Reflections on Princeton’s Humanities Sequence, OR: Unsolicited Advice for Incoming Princeton Freshmen

As the end of my second week in glamorous Dushanbe, Tajikistan, approaches, all proceeds well with my dissertation research. True, this week saw a few foibles: after trying to gain access to the Central Government Archive of Tajikistan, I was rebuffed and told that I would need to wait (in all likelihood) several weeks for a letter of support from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to arrive. Likewise, with the heat every day reaching into the mid- to high-90s, even in mostly walkable Dushanbe the days feel like a race to chug as much water as possible before one sweats it all out. Drinking bottle after bottle of obi ma’dani (mineral water with gas) while walking across asphalt-paved plazas, sometimes I feel more like a waterlogged hot air balloon than a simple graduate student.

Yet there have also been some real successes. I managed on Wednesday to speak with the first of what I hope will be many former Soviet advisers who worked in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and gathered loads of useful information on both Komsomol’s activity in the country in the 1980s as well as a more well-rounded view of all of the advising operations (which ran from technical to legal development projects). Today, moreover, I was able, thanks to the intervention of fellow historian Artemy Kalinovsky (who has written on Soviet advisors in a shorter paper) to interview a Tajik translator who worked not only in Kabul after 1979, but also in northern Afghanistan in the mid-1970s – cities like Kunduz, Mazar-i Sharif, and Sheberghan, where Soviet advisers built roads, gasworks, and other large infrastructure projects. Hopefully, tomorrow, I’ll be able to set up a couple of meetings for next week in Dushanbe, while still keeping an eye out for potential trips to more provincial places like Khujand and the Rasht Valley for potential interview subjects – or simply finding higher altitudes, in the latter place’s case, to beat the mid-summer heat here!

On my way to dissertation victory (hopefully)!

Still, in this post I wanted to turn my attention to a completely different subject. Traveling to obscure locales like Dushanbe, I sometimes to think to what I was doing at this time last year, two years ago, or five years ago – what was going on in my life that was pushing me towards the moment I’m in now? Recently, I was thinking about where I was in the summer of 2004, when I had just graduated high school and was looking forward to beginning as a freshman at Princeton. Lots of surprises awaited me: the grotty dorms of Wilson College; snowy winters; and cities that actually had ends to them, as opposed to the infinite sprawling expanses of Los Angeles.

Most importantly, though, nerdy 2004 Tim spent many, many hours poring over the course catalogue. What language to start? How much did I want to go in the direction of science or the humanities? How could I find out more information on who the really good professors were? Still, looking through the catalogue, one course – HUM 216-219, also known as the Humanities Sequence – grabbed my eye. The course – a year-long survey of Western Civilization through history, literature, religion, and the arts – grabbed my eye, and so I wrote an application, purchased the three books I needed to read over the summer as preparation (the Old Testament and Robert Fagles’ translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey). Lo and behold, the committee had the foolishness to admit me, and before I knew it I was writing papers about Lotus Eaters and the concept of pater familias in Thucydides.

It turned out to be a great decision. In what follows I want to try to articulate why, precisely, from the vantage point of eight years (!) afterwards, partly as a reflection, but also, I hope, to give incoming Princeton freshmen some perspective as to what they might gain from the course. (Members of the Class of 2016 can find the application here – according to the website the final deadline for the application, consisting of a one-page letter, is due by August 31, so there’s still plenty of time to think about applying.) More specifically, when I look back, I can think of at least three benefits – ranging from the personal to the professional – that I really got out of the course, and which I don’t think are replicable in any other course, or combination of courses, at Princeton.

Go on, take a sip: the Humanities Sequence was a ton of work, but if anything it left me parched for more intellectual history

Without thinking, the first great advantage of the Humanities Sequence was the people. It wasn’t so much that many of the most interesting people in my Princeton class, in my opinion, signed up for HUM; that’s partly true, but many of the most intellectually interesting people I got to know only later at Princeton, and they often came from backgrounds (whether engineering or very contemporary-focused area studies or political science) where taking the Sequence might have seemed like a less obvious step. Nor was the real benefit of the course the social aspect of it all; that said, coming to Princeton as the only student from my high school, it was a great source of comfort and community to instantly be thrust into an intense community of intellectual friends (and some rivals) where it was natural for a discussion about Plato to dovetail into eating Small World ice cream or moving on to one of our college dining halls.

