Introduction to Cultural History

Teaching Assistant(s)
James Callan Wilson-Delafield

The thesis underlying this course, and the whole cultural history curriculum, is that storytelling is a passion universally shared by human beings of all times and all places. As a result, both true stories and even more untrue stories, are the basis and the substance of life as we understand it, and of civilization as we have made it. And where stories break down, or cannot be told, we find civilization in a crisis. But in the same way as we can learn about the substance and character of a person when s/he hits the bottom, so we can learn most about a civilization when it is shipwrecked. This is not a new idea. One of the greatest historians ever, Machiavelli, formulated the historiographical principle that a history that focuses on the glories of the past cannot but become obsequius, a servile laudatio of the powers that are. A description that seeks to establish the truth about anything, past or present, must begin by focusing on the seamy side of that phenomenon—without however ever losing sight on the other side. This is difficult. As F. Scott Fitzgerald observed in his essay “The Crack-Up,” “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” As all of us are assumed to have first-rate minds, it is worth a try. Therefore the topic that connects all stories in this course is the event that (almost) brought western civilization down: the Holocaust.

In this course students will not only be asked to consider the story-telling of others, but also engage in story-telling themselves. In two essays they will exercise their ability in writing a first-person essay, pulling from the raw material of experience a tale that may shape a vision and, perhaps, an insight.