Teaching Humanities at Manhattan School of Music


John Erskine began the “Honors Seminars” at Columbia University after he returned from service in Europe during World War I.  In France he had set up a program of courses for American GI’s who wanted to use their time away from the front to improve themselves with study.   Back at Columbia he began meeting with students who wanted to study the classics of European literature, and he taught them with the aim of helping them to understand and appreciate the values for which he believed so many young American men had fought and died on the Western Front.   Eventually the course he offered to a select few became a part of every Freshman’s study at Columbia and was imitated throughout the United States. 


Erskine also toured the country as an accomplished concert pianist until injuries he suffered in an auto accident ended his playing career.  When he left Columbia he moved a few blocks north to assume the presidency of The Juilliard School at its new home at 120 Claremont Avenue.


Like others in the Manhattan School of Music Humanities faculty I taught “Literature Humanities” at Columbia.  I also taught “Logic and Rhetoric,” the required course on writing for all Columbia freshmen. 


We no longer teach a series of “Great Books” to justify the struggles of World War I, or the greater catastrophe of its successor.   But much of Erskine’s mission remains relevant to what we do today.  The “Western Cultural Tradition” he sought to pass on with the selection of “classics” he taught at Columbia defined, over the centuries since Homer, the terms on which the modern individual takes part in the larger social realities of nation, culture and community.  They form the record of past negotiations which shaped the institutions in which our students will take part when they leave school. 


I posted Erskine’s most celebrated essay on education, “The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent” on my website and I have either assigned or recommended it for past classes of Humanities I.



Joining Erskine’s spirit, another influence in our geographical and historical setting exerts a pull on our school’s traditions.  Across the street we pass Columbia’s Teacher’s College, the product of late nineteenth century progressive educational movements.  One of its presiding intellectual spirits was that of John Dewey.  Dewey conceived of modern education, not as a luxury for the privileged, but as a tool by which all Americans could prepare to take part in the defining institution of our nation, Democracy.   That should remain part of our mission.  The fact that more and more of our students come here from other countries, other cultural traditions, very different political climates, should not discourage us.  One reason they come here, and that their parents and communities send them here, is to learn what America has to teach them about what has made our cultural values a touchstone for peoples the world over.  


In the first semester of the Humanities Core we introduce them to the Greeks, who invent “democracy,” and then continue to the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, in which the value of the individual is defined in the context of a devotion to a single god.  The materials in the semester lay the foundation for key values that the rest of the series will build on – the spirit of inquiry and debate in a democratic society, the shape of human narrative drama as practiced by the Greek Tragedians and described by Aristotle, and the urgency of the great moral questions raised by the Jewish and Christian scriptures. 


In Fall of 2014 we switched texts in Humanities I and II and revised our approach to the entire core.  We now teach from The Norton Anthology of World Literature, which enables us to explore a wider range of cultural worlds than the Western Literature anthology we used before.  The addition of texts from Indian, Chinese and Islamic cultures has reinvigorated the debates about cultural values that are at the heart of my teaching.   I was already familiar with The Confucian Analects and The Great Classic of Poetry from my studies in the work of Ezra Pound, who transformed them into “modernist” texts when he translated them in the early twentieth century.  The Songs of the South were new to me, but revealed additional riches of the Chinese lyric tradition.  I studied The Mahabharata when Peter Brook translated it to modern performance with his company in the 1980’s and I used the film of Brook’s production to help illuminate it in class.  The classics of Taoism and Buddhism have been a part of my own spiritual path for decades. 


The second semester dramatizes many of the same issues I introduce in Humanities I by studying the “quests” of various “heroic” characters from Beowulf to Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, vividly demonstrating how the search for personal meaning has been transformed over the centuries of world  literature.  As we have in the other classes, we will continue to incorporate a wider cultural range of “heroes” for our students to consider.


In Humanities III we discuss “Rebels and Revolutions,” the writings of a variety of thinkers and activists who confronted the political powers of their own day to assert the rights of individuals to have an increasing say over the shape of the societies in which they lived.  The readings we explore should present “democracy” as an ongoing process whose perfection is far from complete, and to whose continuing progress our students, as citizens of whatever nation they make their home, should feel committed.   I do not present the progress of “Democracy” as a gift from Europe to the rest of the world.  Its ideals have strong roots in other cultures and at the end of the semester we explored how the Indian political movement of “Satyagraha” inspired the struggles for racial justice in the US in the 1960’s.


