A panel of academics discussed the role of past thought in contemporary education yesterday at a symposium held in Emerson Hall.
Entitled "The Humanities: Bringing the Past into the Present," the event hosted scholars from literature, classics, music and philosophy.
The symposium, one of many events marking yesterday's inauguration of President Neil L. Rudenstine, was moderated by Porter University Professor Helen H. Vendler.
Vendler prefaced the discussion by saying that it is impossible to teach all of past thought. She said the purpose of this event was to explore the issue of selecting what to teach.
"The past is so immense, and the selectivity of intellectual endeavor so drastic," she said, adding that the central question was, "What can and should be salvaged from the past [when considering present-day curricula?]"
Harvard professor of Greek and Latin Charles P. Segal, the symposium's first speaker, discussed the debate among scholars over the validity of applying modern theoretical techniques to the study of pre-modern civilizations.
Segal said there is value in applying modern disciplines like "deconstruction, psychoanalytic, Marxist and feminist criticism" to texts like Homer and Sophocles.
Segal said that these modern ideas can help scholars understand the problematic nature of Greek democracy, which allowed for slavery and gender bias.
But he warned that our modern perspective should not be allowed to "obliterate all the ideals the Greeks have left us." He urged that today's scholars view the classics "reverently, but not uncritically."
Professor of Music Christoph J. Wolff, who also spoke, chose to focus on the importance of historical context in understanding a work of art.
Wolff said that Mozart's "Requiem," for example, can be fully understood only when a music scholar knows of the events that affected Mozart at the time of composition. "Each little detail bolsters the aesthetic presence of the work," Wolff said.
In commenting on the range of topics addressed by the speakers, Vendler said, "The past has been brought into the present in ways I had never expected."