This course introduces undergraduate students to the study
of violence and aggression from a liberal-arts perspective.
It offers a historically grounded, multidisciplinary curriculum,
one that fully integrates perspectives from the humanities
and the natural and social sciences. Its principal aim is
to provide future men and women of affairs with broad historical
and comparative frameworks within which they can begin to
understand violence and its many meanings.
The phenomenon of violence deserves such a broad-based, sustained
scrutiny because of its central place in human social life
and culture. But for a variety of reasons, the approach to
the study of violence has generally been more limited. Despite
the fascination with violence evinced in humankind's ages-long
representation of violent themes in art and literature, it
is a phenomenon that men and women often find so disturbing
that they ignore it until it bursts human relationships and
social order itself. Then violence pleads for immediate solutions.
But the press for practical policy remedies to curb or contain
violence, freighted inevitably with moral appeals and legal
sanctions, blurs a comprehensive understanding of the phenomenon
on its own terms. Moreover, the types, origins, and meanings
of violence are extraordinarily diverse. Yet policy studies
typically focus attention on narrow areas, almost always the
most pressing concerns of the moment, to the neglect of other,
equally important areas and often to the detriment of the
accumulation of knowledge or the careful evaluation of historical
experience that alone can provide deep understanding. In brief,
violence itself so shocks human sensibilities that it induces,
first, a kind of forgetfulness and, second, a blindered focus
on problems at hand.
The liberal-arts perspective of this curriculum attempts
to address these limitations. It seeks to teach students the
habits of mind necessary to locate types of violence historically
and to enter into alien subjective worlds to discern the meanings
of violence to those who commit it and to those who suffer
its consequences. Thus, the course is principally rooted in
the social sciences, particularly sociology, anthropology,
politics, and social psychology. But from its start, the course
also exposes students to scientific inquiries in ethology,
biology, and sociobiology about the primal roots of human
violence, to philosophical perspectives on violence, and to
reflections on humankind's fascination with violence.
The core of the course covers some key types and meanings
of violence. It examines, first, institutionalized and ideological
violence. It explores the meaning of war to warriors in different
epochs and types of conflicts, including the catastrophic
Roman loss to the Carthaginians at Cannae, the heroism of
the self-immolating Japanese kamikaze, the terror and excitement
of trench warfare as seen by German soldiers in the First
World War, the meaning of bravery and cowardice among Americans
in the Second World War, and the sexually charged imagery
of front-line soldiers' reports of different conflicts. It
examines the twentieth-century phenomenon of industrialized
violence, focusing in particular on Nazi genocide during the
Second World War and the American use of nuclear weapons against
Japan. It analyzes ethnic and racial savagery from Rwanda
to Sri Lanka to the United States. It looks at religiously
grounded violence from the crusades and inquisitions of the
middle ages to totalistic cults today. And it surveys political
violence both by rulers and by subjects in revolt, from ancient
Rome, to the French Revolution, to the contemporary United
States, as well as the works of classical social thinkers
who extol violence, such as Marx and Sorel.
Second, the course looks at some types of interpersonal violence.
It explores notions of honor and the violence that emerges
from the intricate meanings that human beings attach to the
notion, from the world of the Iliad to the American southland.
It focuses on antagonisms between the sexes, such as those
in the Agamemnon, where the bitter disagreement between a
man and woman about whether public duty or kin ties hold sway
leads to horrifying domestic violence. The course also pays
particular attention to males' violent fantasies and the role
that women play in them. And it assesses different types of
self-destruction, the inverse of externally directed violence.
Third, the course examines the world of criminal violence,
from violence that emerges out of profound psychological disturbance,
such as that described by Dostoyevsky in Crime and Punishment,
to calculated occupational violence such as that endemic to
the drug trade in the United States, to criminal violence
in wartime. It also examines the extraordinarily rationalized
punishment of such violence.
Finally, the course looks at the forces of order and peace.
It explores the social structure and culture of traditionally
peaceful societies. It examines the heroic actions of individuals
and groups who resist oppressive social orders. It analyzes
the efficacy of moral exhortation and nonviolent civil disobedience
to protest and change perceived injustice. It probes the use
of force and the threat of force to curtail violence. And
it concludes with an appraisal of the importance of the key
institutions of law and bureaucracy in underpinning the search
for tolerable compromises.
Such a liberal-arts framework arms students for participation
in the world of affairs. A deep understanding of the repeated
patterns of human violence across epochs and societies tempers
easy optimism about the efficacy of policies to remedy violence
in general or even particular forms of violence. At the same
time, liberal-arts attention to history, biography, social
structure, and culture provides insights into human motivations
for violence and its facilitating institutions that can spark
the right questions, push inquiry in fruitful directions,
and suggest ameliorative actions.
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