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The (Un)Changing Face of Hum 11O

By Peter J. Steinberger

We often say that Humanities 110, Reed’s required freshman course, has remained essentially unchanged in the sixty-odd years of its existence. For some, this is a source of pride—evidence of our commitment to serious, high-level inquiry and our resistance to short-lived intellectual fashion. For others, it’s an occasion for ridicule—proof that the Reed faculty is the moldiest of moldy figs. But is the premise itself true? Has Hum 110 really remained unchanged? The answer depends on what we mean by change; and figuring that out is no easy task.

Fortunately we have help, which comes, mirabile dictu, from Hum 110 itself. Two principal texts of the spring semester syllabus are entitled Metamorphoses—the epic-style poem of Ovid, and the second-century novel by Apuleius, also known as The Golden Ass. The final reading of the course, St. Augustine’s Confessions, also is a chronicle of that particular kind of change that we call “conversion,” tracing as it does the author’s metamorphosis from pagan to Christian. Indeed, one could argue that the entire second semester of Hum 110—anchored by these three texts—is a set of complex meditations on change in general and, more specifically, on the difference between real change and the mere appearance of change.

Consider Lucius, the protagonist of The Golden Ass. An inquisitive and happy-go-lucky fellow traveling through Attic provinces of the Roman Empire, poor Lucius’ curiosity, in collaboration with his lust, gets him into all kinds of hot water and, as a result, a sorceress turns him into a donkey. His subsequent asinine adventures tell us a great deal about provincial Rome; a donkey’s-eye view of the empire, so to speak. But is his metamorphosis real? Does Lucius change? The answer is not perhaps as clear as one might think, for Apuleius invites us to consider the possibility that Lucius was an ass from day one: nosy, stubborn, highly appetitive; likeable but not too bright, with the bare hint of a human soul buried deep within an animal’s body. Lucius-the-man and Lucius-the-donkey are different in appearance only. It’s not until the end of the tale, when our hero forsakes magic and witchcraft for the deeper mysteries of religion, that a genuine metamorphosis — a true conversion — takes place. Having reacquired a human form,he enters the legal profession and, I am delighted to say, goes bald; both proof-positive that he has become a serious person.

In effect Hum 110 has maintained a resolute, unchanging, utterly continuous focus on a subject matter that is itself continually in flux and whose changes have, moreover, profound implications for just what it means to “focus” on a subject.

Thinking about Hum 110 in terms of real and apparent change invites a dialectical approach: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Outwardly the fall semester syllabus has changed little. Generations of Reedies have read the canon of archaic and classical Greece, from Homer and Hesiod to Aeschylus and Herodotus to Sophocles, Thucydides, and Plato. Indeed, for decades a Reed career has begun not simply with Homer’s Iliad but with Richmond Lattimore’s translation of Homer’s Iliad; and while the syllabus undergoes a few annual perturbations—for example, Medea in some years, Bacchae in others—these are minor and don’t change the overall trajectory of the course. The spring semester has been less stable, but the current syllabus, a study of imperial Rome from Augustus to Augustine, has been in place for about a decade now and has recently been reaffirmed by the faculty.

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Reed Magazine August