The final semester of the series, “The Artist and Society,” then focuses the students’ attention on the part that artists like themselves can take in the ongoing dialogues that shape social institutions.  Again the issues of democracy, morality, personal spiritual fulfillment, and social responsibility are explored, but now in the specific roles that artists play in past and present society.  


At no point in this discussion should any of us presume to tell our students, American or otherwise, what party or faction, which end of the political spectrum, which side on an issue, or which religious tradition has “the Truth.”  Instead we must present as broad a range of political, cultural, and social dialogue as we can in the limited time we have, not to persuade any student to our point of view, but to convince them of the urgency of the choices that life as a free citizen presents them, and the importance of looking at as many options as they can. 


The struggle for the space in which to be a free individual who can produce art must be presented as an ongoing challenge, not a settled given.  The works we study show the individual in personal struggles for meaning, in local struggles for community, and in social struggles for freedom.  Our approaches to these works must neglect none of the ramifications that literature and other texts present the reader.  Each text has artistic, personal, social and political implications and none of these perspectives can be off-limits to discussion and analysis. 


A third spirit must always walk the hallways of our school as we wonder how to teach our aspiring musicians how to become the artists and citizens they can be.  Janet D. Schenck struggled for decades to build our school, not as an elite enclave, but as a socially engaged community of artists and teachers which nurtured musicians from all walks of life and all levels of American society.  Her roots were in the Settlement Movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and she counted among her friends and allies Jane Addams of Chicago’s Hull House and Lillian Wald of New York’s Henry Street Settlement.  These social leaders, predominantly women, were moved by the poverty in American cities to find ways to organize lasting institutions that would not just aid the underprivileged, but empower them with education and training to improve their communities and themselves. 


 I have transcribed her moving and inspiring account of the first decades of the school’s work and put it on line at http://keever.us/schenck.html.  I encourage my students to read it.


The literature we teach must be treated as a tool for changing lives, as Erskine, Dewey and Schenck treated the institutions and educational traditions they shaped.  Our classrooms must be places not where we pour a certain measure of cultural nourishment into our students’ canteens before they start out on their life journeys, but a site for debate, discussion, and questioning of all the issues the potentially explosive texts we present them with.  They must not be mere consumers.  They must see that we are welcoming them to ongoing debates about the fundamental values of art and life in which they should feel empowered to take a full and active part. 


Because Manhattan School of Music does not offer any equivalent to the second series of “Core” courses I taught at Columbia, “Logic and Rhetoric,” I have tried to incorporate some of its teachings into my “Humanities” classes.  The “L&R” program, when I taught it, was shaped by Professor Edwqrd Tayler, with whom I studied Shakespeare.  He shared with me many of his ideas about how modern teaching of “composition” can profit from adapting Classical and Early Modern “Rhetoric.”  Using two short modern texts, A Rulebook for Arguments, and The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing, I have built on what Professor Tayler, and broad reading in the history and literature of rhetoric, have taught me about shaping arguments and using the process of logical argumentation to sharpen the students’ ability to search intelligently, if not for “certainties,” at least for actionable probabilities.   I also encourage them to construct for themselves that absolutely essential tool that Hemingway recommended for every writer, “a built-in shock-proof crap-detector.” 


When I teach “Humanities” I strive to present to the students a coherent narrative, an historic “conversation,” in which they are invited to participate as educated members of their culture.  To this end I relate each era and work of literature to the ones that came before and to the ones that follow.  I deliberately try to combat the pernicious tendency of “popular culture” to fragment and isolate events and personalities into a mass of disconnected images that defy all efforts to make sense of the forces and processes that shape our present and will define our future.   The works we study together are, as Pound used to say, “the news that stays news,” no matter which culture they first appeared in.  They spoke to their own times and can speak to ours. 


As we continue to augment our current offerings with literature from the Far East, from South Asia, from “West-Eastern” cultures, from Africa or from the “New World,” we must ask how they “converse” with the European works that form our main focus.  Few of them will be responses to earlier works by European writers, and only a very few can be shown to have “influenced” writers that come after them on distant continents.  This does not rule out including some such works, but we must ask how they can be related thematically to the “story” that our current curriculum creates, which, at least in my teaching, I consider essential to the project of the Core Curriculum.   We must continue to find ways to let them converse with each other in ways the illuminate the core values we teach in “Humanities,” the values of Erskine, Dewey, Schenck, and our other predecessors. 


Tom Dale Keever