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Report-back from Discovery University

December 10, 2016

This fall I had the privilege to design and teach a class called "Wisdom of the Ancients - For Today" for Discovery University. DU is a joint initiative of the Ottawa Mission, Saint Paul University, UOttawa, the Ottawa First Baptist Church and Dominion Chalmers United Church. According to the Ottawa Mission website, DU "allows people living on a low income to participate in non-credit, university-level Humanities and Social Sciences courses at no cost ... the courses are taught by professors from the universities and all textbooks and course materials are provided at no cost to the students. The program helps encourage a commitment to learning and helps students develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills." The program is in about its tenth year, and is very popular. My course was one of three; students could also have chosen digital photography, or introduction to psychology. Next semester professors will be offering courses on John Stuart Mill, jazz history, and social movements. 

This was my first experience with the program and it was extremely positive. It was expertly run by program coordinator Ann, who among her many tasks managed a number of volunteers who contributed by running weekly discussion groups outside of regular class time. The class of about thirty students would arrive each week to class and to their discussion groups with critical questions, insights, and above all an impressive thirst for knowledge. 

There are two main things that I took away from the course. Above all, I was thrilled to meet my students and to learn from them. But the experience also helped to bolster my belief in the fundamental importance of humanities education.  

It's no secret that humanities education gets a bad rap these days. Marco Rubio's infamous statement during the US Republican primaries that we need more welders and fewer philosophers is just the tip of a rather sad iceberg. The implication is that humanities education is a diversion, not obviously useful, and should give way to practical training programs. 

First, this is a rather narrow way of looking at the terms "practical", "useful" and the like. Nothing is more practical, or more useful, than giving people the skills and the general level of culture they need to be good citizens, so in this sense humanities education is exactly the opposite of how the bad press portrays it. Of course we need welders! But we need welders who are equipped to face up to the problems of our age, and these include local issues but also globally important things like climate change, the refugee crisis, political isoloationism and so on. Humanities education above all gives us the ability to put ourselves in the place of other people by expanding our horizons. It also nourishes our critical and constructive thinking skills, so that we can meet local and global problems humanely and creatively. 

But second, what if we were to look at humanities education as less of a skills training, and more in terms of a fundamental human need? This is the impression I got from my DU class. The students had a varierty of backstories, and some of them faced significant daily challenges to make it to class and ponder with me the meaning and practical application of texts by Plato, Lao Tzu, Sappho, and other canonical ancient writers. This was humbling. If as Emma Goldman insisted, the key to happiness is not just bread but roses too, then DU is an object lesson. It's necessary but it isn't sufficient to feed and house people; those who struggle at times with meeting basic needs benefit from the feelings of dignity and personal growth that come with using their intellectual powers together. At the graduation cermony, several students took to the podium to say as much. 

So after my stint with Discovery University I believe more than ever that what we do at Saint Paul is fundamental. It's useful and practical in perhaps the most important sense of those words, and it might just speak to some very basic human needs. 

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Nathalie Poirier      July 25, 2017 at 15:33
Great blog professor which brought my thoughts to some readings that I am doing currently and I was thinking that like humanities, art(this concept would need to be defined for a proper discussion) offers a fundamental human need, a place where reflection can take place... in the words of Friedrich Schiller which written in the 18th century still ring true in our corner of time: "this 'art' has to leave the realm of reality, and with proper audacity elevate itself above simple need; for art is the daughter of freedom, responding not to the demands of matter, but to the necessity in our minds. For the present, need prevails, and bends a sunken humanity to its tyrannical yoke. Utility is the great idol of the age, to which all powers are in thrall and all talent must pay homage. On this crude scale the spiritual virtues of art have no weight and, bereft of all encouragement, it disappears from the tumultuous market of our century." Even the very concept of what art and its creative process becomes a mere utility! A commodity!