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Brave New Worlds

In the fresh vocabulary for teaching the humanities, the old must mix with the new

Rebellion came easy in the 1960s. Everything was in flux, every authority was suspect, anything valued by the preceding generation was open to question. Whatever was new was better, in education as in so much else.

And then I arrived at the University of Toronto and discovered Latin and Greek. My world was about to become much more complicated, and much more interesting.

From the perspective of 2001, when a restless and all-inclusive curriculum is the order of the day, when undergraduates think nothing of combining computer science with a minor in sexual diversity, the academic upheavals of my youth may look rather quaint. The notion that film could be taught in a university classroom seemed revolutionary back then. Religious-studies courses had only just stopped being compulsory. The English department was steadily moving forward with the idea of teaching Canadian literature.

Change was everywhere, and so I studied Classics. It was the most radical thing I could think of doing, a complete rejection of materialist culture in keeping with the spirit of the times, a statement of intellectual purity so complete and subversive that I’m still amazed by the boldness of my 18-year-old self.

People who don’t understand the academic mind – those who mistake the modern university for a delicate work of ivory – would label my passion for the ancient world as conservative and old-fashioned. They might assume that a Classics specialist from bygone days would resist the new wave of humanities programs. They would be wrong.

The genius of the university’s Faculty of Arts and Science, at least as applied to the humanities, lies in its gift for connecting the old with the new, for recognizing that ancient and modern can enjoy each other’s company. The study of Classics is richer for the challenges offered by marginalized groups ignored or overlooked a generation ago. Likewise a new, politically charged program such as Aboriginal Studies is also going to be more effective in its mission if it is grounded in native traditions that are substantial and enduring.

Making the connection, now as in the ’60s, isn’t always easy. Although the arts and science faculty is undeniably more sensitive to the impulse for change – note the growth in East Asian Studies courses, for example, or the global range of an English specialist degree – there is still plenty of good old-fashioned skepticism for anything that doesn’t meet the university’s academic standards. Keren Rice, director of the Aboriginal Studies Program, remembers the nervousness she felt when she had to defend a new and decidedly nontraditional course on native crafts before a faculty review panel. “I was sure they were going to look at this and say, ‘Basket weaving?'” There wasn’t even a joke, let alone a knee-jerk critique. The course clearly combined traditional learning with scholarly rigour, and so approval was granted, to Rice’s relief and delight. Such openness to a broadening definition of the humanities is what drives Rice in her work, and it’s also what has attracted the other faculty members profiled here: George Elliott Clarke, the multitalented poet, playwright, librettist and professor of modern Canadian poetry and world literature; the Spanish and Portuguese department’s recent addition, Ana Teresa Pérez-Leroux, a Dominican Republic native who is developing courses for the university’s growing number of Hispanic students; and Derek Jonathan Penslar, the Samuel J. Zacks Chair of Jewish History and a man who knows as well as any Classics grad how persistently the past endures into the present, and why the old must necessarily mix with the new.

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