Rather, what I think was most important about the kind of people I met (and I think people still meet) in the Humanities Sequence was making friends with people in a way where you could have intellectually bruising, but still friendly, conversations with people. The nature of the class almost demanded it. Students, as prospective applicants might read, spend half of their course schedule in the Humanities Sequence, with three lectures a week, and the frequent pace of handing in essays lends itself naturally to frantic late-night writing and bonding sessions. But unlike, say, a group of students working together for a problem set, one had to participate in a lively intellectual conversation across a huge range of subjects – the Bible, Livy, Cervantes, Dostoevsky – in a rapid-fire back and forth with those other students, too, three times a week in afternoon discussion sessions.

Now, looking back, I’m sure that some of the comments I made were, probably, not the most insightful. But coming out of what I ludicrously believed to be a provincial background (a middle-upper class background and an excellent private high school in Los Angeles), I can remember feeling intimidated at first by students from East Coast boarding schools who, frighteningly, knew Latin and Greek as soon as we were diving into the Greek and Roman classics that composed almost the entirety of the first semester’s readings. Yet the pace and demanding nature of the course encouraged not only me but other students to develop the confidence to form, advance, and defend one’s opinions in that seminar room environment – yet also to learn to leave any disagreement or nastiness aside when it came time to chill afterwards.

As Goethe knew well, learning how to be simultaneously chill and intellectually intense was a good skill to develop


That might not seem like an unusual ability to cultivate, but I was often struck in milieux outside of the Humanities Sequence by how few people – even remarkably successful professors, to take the academic context – are able to maintain both the sense of intellectual combativeness but also good-spiritedness. You hear all the time about professors wanting to promote only their supervisors, or engaging in scorched-earth campaigns to destroy the careers of people who disagree with their interpretation of 17th-century depictions of animals in Baroque paintings. And I wonder: how much of this is a product of a learning environment where you’re not encouraged so often to defend your opinion in the seminar setting, but rather only to latch on to the latest methodology of the day, form a clique of like-minded ideologues, and try to maneuver the game of academic politics as well as you can? Being able to disagree fiercely yet politely, if that makes sense, seems to be a declining skill sometimes. The growing movement towards online instruction might, too, I hope, lower the ballooning costs of university education, but I hope that university leaders and academics are able to do so in a way that doesn’t compromise spaces where young people can continue to learn how to identify, discuss, and debate the grounds of disagreements. That’s something that, I hope, HUM gave me, and something that would be a tragedy to miss out on.

The second reason why I treasure the Humanities Sequence has to do with the range of literary and historical context it helped me begin to build. I’m often bemused by conversations with friends who aren’t historians by the way they’re either impressed or disturbed by the way some historians are able to talk about events decades, sometimes centuries, ago as if they only happened yesterday. The historian of early modern Europe might casually reference the Battle of Vienna as casually as having gotten the soup rather than the salad for lunch, for example. Yet coming into Princeton, I was almost totally the opposite. In spite of having a pretty good high school education in literature, like most high school educations it was necessarily patchy. We had read classics like Macbeth and Hamlet, and made gestures towards a more inclusive canon in reading works like Invisible Man and The Awakening throughout our high school English courses, yet if you had asked me to place when George Eliot wrote, or name within fifty years when Ben Jonson wrote, I probably wouldn’t have been able to answer you.

If only because of the ludicrous demands it made of me and other students (hence unconsciously raising my own standards for what I could and should expect from myself intellectually), the Humanities Sequence helped fill in, if not all the gaps, then the bones of a schema for how to organize one’s approach to the canon. As many critics of the course at Princeton have commented, students are expected to fly through a vast quantity of works at Millenium Falcon speed. Sometimes, this hyperdrive approach encourages a kind of well-rounded superficiality: I had ‘read’ The Brothers Karamazov at the end of a very rushed week, if by reading you meant skimming the work and checking out some of the Sparknotes online. So, too, had many of my classmates, if the quality of our discussion, even after an awesome lecture by star Princeton Slavicist Caryl Emerson, was any clue.

