Historians tell tales. Tales begin with “once upon a time.”
Once upon a time, some 650 years ago, an enormous disaster engulfed the population of Europe. In the year of our Lord 1348, the plague had arrived, the Black Death stole into Italy with devastating impact. The people of Florence understood that it was contagious, but could not understand how disease worked. All they could see was death. Hard times. Tension wracked the society. It seemed clear, however, that it would be safer to leave town, to get away from the disaster.
One of them was Giovanni Boccacio. He was not a nobleman, but one of those new merchant men. He had studied at the university. He was working for his Dad when he became a terrified witness to the plague which killed 60% of the Florentines. He chose to flee, with friends, of course, to the country side to wait out the disaster.
He recorded his temporary exile in his book “The Decameron.” Ten young men and women retreated to a Tuscan villa and wiled away their time isolated from the dangers of town by telling each other stories. Boccacio created a book we still read today.
“The Decameron” exists at the intersection of two vital periods: the Middle Ages, deeply pious and concerned with salvation and damnation, the study of the eternal, and the New Times, the Renaissance, which was centered on the world, on business, and on the here-and-now.
Boccacio was there at the beginning, a new kind of education, the HUMANITIES. Even in a time of clear danger, Boccacio and his friends spoke not of the here-after, but about the concerns of their times, the skills necessary to live a good life.
Let’s imagine ourselves into that Tuscan villa and write another tale of the Decameron.
Our story will deal with disorientation and confusion. It is a tale of fear of foreign shores, it will be a story about being lost. We want our new story to be a metaphor for our new reality and we want to use the HUMANITIES to understand what is going on in the 21st century.
Our new story is the tale of global life, living all over the world, dealing with strangers, new religions, different languages, and different values. Today we live connected to a world of strangers. In its own way, this is a source of tension no less consuming than the fear of contagion so long ago in Florence.
What is our humanities education all about? We here at Lewis are teaching about the whole world, all those strangers, those different people, speaking unknown languages and thinking in different ways. In our history classes we talk of the deep past where we search for our common humanity as well as the recent past of both conflict and cooperation. The outcome is to show our students what the world is like. The point is to demystify the strangeness of the other. Because, unlike Boccacio, we no longer live in a small town in far off Italy, citizens of Florence. We live in a connected world and we are sending out students to study abroad, to work in international business, to understand our immigrants, and to be at home around the globe.
Universities teach a lot of subjects and many of them are highly practical. For many, the university provides vital skills for work. The liberal arts university does more than that. What we understand here is that there is a whole person to be educated. The HUMANITIES are here to create that whole person: informed, interested, engaged and a citizen of the world. Our final story in the Decameron is this story, the story of a global education to teach us about our common humanity.