Class Distinctions Photo

From Prof. David Green, a photo of one of the extraordinary paintings the Core group saw at the Class Distinctions exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston this past Friday: Abraham del Court and Maria de Keersegieter, 1654, Bartholomeus van der Helst.

Current Core student? Alum in the Boston area? Let us know if we can plug you in to one of our group visits to the MFA to see this remarkable exhibit.

from In Defense of Literacy

Snug within the book-bricked walls of a University, it may not seem that literacy is under threat. However, there is a great tradition of humanisticcommentators taking on the role of reminder to bid us keep in mind that literacy in its broadest conception is not just about the ability to decipher meaning out of written speech. Rather, it allows mankind in its present moment to take into account the lessons (and failures, and strivings…) of the past, and to conceive of a future informed by the past and the present. Literacy is as much a moral and political as an educational need.

In the excerpt below, of likely interest to Core community members, the American author Wendell Berry steps up to the podium to remind us that literacy is something that exists alongside, and sometimes opposed to, commercial and professional interests. He writes:

Ignorance of books and the lack of a critical consciousness of language were safe enough in primitive societies with coherent oral traditions. In our society, which exists in an atmosphere of prepared, public language — language that is either written or being read — illiteracy is both a personal and a public danger. Think how constantly the average American is surrounded by premeditated language, in newspapers and magazines, on signs and billboards, on TV and radio. He is forever being asked to buy or believe somebody elses line of goods. The line of goods is being sold, moreover, by men who are trained to make him buy it or believe it, whether or not be needs it or understands it or knows its value or wants it. This sort of selling is an honored profession among us. Parents who grow hysterical at the thought that their son might not cut his hair are glad to have him taught, and later employed, to lie about the quality of an automobile or the ability of a candidate.

What is our defense against this sort of language — this language-as-weapon? There is only one. We must know a better language. We must speak, and teach our children to speak, a language precise and articulate and lively enough to tell the truth about the world as we know it. And to do this we must know something of the roots and resources of our language; we must know its literature. The only defense against the worst is a knowledge of the best. By their ignorance people enfranchise their exploiters.

Hear, hear.

This excerpt comes from Berry’s essay “In Defense of Literacy,” as appears in the collectionA Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural & Agricultural (Harcourt Brace & Company 1970/72, reprint 2012). Read the text online at Google Books, or swing by Mugar or the Core office to borrow a copy.

Hamlet in a Jordanian refugee camp

Prof. Hamill (who lectured last week in CC 201 on Hamlet, as it happens) brings to our attention this photo essay from The Guardian:

Photojournalist Sarah Lee travelled to Jordan with the Globe Theatres touring Hamlet production.

Aiming to visit every country in the world to commemorate the 450th anniversary of Shakespeares birth, and the 400th anniversary of his death, it has visited 136 countries out of 196.

The only country the company could not get permission and insurance to visit was Syria, so they performed in the Zaatari refugee camp on the Jordanian border to an entirely Syrian audience.


Caption: There is graffiti all around the camp. Some of the work is of an incredibly high standard and it represents one of the few ways that residents have to express themselves and their frustrations with the politics and conflict that has placed them there.

Find more photos and the full commentary at the Guardian website.

NB: Are you a student, alumnus, or other interested party, who would like access to the recordings of Prof. Hamill’s lecture on Hamlet? Email the Core office and we’ll send you a link.

How Cultured Am I (by the standards of the 1950s)?

A guest post by Word & Way president Justin Lievano (CAS 2016). recently posted several pages fromAshley Montagu’s The Cultured Man, 1958. These leaves warrant our interest because they contain quizzes meant to evaluate ones cultural knowledge. Quiz might be generous; taken all together, these questions compose a kind of oral exam to which one might be subjected on his/her way through graduate school.

I find a couple facets of these quizzes striking. First, they rely heavily upon a certain kind of canonical knowledge, both of works that everyone ought to know, and of sweeping generalities of the type one might find in a particularly dry academic monograph. Additionally, some of the questions just offer arbitrary judgements as in the question Do you collect books? to which the answer given is Everyone should collect books. A home without books is a home without a soul.

So, for the enjoyment of our readers, I shall now answer some of the questions, such that you, dear reader, might evaluate whether or not I am cultured.

Define Art.

When I was in the practice of creating sculpture during my high school years, I took it to mean something like sobbing and kneading my lachrymal essence into the clay. No one ever corrected me.

What is a book?

Does it have pictures?

What is the origin of the romantic conception of love in the western world?


What is Puritanism?

I think it has something to do with belt buckles on shoes and hats. Oh! And witch burning, somehow that seems integral.

The Subjection of Women was written by?

Men, I would imagine.

What kings married their own sisters?

Please, let us be honest; all of them.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Okay, that is about all for which I have the time and patience. What do you think, readers? Am I cultured? Is there a definitive way to measure ones cultural prowess? Does the fact that I cannot answer a number of these questions invalidate my extensive knowledge of 19th century American literature and culture, for example? If we can be certain about anything, it is that I do not know.

