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Friday, May 03, 2013

The sexy history of the civilization of women

Since I've been hanging out at the U of C for the past couple of weeks, I thought I'd revisit the Maroon after long neglect to see whether it can produce any absurdity comparable to the Crimson's daily output. And, yes: the university will be offering a new civilization sequence in something called, “Gender and Sexuality in World Civilizations.” But what is the civilization of women, or the civilization of sexuality, or the sexual civilization of gender? One of the faculty in charge of the sequence explains:
“We decided to go with Civilizations because of the very interdisciplinary and diverse nature of gender and sexuality,” Zerilli said. “They are a fundamental part of existence, and without them, there would be no civilization whatsoever.”
Well, yeah. There are a lot fundamental parts of existence without which there would be no civilization whatsoever - air, water, fire, humans, agriculture, art, war, government, etc. But either these things are too sub-civilizational to study historically ("Oxygen in World Civilization"), or they are already part of the content of the historical study of a civilization, as indeed, are gender and sexuality.

The College's definition of a civilization deviated from what I assume were its Burckhardtian origins some time ago, at least as indicated by its course offerings: there is Euro Civ and Ancient Mediterranean Civ, offered separately even though one could opt to take them together in Western Civ, a different course. There is America in Western Civ, which was more or less just American history with initial starting points in England. And then there are the modified Civs offered on study abroad programs, which are narrower versions of the campus offerings that focus on the site-specific history of the country or region in which you are drinking and partying for the quarter. But these variations retained a view that civilization is the history of a particular place and the various poleis that have planted themselves there over time, and it can be understood by reading the texts it produced (or looking (drunkenly) at sites, if you are abroad).*

It seems that by definition then, there could not be a course in "World Civilization," except either relative to  "Martian Civilization," or as a 12-quarter sequence that combined all the other world Civs into a vast History of the Entire World. (Actually, that could be kind of great. As a serial enrollee in Chicago's Civ courses, most of which I really liked, I could get behind that, though maybe not as a College-wide requirement.)

Nor can civilization be redefined as Universal Topic in Specific (or, in this case, Universal) Civilization, because that is just a thinly-disguised and lazy version of a course on the History of Universal Topic. The history of universal topic, be it ladies, sex, music, colonization, science (the latter three being already existing Civ options) is precisely the opposite of what is meant by the history of a civilization. Civilizational history is by definition temporal and contextual - how Greek city-states led to Greek empires while the Roman republic became the Roman Empire which ate the Greek empire and the rest of the world and then was eaten by Christianity and so on** - whereas histories of topics are a cross-civilizational comparison - the social role of women in the Inca Empire vs. the social role of women in modern France. (Incidentally, this is also the worst possible approach to history since it has no necessary temporal dimension at all. Social roles of women simply float free across the globe like hot-air balloons. And this is just how the Civilization of Women course will apparently be organized - into "thematic clusters.") There is nothing wrong with building regular college courses around universal topics, but there is something demented about calling universal topics by the name "civilizations." There is no Civilization of Women, or Colonial Civilization, or Musical Civilization.

It seems pretty clear from this article that turning their plain old department-housed topical courses into Universal Topic in Universal Civilization courses is a good way for faculty to expand enrollment in courses about their own specialties by offering Core credit for them. This is exactly what's done at Harvard with Gen Ed courses - persuade the registrar to allow your class to fulfill the "ethical reasoning requirement" and watch your enrollment climb. There is in principle no limit to the number or content of courses that could fulfill the "ethical reasoning requirement," since the requirement is only intended to be a capacious placeholder for whatever the faculty want to offer, so why not sneak your own course in, whether or not it was designed with the requirement or any conception of a general education in mind? If the popularity of Gender Studies warrants calling it a Civilization, maybe the vacuousness of the Core warrants calling it Gen Ed requirements?

*I think Music in Western Civ and Science in Western Civ were already available when I was there, so this is not exactly a new development. Universal Topic in Universal Civ is a further extension.
** No complaints about the tendentious interpretation, please.

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