World Civilizations: Triumph Over the Traditional

On one side of the Upper School hallway in Brenna Stuart’s room, Lexi J. ’19 recognized a phrase from Voltaire’s “Candide” in a 1751 commentary supporting sumptuary laws as a bulwark against “the dregs of the people.”

“That’s so mean,” Lexi said in smiling astonishment.

On the other side of the hallway in Genevieve Munson’s room, freshman Jonah R. handed his teacher the outline he’d made using the critical techniques from the previous day’s class.

“This is going to be a bomb essay,” Jonah said.

Munson scanned the page and nodded approvingly. “I don’t doubt it, young Jonah. I do not doubt it at all,” she said.

Other than being impressive displays of scholarly aptitude, these two scenes would appear to be discrete, disconnected events with no relation to one another.

That appearance would be deceiving.

There’s a common thread that runs across the hall, connecting Munson’s class to Stuart’s, Jonah’s experience to Lexi’s, history to English and freshman year to sophomore year. That thread is World Civilizations.

The two-year, interdisciplinary course serves as an immersive introduction to the humanities in Upper School. While grounding students in the fundamentals, World Civ aims to provide a richer experience than individual English or history classes would by exposing students to texts that span millennia and cultures, but speak to a common human essence.

“Dividing history from literature is a false dichotomy,” said Stuart, who teaches World Civ II along with Emma Miller.

“We’re trying to combine big ideas with the nuts-and-bolts of grammar and effective, engaging writing. The trick is figuring out that balance.

“It’s definitely ambitious, but it works because they’re not just high schoolers,” Stuart continued. “There’s this idea that students that age we should just spoon-feed facts, but facts without context become facts without meaning and just bore these kids.”

Munson, along with Sarah Parker, teaches World Civ I and echoed Stuart’s sentiments.

“Any idea is not an idea in isolation,” Munson said. “Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech isn’t some frozen moment in time.

“I want my students to understand that the paths of English and history are not journeys that take place in isolation. And on the best, most fulfilling days of class, I’m learning shoulder-to-shoulder with my students. Challenging fixed perspectives is always an aim of whatever we’re doing in class,” she said.

The World Civ I curriculum includes The Bible, The Koran, The Dhammapada, “The Odyssey,” “The Republic” and “The Divine Comedy.” World Civ II focuses on the development of modern Europe and the causes and consequences of western dominance. The material that helps illuminate that journey includes works by Shakespeare, Machiavelli, Tolstoy, Camus, Kafka and Garcia Marquez.

“The struggle,” said Munson, “is that there are fun, interesting, applicable elements within great texts, lurking in the background. The challenge is to tease those out and bring them forward so students can engage with them as preparation for thinking and speaking and communicating critically.

“What’s always on the forefront is how to craft good writing, and probably the most fundamental aspect of that is that you have to be a good reader if you ever want to be a good writer,” she said.

The Upper School faculty are hardly alone in cultivating critical thinkers.

“The Middle School sets us up for success,” Munson explained. “The collaboration among and between teachers helps ensure that kids arrive in World Civ I with a strong scaffolding of what they need to know, and that allows me to just build on. We’re trying to foster a critical eye and look at the human experience and develop in students an empathy and understanding.

“There are certain universal themes throughout the great works — One might even say that’s what makes them great,” Munson continued. “But it is a profound experience for students to interact with the Koran and the Tao and ‘The Odyssey’ and books separated by cultures and continents and hundreds or thousands of years and to find, universal, unifying human elements and truths.

Stuart and Munson’s belief in the superiority of the interdisciplinary World Civ model is clear. Munson made equally clear, however, that the point of the class was not to upset the pedagogical apple cart.

“World Civ is not some sort of insurrection against the traditional teaching of English and history. But it is, we think, a natural way of eliminating the more arbitrary barriers between the two disciplines in a way that makes learning the material a uniquely good fit for freshman- and sophomore-age students.”

Stuart said that even within World Civ itself, the aim is to get rid of boundaries and present students with a unified curriculum and more complete learning experience.

“We bring in art history, we bring in various kinds of philosophy, we bring in dangling modifiers and lots of other things. But it never feels like, ‘Now we’re going to do history,’ Stuart said.

“We’re always doing all of it.”