Should you have any interest in taking the quiz yourself, you can find it here, at the website of Slate magazine.

Winter is coming.

Migrating Canada geese, October 2015. Photo by Prof. David Green.

Migrating Canada geese, October 2015. Photo by Prof. David Green.

“… as the world rolls on toward bigger and better nobility.”


It seems folks are always fretting about the juvenile hijinks taking place on college campuses. However, going through some BU archives, we find an opinion expressed in 1931 that the immaturity was more or less over. Has this observation been borne out? You be the judge.

From an editorial titled “Growing Pains”, published in a 1931 issue of The Boston University Beacon, the campus literary/commentary magazine first published in1876.:

the-boston-university-beacon-1931-vol-LV-no-3-36Signs that the college student is growing up have been a source of satisfaction, in recent years, to educators who have the dignity of the human race at heart. In the more sophisticated colleges hazing has disappeared. Fraternity initiations have become milder and in some cases have been left off entirely as the world rolls on toward bigger and better nobility. Only this year at Boston University, Sophomores have stopped teasing the Freshmen publicly, and Open House night has gone the way of all collegiate indecorum. Even the Junior Prom — almost –. Can it be that the era of jazz is passing; that students are finding more fun in less riotous ways; that even perhaps ye good old stars are again lending themselves for hitching-posts?

A distinction arises here between what is good and what is not so good in this tendency towards quietness. Very few are going to regret those lesser and greater forms of silliness known as “informal initiations.” A large number, on the other hand, who have enjoyed running around from house to house — on such a night as Open House Night, — laughing, singing, remeeting a whole University’s acquaintances in a few hours, will mourn the abolishment of such an institution. But it is understood by all concerned that Boston University is not yet a campus college and Boston citizens still have their privileges — so patience is called in.

But to mourn –? surely this is not the adult spirit! No, we are afraid it is not. We are not even sure that we want it.

So, all those like us, who are having a hard time growing up, who like the Pickwickian flavor in their fun, who could have had a great old time at a Mr. Wardle’s Christmas Party, and who like to shout around the place once in a while just because they feel good — all those, we invite to join with us in a hurray for having had Junior Week, with Prom, “Pirates,” and Nickerson Field with its spring woods, to ease our growing pains in.

[Vol. LV, No. 3]

Read More »

Reminder: “Ancient Greece” a hoax, historians admitted in 2010

vaseFrom the October 7, 2010 issue of The Onion:

“Honestly, we never meant for things to go this far,” said Professor Gene Haddlebury, who has offered to resign his position as chair of Hellenic Studies at Georgetown University. “We were young and trying to advance our careers, so we just started making things up: Homer, Aristotle, Socrates, Hippocrates, the lever and fulcrum, rhetoric, ethics, all the different kinds of columnseverything.”

Five years after the revelation that Ancient Greece was a made-up load of bunk, what has changed? Not much. The Core Curriculum still teaches students about the Parthenon, the Peloponnese war, the epic poetry of Homer, and it does so with a straight face. Incorrigible.

(Read the full article in theOnion archives, here.)


Dante’s 750th Birthday Year

To current Core students, Dantes Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso marks theculmination of first year Core. Yet, toItalians, Dantes work of literature is referenced through academics, politicians and media. Dante is marked with a reverence by Italy for his ability to create a national language in the country. John Kleiner marks Italys celebration of the poets 750 birthday.

An excerpt:

For the last nine months, Ive been living in Rome, and the experience has helped me to appreciate another, more subversive side to Dantes appeal. Though he may be force-fed to seventh graders, applauded in the Senate, and praised by the Holy See, Dante is, as a writer, unmistakably anti-authoritarian. He looks around and what he sees is hypocrisy, incompetence, and corruption. And so he strikes out, not just at the Popes, whom he turns upside down and stuffs in a hole, but also at Florences political leaders, whom he throws into a burning tomb, and his own teacher, whom he sets running naked across scorching sand.

To read more about the poets everlasting hold on the Italy, check out the full article here.

CC 203 screenshot


Reminder: All Core lectures are
open to all members of the campus
community, including alumni.

Chalk credit: Prof. Tom Barfield

On being late for class: a professor’s view

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

Over at The Chronicle Review, a faculty member tells the story of how she was wondering why her students were always late, and what they told her when she asked them why. An excerpt:

Overall, students were much more understanding about tardy arrivals than I, and that got me thinking: Was I worrying too much about something that most students find irrelevant? I set out once more to find a solution to the tardiness, but this time, one from their point of view. I turned to my students and asked: “What can instructors do to motivate you to come to class on time?”

Read the rest ofStephanie Reese Masson’s essay about addressing tardiness, and the gap between a student view of class responsibility’s and a teacher’s, here.