Saturday, March 03, 2012

Nietzsche, Jay-Z and the Humanities

Once in a while I hear or read a complaint from a student about the amount of time we spend talking about historical figures in class—the classic Dead White Males—with the implied contrast being a class in which we only talked about contemporary issues with, I suppose, no reference to the past or—though I doubt anyone would be interested in this either—lots of reading of today's thinkers. I have to admit that I don't always know what to do with this sort of worry, except to worry about it in an entirely different way. 

The students are bored or can't figure out how anyone who lived in an era before computers or cellphones (like me in my youth!) could possibly have anything of interest to say to people today; that's their worry. But mine is what it means to live a life in which everything is now. 

Of course, the world in which the figures of the past lived is a different one to the one we live in now; so is the world in which I grew up, to a lesser degree. But the inability to see ourselves in conversation with those figures surely makes human life and our experience of it a more shallow and colorless one. I don't have much truck with nostalgia or attempting to recreate some golden age, nor do I believe in a golden age, but I hope that we can still learn from the past as I hope that the future can learn from us. If not, I really can't see much point in the humanities or the humanist tradition I think of myself as part of. And, when my students can't see the difference between mere history and a conversation with the past, I get a little sad.

But, then something amazing happens. A few weeks ago, I was talking about Nietzsche's analysis of good and evil in a night-time ethics class at a community college and a student piped in to tell me that when she had read the assigned selection(!), it made her think of a line from a song of Jay-Z. And, I thought, there it is, she gets what we're trying to do. And, the sadness went away for a bit.

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