Thursday, June 20, 2013

On teaching about black people

In 1970 Frank Snowden published a pioneering work “Blacks in Antiquity”, examining the presence and lives of dark skinned people in Greek and Roman times. I began my degree in classics at Cambridge in 1970, and sailed (well, plodded) through the entire degree without ever being made aware of Snowden's work, or of any of his successors. I am not sure what to make of that now, apart form it being an interesting snippet of history. But there may be more to it, in the sense that I can remember learning that Roman historians tended to concentrate on Rome and on the doings of great men. (I am pretty sure I was not even aware at the time of the gender limitations implicit in the word “men”.) What seems apparent to me now is that the syllabus, though providing that critique of Tacitus' limitations, reflected it. Black people did not get a look in, any more than did women, slaves or indigenous peasants. And of course that was true of much of our teaching about the world at that point. The turn to oral traditions and of history from below has done much to widen perceptions, which I am thankful for. I am sure we are as much culture and time centric as we used to be, but today, I think, there is no excuse for not being aware of that fact.

Benin bronzes and African music

A parallel to the west's culture-centric response to the Benin bronzes can be found in the history of our appreciation of jazz and African music. Jazz was originally seen as primitive, as “natural” for the kind of people who had a natural sense of rhythm. Any sophistication in it was simply missed to begin with. It was particularly difficult for western students of music as it challenged the resources of traditional notation, as well as traditional ways of playing instruments. If you can't write something down, in our western research tradition, it is very difficult to study it.

The same problem was evident with African music. Western musical notation did not deal well with the “complicated polyphonies of African ensemble music, in which often each of twelve of more voices will go its separate way, weaving and interweaving.... nor could European ears catch the small rhythmic differences that were crucial to the correct notation of African song, as intervals of a twelfth of a second or less were routinely deployed by the African performer. European music simply did not operate with such small rhythmic intervals, so European-trained notators made errors.” Quote from Nussbaum, M (1998), Cultivating Humanity, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, p 163.

On teaching the humanities

From Nussbaum, M (1998), Cultivating Humanity, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, p147

“Our primary goal should be to produce students who have a Socratic knowledge of their own ignorance - both of other world cultures, and, to a great extent, of our own. These students, when they hear simplistic platitudes about cultural difference, will not be inclined to take them at face value; they will question, probe and inquire. Because they have a basic awareness of cultural and methodological issues, they will have a way of pursuing their questions further. They will approach the different with an appropriate humility, but with good intellectual equipment for the furthest pursuit of understanding. These traits, so important in a citizen of today's interdependent world, are very unlikely to be developed by personal experience alone. At present we are not doing well enough at the task of understanding, and these failures are damaging our nation - in business, in politics, in urgent deliberations about the environment and agriculture and human rights. We must, and we can, cultivate understanding through a liberal education; and an education will not be truly “liberal” (producing truly free and self-governing citizens) unless it undertakes this challenge.”

And she quotes from W. E. B. du Bois “A university in Spain is not simply a university. It is a Spanish university. It is a university located in Spain... It starts with Spanish history and make conditions in Spain the starting point of its teaching... In the same way, s Negro university in the United States of America begins with Negroes... it is founded on, or should be founded on, a knowledge of the history of their people in Africa and in the United States, and their present condition. Without whitewashing or translating wish into fact, it begins with that; and then it asks how shall those young men and women be trained to earn a living and live a life under the circumstances in which they find themselves or with such changing of those circumstances  as time and work and determination will permit” (from “The Negro College” 1933).

That simple task learning “ to earn a living and live a life” remains at the root of all university teaching, and especially the teaching of the humanities.