What is your only comfort?

Urban God-talk for the church-o-phobic.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Read Homer and end war

This coming year will mark a particular moment for celebration in my life - the final payment on my undergraduate student loans. The journey that began in the fall of 1994 is about to be put to rest.

My uncle has chided me over the years that paying as much as I did for an undergraduate education wasn't worth it - especially having ended up in the particularly unlucrative field of ministry. On some levels, I might be prone to agree with him. I could have easily gone to another college, followed it with seminary and been debt free all these years. But I wouldn't have had the experiences that I did. And I wouldn't have gotten to read the Iliad, either.

Undergraduate life at Columbia is marked with one's first ride on the subway, learning which neighborhood bars card and the inevitable plunge into the Core Curriculum. All undergrads must take the same core courses in order to graduate, which means that just about every first year has to read Homer, Thucydides, Don Quixote and the Bible (among others). Sophomore year is filled with texts like The Republic, City of God and The Prince. In spite of all the praise, let me tell you, there's a lot of material in those books to can help a kid fall asleep.

The beginnings of the Core are found in the end of the Great War, the "war to end all wars." When American soldiers returned and the academic community found itself looking for ways to understand issues of war and peace. I remember keenly the day that we were told the Core resulted from a desire to end war. If the minds of America's men (and up until only recently the College was only men) would read the classics to better understand the world it would allow humanity to find creative ways to avoid war.

It's kind of quaint, isn't it? If we all just held hands while reading Dante's Inferno and singing kum-by-yah we could keep ourselves from another cataclysmic world war. But the old boys of Columbia were willing to give it a chance. I can't fault them for their idealism.

While the Core Curriculum hasn't managed to end all wars (or perhaps even any wars), it did manage to get legions of undergraduates, including myself, to read the classics. I became especially fond of Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War. And while I think that reading books isn't necessarily going to lead to peace, the concept isn't so bad. What would happen if the world would decide that reading a certain group of seminal texts was vital to living? I mean, it's pretty hard to shoot a gun while reading King Lear.

In my heart, though, I wish that the founders of the Core had had their theory validated. I wish that reading Homer and Plato and the Bible and the Koran could somehow manage to lift us out of our warring madness. While we know that it doesn't work, I'm still willing to hope. It's a bit of idealism that's worth having to pay off over the next 10 years of one's life.


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