Reading in the Summer Garden of Petersburg


Yet the point that some critics of the course miss is that this broad, shotgun-like approach help gave me the scaffolding I could climb on later to erect my own version of the canon. Thanks to the time we spent, however rushed, on Dostoevsky, I knew that I had seen something compelling enough that, in the summer of 2007, I whiled away vast amounts of time in St. Petersburg’s Summer Garden reading the novel at a more leisurely pace. Our brief excursions into French literature and early 20th modernism encouraged me to procure copies of The Master and Margarita and Swann’s Way for those forever-bright Petersburg afternoons in the Summer Gardens, and when, the following spring, I had to read Bulgakov’s A Dog’s Heart for a class on Soviet history, I had my feet beneath me, so to speak.

None of this is to slander those courses that focus, say, exclusively on Victorian novels, or cover all of Jane Austen’s ouevre, are illegitimate or a waste of time. I have often become intruiged by particular authors, and wanted to spend months reading everything they had written (my most recent odd couple: Cormac McCarthy and Edith Wharton). Yet it’s hard for me to see how the 18-year-old version of myself could have easily had access, or such concentrated and intellectually rich access, to the entire Western tradition. At the moment, I’m currently semi-infatuated with 19th-century British novels, and am slowly making my way through Vanity Fair, for example. But if I wanted to turn my attention to, say, Elizabethan drama, I’d at least know where to start in a way that, I think, is more robust and valuable than endless hours of self-education on Wikipedia or online education could have provided me.

The third great advantage of the Humanities Sequence is the extent to which it cultivated a universalist, rather than an identity-politics centric approach to reading and knowledge. I should add, just to be explicit, that one of the first immediate gains of the course was simply getting to read a lot of great stuff. I think of this remarkable Matthew Arnold quotation from the beginning of Culture and Anarchy:

And yet, futile as are many bookmen, and helpless as books and reading often prove for bringing nearer to perfection those who use them, one must, I think, be struck more and more, the longer one lives, to find how much, in our present society, a man’s life of each day depends for its solidity and value on whether he reads during that day, and, far more still, on what he reads during it.

That’s definitely true. I can remember many a Saturday afternoon my freshman year, when, stuck at some random liberal arts college for a debate tournament, I was able to sneak off to a library and read my Madame Bovary for the upcoming week. (Debate was great, and getting to stop for a free dinner at Pizzeria Uno on the road back home, too, but there’s only so much mental satisfaction that even New Jersey’s diners on the Turnpike and Route One can give you, I’ve concluded.)

Still, more important was this universalist approach to literature and knowledge that I think an extended exposure to the canon impressed upon at least me. What do I mean by this? The more I’ve been exposed to other graduate students and faculty at various universities, the more I’ve been shocked by the frequency of people who seem to believe that any idea of a canon is, on face, ludicrous. More and more, it seems, you meet people who insist that any notion of Shakespeare being really, really good is a fiction foisted upon readers by generations of racist, misogynist, classist propaganda, and that many of our norms about what counts as ‘important’, whether in the books we foist up as great or in the methodologies we use, is all highly subjective and dependent on historical path dependencies that had to do with conservative, racist, white man determining a lot of what went into educational curricula around the entire world. The very fact that a ‘Canon’ course at Princeton focuses almost entirely on Western works, rather than an equally rich selection of works from a South Asian or Japanese tradition, for example, strikes them as only further proof of the problem.

