What Hum 110 Is All About (continued)

Disciplines

My own view—not shared by all members of the faculty by any means!—is that the ultimate goal of a Reed education is to teach students how to think; teaching students how to think means, in the first instance, introducing them to and giving them some facility with the disciplines. A discipline is, one might say, a particular mode or manner of thinking, composed of a more or less distinctive set of concepts, theories, and methods that have proven to be useful over time in making sense of this or that feature of the world. Literary analysis is a discipline characterized by a dazzling array of distinctive concepts—things like narrative structure and synecdoche and alliteration and sign and so on—each of which serves as a tool for classifying or categorizing some set of phenomena. As such, literary analysis is sharply distinct from, say, the discipline of chemistry, which is characterized by an equally dazzling but quite different and unrelated set of concepts and categories. It is not uncommon, of course, for different disciplines to study the same thing, but they would study that thing in very different ways, using a very different set of concepts or categories. Thus, a literary critic might study a book with a view toward analyzing its rhetorical properties, whereas a certain kind of physical scientist might study the very same book—understood as a particular material object—with a view toward analyzing the chemical properties of the paper on which it was printed, the ink with which the words were reproduced, the glue with which the pages were bound. But in each case, the goal would be to render the object intelligible according to the canons and criteria of the discipline.

To learn a discipline is, I would argue, to develop a disciplined mind, and a disciplined mind is essential for making sense of things. Without discipline, our thinking is apt to be literally chaotic: unorganized, disconnected, random. The world presents itself to us in infinite ways. We are constantly bombarded by an incalculable range and variety of experiences; when we simply react to those experiences, when we fail to impose on them some kind of order or structure, then analysis, judgment, and intelligibility become impossible. We become lost, confused, and powerless. The connection between one thought and another dissolves, and with it dissolves the capacity to define, to classify, to assess, and to think coherently. We lose, in effect, that which makes it possible for us to be civilized, hence that which makes it possible for us to be human.

I believe that Hum 110 teaches disciplined thinking in two ways. First, it introduces students to certain fundamental manners of thought—philosophic, poetic, historiographic, aesthetic—by examining some of their earliest systematic and self-conscious expressions. It teaches students what it means to think like a philosopher by looking at the invention of Western philosophy, as manifest in the thought of Thales, Heraclitus, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. It considers the activity of being a historian by exploring the discovery, at least in the West, of the very idea of history in Herodotus and Thucydides. It contemplates what it means to reflect on the world in literary terms by encountering the epic, lyric, and dramatic foundations of our literary heritage. Second, Hum 110 explicitly pursues these manners of thought by comparing them with one another. It seeks to show not just what it means to think like a historian but how thinking like a historian might be different from thinking like a philosopher or poet. It thereby provides students with a larger sense of how the various disciplines or manners of thought are different from one another and how they might, nonetheless, share an underlying commitment to coherence, to the power and intrinsic value of systematic intellectual endeavor.

The three lectures that will be presented in subsequent editions of Reed both describe and inspire the pursuit of disciplined thought. As such, they reflect and embody the conviction—long central to the mission of Reed College—that the sharp distinction between pedagogy and scholarship, between education and inquiry, between the formation of the intellect and the activity of being an intellectual ultimately collapses in the face of a serious and self-conscious commitment to the life of the mind.

The lectures

“Darkness, Light, and Drama in the Oresteia” by Thomas Gillcrist. Gillcrist is a graduate of Duke University and did his postgraduate work in English at Harvard. He taught at Reed, both in the English department and in the humanities program, from 1962 until his retirement in 2002.

“Herodotus and the Invention of History” by Raymond Kierstead. Kierstead went to Bowdoin College and earned his PhD in history at Northwestern University. He taught at Yale and Catholic University before joining the Reed faculty in 1978, from which he retired in 2000. He is the author of Pomponne de Bellievre: A Study of the King’s Men in the Age of Henry IV (Northwestern University Press, 1968).

“Ionian Thinkers” by C. D. C. Reeve. A graduate of Trinity University (Dublin) and Cornell, Reeve taught at Reed from 1976 until his resignation in 2000. He is the author of numerous books and articles including Philosopher-Kings: The Argument of Plato’s Republic (Princeton University Press, 1988), Practices of Reason: Aristotle’s Nichomachaen Ethics (Oxford University Press, 1988), and Love’s Confusions (Harvard University Press, 2005). He is currently professor of philosophy at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Endnotes

1 Michael Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics (London: Methuen, 1962), p. 198.

2 In addition to Hum 110, the Reed curriculum includes three sophomore-level humanities courses, one on Early Modern Europe from Dante to the age of Louis XIV, a second on Modern Humanities from the Glorious Revolution to the Second World War, and a third on Chinese Humanities focusing on the Qin/Han and Song dynasties.

—Author info: Peter J. Steinberger is Robert H. and Blanche Day Ellis Professor of Political Science and Humanities. He has taught at Reed since 1977; he has also served as chairman of the department of political science, dean of the faculty, and acting president of the college.