protests, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man was added. However, the curriculum became in the 1970s a political hot potato, and as a result of declining enrollments in the departments, the Humanities Program, as an independent unit was abolished, and departments began to offer and place courses onto the so-called Chinese menu which replaced the Humanities Program. In 1990, with the arrival of Dr. Eleanor W. Traylor to the campus as the professor of English and chairman of the Division of the Humanities, the College hammered out a pilot humanities core curriculum, the moorings of which can be found in the paradigm first articulated by W. E. B. Du Bois in his book The Souls of Black Folk :

Now the training of men [read "and women," throughout ) is a difficult task. Its technique is a matter for educational experts, but its object is for the vision of seers. If we make money the object of man-training, we shall develop money-makers but not necessarily men; if we make technical skill the object of education, we may possess artisans, but not, in nature men. Men we shall have only as we make manhood the object of the work of the schools -- intelligence, broad sympathy, knowledge of the world that was and is, and of the relation of men to it this is the curriculum of the Higher Education which must underlie true life. On this foundation we may build bread winning, skill of hand and quickness of brain, with never a fear lest the child and man mistake the means of living for the object of living. (From "The Talented Tenth")

The Division of the Humanities in the College of Arts and Sciences at Howard University thus embarked on a two-semester course of study which involves the exploration of the themes of cultural collision and resolution; loss and recovery; tradition and change; the quest for personal integrity; the quest for kinship; the quest for the greatest good; the examined life; the question of self and the other; the question of choice and right action; the question of conventional wisdom vs. examined thought; question of identity; the question of community and the pariah; the question of alienation and reconciliation; and the question of good and evil in a number of texts which are often not found in traditional core curricula -- texts such as Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart: Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali ; Lady Murasaki Shikibu's The Tale of Genji; Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass ; Charles Johnson's Middle Passage ; Wole Soyinka's The Strong Breed ; Edward Braithwaite's The Arrivants ; James Baldwin's The Amen Corner: Black Elks Speaks ; Gwendolyn Brooks' Maud Martha ; and Toni Morrison's Beloved . One will find also traditional texts: Homer's The Iliad / The Odyssey ; Sophocles' The Theban Plays ; Shakespeare's Hamlet ; and Goethe's Faust .

In its "Introduction" to this course of study, the Division states that the study of the humanities is the study of "our own selves: our desires, our defeats, our triumphs, our sufferings, our joys, and our possibilities." It is a record kept by writers, painters, sculptors, architects, musicians, and artisans whose works have influenced generations which follow. And understanding these artistic expressions makes us aware and appreciative of the ideas and thoughts of human beings who have preceded us and who are our contemporaries. The goal of the humanities core is to create a space of "athomeness" with the people of the world in the intellectual lives of students.

The challenge to the African-American liberal arts college is more heightened by its people's position in the West, for they must position them, their ancestors, their history in the world in which they reside and will have to compete. African Americans must know the West to understand it and their relation to it in order to survive intellectually and spiritually. In demanding that its studentsAlrst study the intellectual legacy of the West, the source of the most powerful and pervasive influences on America and all of its people, the African-American liberal arts college must insist that their students study critically their legacy as it is refracted through the lenses of Western Civilization, while demanding that they examine the legacy of the West as it is refracted through the prisms of their own culture. The result of such an inquiry leads ultimately to African American students' laying claim to a land which heretofore has been alien soil and to a culture which has defined, through the enslaved's emancipatory quest, the concept of freedom. Evidence of the practicality of the liberal arts in the African-American context is irrefutable, indisputable, and inescapable, for the AfricanAmerican liberal arts colleges and their graduates have, through their histories, engaged with, debated, and responded to the most salient, the most passionately held, and the most urgent issues of this nation. They have battled nefarious forces, negotiated and debated conflicting views on solutions to highly complex, extremely volatile social problems and regarded that debate as their duty.

Forty years ago, James Baldwin, in his essay "Stranger in the Village" (Notes of a Native Son ), confronts the challenge to the African American while relating his visit to the Cathedral at Chartres in the small medieval French town. What importance does the Cathedral at Chartre have to our discussion of "knowing and understanding." According to Kenneth Clark, "Chartres is the epitome of the first great awakening in European civilisation. It is also the bridge between Romanesque and Gothic, between the world of Abelard and the world of St Thomas Aquinas, the world of restless curiosity and the world of system and order. Great things were to be done in the next centuries of high Gothic, great feats of construction, both in architecture and in thought. But they rested on the foundations of the twelfth century. That was the age which gave European civilisation its impetus. Our intellectual energy, our contact with the great minds of Greece, our ability to move and change, our belief that God may be approached through beauty, our feeling of compassion, our sense of the unity of Christendom -- all this, and much more, appeared in those hundred marvelous years between the consecration of Cluny and the rebuilding of Chartres" (Civilisation , 60). For Baldwin, however, the Cathedral at Chartres "becomes not a paragon, but a speaking subject -- a voice from the past" (Eleanor W. Traylor, The Humanities and Afro-American Literary Tradition , 1988) -- a voice, albeit a confirmation of the splendors of Western Civilization, which reminds us that horrendous acts were done to human beings in the name of "civilization." It is this dichotomy which Baldwin relates in his essay "Stranger in the Village":

