This academic year, Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University, is celebrating its 30th anniversary. In a few days, a record number of talented students will sit down for their first day of “The Human Event,” Barrett’s signature first-year seminar. The Human Event is a course with an ambitious mandate – to introduce Barrett students to the diversity of human culture and thought as it has developed from the beginning of written history to our present day. As a Barrett faculty fellow, I will commence my Human Event seminar with a story about a time during which political divisions across cultures ran so deep that they seemed insurmountable. A time when politically powerful men believed themselves to be so entitled to women’s bodies that, in defending that entitlement, they produced a contagion of violence so terrible that it threatened to break the bonds of religion, nation, and family.
The time I am describing is sometime around the year 1250 B.C.E., when a conflict we now know as the Trojan War erupted in an obscure corner of the Eastern Mediterranean. The story I teach is not one of national or cultural chauvinism, but a nuanced tale that ponders the meaning of the violence we inflict upon each other, and what is left of humanity when that violence has taken its toll. The name of this story is, of course, The Iliad.
If my description of the Trojan War seems to resonate with our own time and place, it should. As James Baldwin — another author frequently taught in The Human Event — once put it, “the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us…it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities and our aspirations.” Each of my Barrett colleagues will start their own Human Event courses with texts ranging from the epics of Mesopotamia to the ancient origin stories of indigenous peoples who live right here in Arizona. In approaching these diverse works, we will challenge our students to read in ways that relate them to the trials we face in our contemporary lives. I would hope that there are many readers for whom the value of such a course is self-evident. But in a world of rising college costs and increasing pressure on students to measure the value of their college education in purely monetary terms, the value of broad-based liberal arts courses like The Human Event are increasingly questioned.
On the one hand, these questions can be answered in pragmatic terms. Contrary to popular assumptions about the “uselessness” of the liberal arts, leaders across industries have been reaching out to universities to emphasize the value of a robust liberal arts education for honing the critical thinking and communications skills vital to professional success.
On the other, The Human Event deserves a more fundamental defense. An excellent university education should not just be about manufacturing efficient employees who can survive in the world as it is. It should be about nurturing citizens who can imagine a better world to come.
By introducing Barrett students to ideas radically different than those they were exposed to as children and giving them a venue to discuss those ideas with peers from backgrounds radically different from their own, The Human Event challenges Barrett students to contest received wisdom and translate their own ideas across the diversity of human experience. In so doing, it empowers them to take up the responsibilities of citizenship in our communities, nation, and world not as followers, but as leaders armed with “the great force of history.” This is the kind of education that I hope all Arizonans can join us in celebrating.
— Alex Trimble Young is an honors faculty fellow at the downtown Phoenix campus of Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University.
The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.