The GOATs of the Western Tradition

The GOATs of the Western Tradition March 21, 2019

The beautiful Ruane Center for the Humanities on our campus opened in the Fall of 2013, a home, among other things, for the large interdisciplinary, team-taught course required of all freshmen and sophomores regardless of their major. The four-semester, sixteen-credit course is the Development of Western Civilization program, usually called DWC or just “Civ” by the students and faculty. I was director of this program from 2011-15, at any given time in charge of 75-80 faculty and 1800+ students as I shepherded the program from an old, stale version into a new, revamped and revitalized format. Ruane was built to the specifications of the program’s new needs—I was director as the building took shape from blueprints to cornerstone installation to dedication.

Ruane 3

The main gathering place in Ruane is the Great Room, with west-facing windows that stretch two stories from floor to ceiling. When the building opened in 2013, there were promises that these windows would eventually be replaced by stained glass representations of great figures from the Western liberal arts tradition. I submitted, along with a few other department chairs and program directors, my “wish list” for who should be included in these eighteen windows. Who were the Greatest Of All Time (GOATs) of the Western tradition?

As a few years passed, I began to suspect that these custom-made  works of art were never going to materialize. But almost four years after the dedication, when walking by the Great Room, I noticed that two of the eighteen clear windows had been replaced by new stained glass. A week later, the installation was completed.

Wall 2

I, of course, was anxious to see who had made the cut. From top left to bottom right, the winners are:

Homer, Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Augustine, Catherine of Siena, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Galileo, Descartes, Newton, Mozart, Jane Austen, Darwin, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr.

Rather than immediately make public my “thumbs ups” and “thumbs downs” on these various choices, I went on Facebook, posted several pictures taken with my tablet of the beautiful windows, and asked my friends and colleagues to chime in.

The new Ruane stained glass windows represent eighteen persons from the Western liberal arts tradition: disciplines represented are theology, philosophy, literature, science, music, and history. The eighteen are . . . .

Agree? Disagree? Who is the most obvious omission? Anyone who should not have made the cut? Discuss!

Responses and opinions started coming in immediately. One colleague noted that there are only four white Catholics in the windows (as if that constituency is underrepresented on campus), while a recent graduate was confused why scientists Galileo, Newton, and Darwin were there (he apparently doesn’t know the difference between the humanities and the liberal arts). Someone else pointed out that there were only three persons of color represented (remember, Augustine was from North Africa), an unfortunate reminder of the whiteness of the Western tradition. A former classmate bemoaned the choice of Mozart over Bach, although I think having to choose one from among Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven is akin to having to say which of one’s children one loves the most.WIN_20170711_13_00_27_Pro

The current chair of the philosophy department and I had a brief exchange.

  • Him: Descartes out, Kant in. No-brainer.
  • Me: I knew you would say that! I think it’s a tossup. Kant is definitely the better philosopher, but Descartes changed the philosophy playbook for good. BTW, the window doesn’t have Descartes sitting in bed, which is weird because that’s where he did most of his work.

A graduate from about a decade ago pointed out a couple of obvious glaring omissions.

  • Him: Prof. Delasanta [beloved teacher and colleague, as well as internationally recognized Chaucer scholar] would be livid at the absence of Chaucer (and perhaps Milton, too). Could easily have bumped Augustine for either. And maybe bumped Catherine for Joan of Arc.
  • Me: There are theologians on campus who would be aghast at no Augustine (although I’d be fine with it!). I do like Joan for Catherine. And you’re right, Rodney would have had a cow over the missing Chaucer!
  • Him: Of all the books that I read in DWC, none struck me as more dangerous or damaging than The Confessions of Saint Augustine. And none were more fun than Canterbury Tales with Prof. Delasanta.
  • Me: I agree about Augustine. I tell students that with his self-flagellation about his sin, navel gazing, and obsessive attitudes about just about everything, he was the first Protestant 1000 years before his time. I am Protestant, and do not intend that as a compliment to Augustine.

WIN_20170711_13_01_50_ProMy most extended exchange was with a friend and fellow academic; she and her husband teach at another university in Rhode Island. She immediately pointed out the most glaring problem with window choices.

  • Her: Sappho—the Tenth Muse. You need more women up there.
  • Me: You’ve got that right. When I suggested names for the windows (four years ago), 10 of my 25 were women. Sappho was the first one.
  • Her: Who were the 10?
  • Me: I’ll have to look them up to remember them all, but off the top of my head, Sappho, Mary Wollstonecraft, Julian of Norwich, Hildegaard of Bingen, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Margaret Mead, Simone de Beauvoir, Jane Austen, and someone else. Probably Simone Weil, since she’s my research focus!
  • Her: That’s a good list.
  • Me: Mary Shelly, Hannah Arendt, Iris Murdoch . . . don’t get me started!
  • Her: Do you happen to know the rationale behind St. Catherine? She’s famous for being boiled alive and having her head hacked off as a martyr because she refused to marry [I think my colleague has someone else in mind here . . .]. Other than her virginity, I don’t know what her contribution to the Western Tradition is.
  • Me: She’s up there because she was a Dominican nun. Simple as that, I think. Replace her with one of the above women. Which of the guys would you bump to make room for more women?
  • Her: I’d have a tough time bumping any of those. I’d be inclined to add more windows. I mean, Beethoven and Dante aren’t up there, either.

At this point, I decided to finally address the elephant in the room, a pachyderm no one had brought up in all of the messages I had received. There is a guy who, arguably, is one of the most—if not the most—influential person ever in any tradition, and he didn’t get a window. You know who I mean.

  • Me: Nor are Chaucer, Bach, Milton, or (the most egregious omission) Gary Larson.Gary Larson "The Far Side"

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