The Cathedral at Chartres . . . says something to the people of this village which it cannot say to me; but it is important to understand that this Cathedral says something to me which it cannot say to them.... These [villagers], from the point of view of power, cannot be strangers anywhere in the world. . . even if they do not know it. The most illiterate among them is related, in a way that I am not, to Dante, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Aeschylus, DaVinci, Rembrandt, and Racine; the Cathedral at Chartres says something to them which it cannot say to me. ... Out of their hymns and dances came Beethoven and Bach. Go back a few centuries.... I am in Africa watching the conquerors arrive.

Baldwin concludes "Stranger in the Village" and puts into clear focus the importance of the Cathedral at Chartres -- this turning point in Western Civilization -- for the villagers and himself -- and indeed for the African American. "They (emphasis added) are struck by the power of the spires and the glory of the stained glass windows. ... I (emphasis added) am terrified by the slippery bottomless well to be found in the crypt down which heretics were hurled to death, and by the obscene inescapable gargoyles strutting out of the stone seeming to suggest that God and the devil can never be divorced . . . Perhaps I have known God in a different (emphasis added) way.

This is the key to the intellectual survival of the African-American -- to achieve the ability to understand and to know the world, its perceptions, its ideas of good and evil, and to achieve the ability to bear witness to the deconstruction of those worlds in which he has been undefined and to the construction of worlds in which he finds definition. Such an achievement can be found in Toni Morrison's Beloved . If we accept the premise that enslavement in the United States is the watershed in human history, that it is, according to Timothy Reilly, professor of English at Howard University, that single event which "fostered the discourse of modernity, of which literature is a part," then we understand the importance of Morrison's Beloved and its place in the American literary canon. It is not, however, as some have suggested, a "clunky ghost" story; it is the greatest commemorative story of the African-American past. In an interview with Elsie B. Washington in 1987. Morrison stated that in Beloved she was "trying to explore how a people -- in this case one individual or a small group of individuals -- absorbs and rejects information on a very personal level about something [slavery] that is indigestible and unabsorbable, completely. Something that has no precedent in the history of the world, in terms of length of time and the nature and specificity of its devastation." Confronted by the notion that the enslaved had no value only a price -- "no value in the white world" (Morrison), they deconstructed that "white world" and constructed one in which they had value and powers, one in which they have a sense of community. And it is this experience which Morrison fleshes out through almost every character.

The inspiration piece for this novel is a brief article published on February 12, 1856 in the American Baptist (Cincinnati, Ohio), entitled "A Visit to the Slave Mother Who Killed her Child," which Morrison came across while editing The Black Book . P. S. Bassett, the minister who reported on a meeting with the woman in her apartment, found her with an infant in her arms, inquired about an injury on the infant's head, and was given, in response to his inquiry, a full account of her attempt to kill her children.

She said, then when the officers and slave-hunters came to the house in which they were concealed, she caught a shovel and struck two of her children on the head, and then took a knife and cut the throat of the third, and tried to kill the other, -- that if they had given her time, she would have killed them all -- that with regard to herself, she cared but little; but she was unwilling to have her children suffer as she had done. I inquired if she was not excited almost to madness when she committed the act. No, she replied, I was as cool as I am now; and would much rather kill them at once, and thus end their suffering, than have them taken back to slavery, and be murdered by piecemeal.

It was then Morrison's task, through this woman, whom she calls Sethe, and her relatives -- through these human beings, to put into relief, to remember for us the enslavement of the African American and recount, through their personal stories, the effect of the institution of slavery on these human beings and how they, in responding to it, repossessed themselves. It is through the child Beloved that she remembers, names, and "voices" all those "unburied, or at least unceremoniously buried people" and make them "literate in art" (Morrison).

In a wonderful essay entitled "Storiella Americana as She is Swyung; or, The Blues as Representative Anecdote," Albert Murray talks movingly about the creative spirit of Duke Ellington. He speaks of his use of the idiomatic device "break" which is a "temporary interruption of the established cadence and which usually requires a fill " -- a fill which might consist of "an informal sequence of improvised choruses as the overall frame for a precisely controlled but still flexible instrumental composition" (Murray, The Blue Devils of Nadat , 95). Murray states further that the "break" is not "just another mechanical structural device. It is of its very nature, as dancers never forget, what the basic message comes down to: grace under pressure, creativity in an emergency, continuity in the face of disjuncture " (95). It is the historical break between enslavement and emancipation that Morrison has used to present in Beloved characters whose "disjunctured" lives, albeit pressured to the extreme, move gracefully and creatively in worlds which they create.

No Comments Yet.

Leave a comment

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.