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Humanities 110

Such a “traditional” course might, on face value, clash with Reed’s freethinking, iconoclastic reputation. But depending on how you look at it, the class is a perfect fit. “Reed has always been an outlier in American academics,” says Robert Knapp, the Reginald F. Arragon Professor of English and Humanities. “And how better to show you’re different than by insisting that all your students read Thucydides?”

Hum’s immutability in the face of academic trends and political pressures is a point of pride for some, a source of consternation for others. Savery, an English professor, delivers a polemic every year about “Black Athena” that challenges the course itself. Why, he questions, does Hum not include Ancient Egypt when Herodotus himself wrote that the Greeks owed so much to Egyptian civilization?

Savery, who is African American, uses the lecture to raise important points about Reed’s lack of diversity. “I basically call for changing the syllabus of the course and changing Reed at the same time,” he says.

The faculty occasionally tinkers with the course, and this year several changes are under serious discussion. The next few years may see introduction of a section on Islam during the second semester. The idea has been kicked around for years but gained momentum after September 11. And Savery is hoping to finally convince his peers to include readings from the Egyptian Book of the Dead during the first semester.

The ideas and enthusiasm of new professors and students helps to keep Hum fresh year after year. It is unlikely that lecture and conference topics just a couple of decades ago would involve gender, race, or politics as they do today. The very fact of Savery’s controversial “Black Athena” lecture is a sign that the course, whether or not you buy his argument, is not in danger of getting too complacent.

“The course is continually evolving,” says Englert, who has taught humanities for 20 years. “A professor or student will come up with a new point or a question that no one’s ever asked before and you’ve never thought about.”

Back in Savery’s Hum conference the discussion topic shifts from whether the Iliad is funny or not to a lively debate about the gods’ meddling ways and the concepts of free will and fate. After nearly an hour Savery signals the end of time, though one gets the impression the class could keep going through lunch.

He leaves them with a final observation before they head out the door: “Unless I am mistaken, every single person in class spoke today. And that is a groovy thing.”

End of Article

Romel Hernandez is a freelance writer in Portland. This is his first article for Reed.


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