Sadly, not even this calorie bomb of a Pizzeria UNO personal deep dish pizza can satisfy all of man’s needs


This, I think, might explain in part why I see more and more people turning to studying themselves in what I have termed ‘self-identity studies.’ Sometimes this might be a more practical decision: studying Japanese poetry is a hell of a lot easier if you grew up speaking Japanese at home than if you didn’t. But sometimes I see faculty or graduate students whose decisions to ignore (sometimes actively so as a sign of protest) huge swaths of an Anglo-American-German-French-Russian-Italian tradition seems to stem from less practical and more ideological concerns. There’s no point in hoping to write the history of, say, Soviet economic aid to Afghanistan, because you’re a white man and can’t possibly have anything to say about lives you haven’t lived. Maybe it’s impossible to really ‘get’ many women authors unless you’re a woman yourself, because as a man you have such a flawed epistemological perspective it’s impossible to understand. And so on. The ultimate result of what I would call this resentment-fueled, particularist ideology is that there is so much trauma, exploitation, and non-comprehension bound up in the story of almost any identity group that it’s impossible for people from outside of that group to understand their story. Let’s not lie: academic politics are often far from meritocratic. But framed in this particular way, universities seem less like any potential site of disinterested research than a battleground for representatives of various aggrieved groups to stage their historical claims against other groups. Nasty, brutish, and short on inspiration, in other words.

The Humanities Sequence, on the other hand, gave me a lot of the mental equipment – even as I have focused on  completely different subjects in most of my own academic work as a historian – to develop the opposite, more inclusive and interesting universalist world view. The implicit promise in the canon of the Humanities Sequence, I think, was that we were reading the books we read because these were the works that had survived precisely in spite of any of the contemporary problems of gender, race, class, or power that the authors wrote them in. Shakespeare was a white man, in other words, but attempts to explain his aesthetic greatness through his race or his gender only end up looking laughable. Reading so much stuff so rapidly, we were encouraged to learn how to articulate constructive criticism of works across a huge range of genres, periods, and biographies of authors that any ‘one’ paradigm to explain literature as purely the product of contemporary power arrangements, or to suggest that someone like George Eliot is ‘inaccesible’ to male readers, would have been insane to anyone sitting in on the discussions. Simply being exposed to so much material from so many divergent traditions (and being reminded, occasionally, of how much good stuff from the West or elsewhere we had omitted), it would have required a stronger eighteen-year old ideologue than I to have developed hardened views on any one identity group – ‘the workers’, ‘women’, or ‘white males’ – being the group who ‘actually’ stood at the center of history and had to be liberated by … my close readings of novels and plays.

Princeton’s Nassau Hall

True, it’s important to countenance any education in the Western canon with materials that are both non-Western and, crucially, non-canonical. But that’s in large part what one’s other courses at Princeton are for – learning difficult foreign languages to begin to gain access to, for example, Chinese or Arabic literature. And with respect to the debate I’ve highlighted between particularist and universalist methodologies, I think it’s also important to remember that just because some works really aren’t canonical doesn’t mean their worthless. I recall reading once that some works (think of The Feminine Mystique or Silent Spring, for example, which raised our consciousness about women’s aspirations and the environment immensely) are so good they can only be read once, because they change the world so much that everything contained within them seems like common sense after they’ve been written. A lot of the stuff that the identity-studies crowd pushes falls, I fear, into that former – but still very respect-worthy bin. But when you’re asking yourself, ‘What books do I really want to study intensely during this period of my intellectual formation?’, I think it’s important to consider those books that demand multiple readings. Works like Anna Karenina, probably my favorite novel, might not have changed the world in the same way as Silent Spring, but in reading them multiple times at different points in my life, I read in my own reading of Tolstoy important changes in myself. I can reflect on those works in the way I couldn’t for, say, an Eichmann in Jerusalem. That’s why reading widely is important.

More matter with less art: take the course. It was one of my formative experiences at Princeton, stirred me to become a more voracious and catholic reader, and there’s not a day that I don’t regret it.


One thought on “Reflections on Princeton’s Humanities Sequence, OR: Unsolicited Advice for Incoming Princeton Freshmen

  1. ryancberg

    Nice post, Tim. A few quotes by way of concurrence:

    “You haven’t read a great book if you’ve only read it once.”–Father James V. Schall, S.J. of Georgetown

    “The classics are those books about which you usually hear people saying: ‘I’m rereading…’, never ‘I’m reading’…The classics are those books which usually constitute a treasured experience for those who have read and loved them.”–Italo Calvino, Why Read the Classics?

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