How We Learn, How We Live, & The Humanities Program at 50

Student conducts research in the Rare Book RoomAt the time of the fall 2012 gift of $45 million gift from The Duke Endowment for projects to foster a greater synthesis of academic "thought leadership" on campus, President Carol Quillen said: "The Davidson experience is characterized by three opportunities–students doing original work, exploring connections between how they learn and how they live, and investigating connections across the arts and sciences."

Davidson's multi-semester Humanities Program–a half-century strong now–has been and remains central to those opportunities, ever refining in students what the program's founders called a "habit of connecting."

In 1962, the effort of trying to connect the broad sweep of history and meaning turned out to be deep, also-so much so that the whole group of 102 inaugural "Humes" students, not to mention their professors, nearly burned out from sheer reading. One professor recalls telling students to skip their homework, to take a day off and "go play golf or something."

In the mid-90s, Humes leaders saw that change was necessary for continuity. The result was Cultures and Civilizations, a one-year course that can be viewed as an alternative sibling program to Humes.

Facetiously nicknamed "Inhumanities" during its formative time, Cultures and Civilizations incorporated larger sections of 25-30 students team-taught by two professors. The curriculum was organized around themes and global civilizations and their common fault lines, often drawing on a "call-and-response" pairing of related texts to evoke connections.

"You have to interrogate these works until you understand or sympathize with something," says Franny Goffinet '13.

John Douglas, M.D. '74, chief medical officer of the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention at the Centers for Disease Control, Atlanta, recalls an exercise with Professor of English Tony Abbott, in which he wrote an essay in the style of Michel de Montaigne.

"It was like acting on paper," says Douglas. "It was a great way to learn the material."

Those skills came in handy much later in his professional career in a politically sensitive project that reached all the way to the White House.

"That work didn't involve Plato and Aquinas, but it did involve some sort of historical context and ethics and politics of the era. Could I have done that work as well if I hadn't taken Humanities?"

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