A topic that came out of most of our conversations—in more or less explicit language—was the value of empathy and the value of understanding and promoting diversity. When we asked Professor Behrend how he thought the humanities emphasized liberal arts values, he responded with the titular quote: “I think there’s something special about humanities […] I think it’s an important perspective. It’s an opportunity to reflect on who you are as a person, and the world you’ve inherited—to look at the world and look at yourself with different lenses: let’s look at the world from the perspective of an African American who has just escaped from slavery. It’s the value of empathy and value of understanding. I think a good humanities curriculum will emphasize those values. “
So how does the humanities sequence at Geneseo emphasize those values? When we took this question to Professor McCorkle, who does not currently teach the humanities, we asked her how she thought music could fulfill this purpose in a humanities course. For starters, she noted that music is a way to engage the college with the surrounding community, and stated her disappointment with cuts to Geneseo’s music program for this reason. The “Finger Lakes Opera was a great way to engage students and the community,” professor McCorkle explained. We should have greater access to get to concerts—not everyone has a car necessarily. And there should be more community involvement—when the university engages with the community, we can combine forces to provide different kinds of arts.” Ultimately, Professor McCorkle put the importance of music in a liberal arts education this way: I don’t want to say music is a means of expression—because it’s not for everyone, but I think by attending to music and all the components that go into music, the performance of music, the consumption of music, the creation of music, recording music, live settings, different situations and places—coming at that from a sort of total understanding can help us not only better appreciate arts and the role of the arts in a person’s life, but also help us understand other people in a way that reading a philosophical or political text can’t quite get across.” Central to Professor McCorkle’s assertion is the belief that being an informed and engaged citizen is more complicated than being able to offer your set of skills to the economy; rather, it is a process of nurturing, a process of understanding an empathizing with others.
Katherine Zaslavsky had a similar opinion, and it was very interesting—and very telling of the success of Geneseo’s liberal arts initiative—that she mirrored the sentiments of Professor McCorkle, but where Professor McCorkle’s statement was clearly in the language of an arts scholar, the language of Katherine’s statement strongly reflected her background in sociology. It’s a credit to the interdepartmental liberal arts strength of Geneseo that these people made essentially the same statement about the importance of empathy while being exceedingly proficient in the language of their respective disciplines. Katherine told us that a “pretty big issue of contention in sociology” is “the issue of viewpoint and the fact that if you only get information from what are seen as legitimate viewpoints you’re actually cutting out a lot of things that are seen as illegitimate, not because they’re unreliable or because they’re not verifiable; there seen as illegitimate because they’re not seen as tradition sources.” While Katherine’s discussion may be more relevant to our post on canonical texts in the humanities, she raises a great point: a lot of our readings, in all of our classes, come from familiar viewpoints, and thus, we’re missing out on a wide range of human experience from other viewpoints. Geneseo as an institution has made steps to tackling this issue of understanding and empathy by adding a “multicultural” general education requirement, also commonly known as “other world civilizations.” This gen-ed requirement is both unique to Geneseo in that it is not mandated by the SUNY system; that is, it is a part of Geneseo’s liberal arts breadth courses—the courses that are designed to achieve Geneseo’s liberal arts mission of creating informed citizens. Additionally, the menu system–the system by which professors choose from a selection of texts which readings they will teach in their humanities course–allows professors to exchange up to two canonical texts for more global texts. While this may seem like a small change, its important to remember that the humanities is a course in “western civilization,” and the move towards utilizing non-western texts in order to understand the West is a move towards including a diversity of voices and ideas in the intellectual history that Geneseo considers so vital to our development as informed citizens.
Interestingly, Geneseo has come under fire from the SUNY administration for these courses–the multicultural requirement, but to a greater extent, the Humanities sequence. Professor Asher informed us that the SUNY administration does not like these courses because they cause difficulties for transfer students, these classes mean that a SUNY education is not as transferable as the SUNY administration would like. Ideally, any course you take at a SUNY institution—both four year colleges and two-year community colleges—can be transferred for full credit to another SUNY institution. The humanities sequence makes this impossible; while many schools offer courses in western civilization, Geneseo will not accept any course other than our own humanities courses—that is how central these courses are to the Geneseo liberal arts agenda. Another goal of SUNY is that students can knock out all of their gen-ed requirements at a two-year institution so that they can get into their major when they transfer to a four-year college; while there are many courses at Geneseo that satisfy the multicultural requirement at Geneseo, it is a requirement specific to Geneseo, and accordingly, many students do not get a chance to take this course at a community college. Ultimately, these administrative conflicts return us to Professor McCorkle’s interpretation of the importance and uniqueness of liberal arts universities like Geneseo: with current attacks on intellectualism and especially intellectualism in the arts, as well “the growing push toward stem and [to]have graduates be employed post-graduation […] the idea of these thoughtful world citizens be[ing] nurtured in their four or five years here is something that’s really being left at the wayside.”