When students enter my premodern arts and cultures classroom, they are often surprised to discover that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” William Faulkner recognized this truth in an American context, and my students come to understand this concept in a global context. As a literary and social historian, I believe that the best thing we can do for our students, citizens of an ever-globalizing society, is to show them that they are not alone in their aspirations, fears, and dreams for a better future. There is literally a world of wisdom to unpack: the eighth-century resolution of Du Fu, the thirteenth-century bravery of Sunjata, and the seventeenth-century feminism of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. In Liberal Studies, students explore the past and end up learning about themselves.
Uncovering the past also means coming to terms with the systems of inequality that undergird modern society. By creating a supportive space in which to have challenging conversations, I encourage students to use early traditions to investigate their own values. Premodern texts deal with complex issues like race, gender, sexuality, and sustainability, and students develop cultural competencies and a heightened sense of social responsibility by dealing with these ideas in a defamiliarized way. Discussing the magical Welsh “Tale of Branwen”, for instance, leads us to explore modern prejudice and gender-based violence. Ultimately, my goal is to empower my students with critical tools they can use to enrich their lives, their communities, and our world.