This semester, I’ve been attending a lecture course on Wednesday afternoons pertaining to late medieval and early modern art history. I say attending, not taking, because I am in no way getting credit for the course, nor am I planning to sit for the final exam in a couple of weeks. Despite my (perhaps) lack of real commitment to the class, it has nonetheless become one of the more compelling parts of my week.
Liberal arts child that I am, I’ve never been part of a class larger than, say, 40-50 people, and I had also never before taken a class conducted in German that was not designed to teach me German. So, when I first took my seat in the massive, anonymous lecture hall and my Prof. Dr. Whoever (side note: if you are an accomplished German academic, how many of your titles do you choose to include on plane ticket forms? Just curious.) opened his mouth and started to spew in German with the occasional contrived Italian accent, I was convinced that this class was going to be a miserable experience.
But, I stuck it out, and while I haven’t understood absolutely every word of each lecture or agreed with everything the professor has said (call me crazy, but if you’re going to call your class “art history” it should include some historical context for all those Gothic buildings and Donatello paintings you’re showing me), there’s something about my time spent in Lecture Hall B210 on Geschwister-Scholl Platz that has consistently reminded me why I feel so strongly attached to the humanities.
In Germany, it’s very common for retired individuals to attend university classes, maybe for credit, maybe not. Out of the probably 300 people that attend this lecture on (sometimes) obscure art every week, roughly half of them are at least three times my age. Looking around the hall yesterday afternoon (as I am wont to do once its been an hour and my attention span has therefore expired) I loved that I was seeing first-semester students in the same row with people who probably knew Michelangelo when he was a contemporary artist, and all were taking notes with the same vigor. Even though at least half of them will probably never take a test on this material, and even fewer will pursue a career related to, say, Brunelleschi’s work in Florence (or, as my professor says, Flo-hrenz.), I like to think they all appreciate that studying this material will either change or open up a different way of understanding the world, and isn’t that what we’re all after, anyway?
A favorite lecture (ok, TED talk) of which I often think speaks about how society has become a place full of experts, zealots, and spectators, and how liberal arts education can work to remedy that. The world has enough experts, there will always be zealots, but I will never stop applauding individuals who refuse to be spectators of the world around them, and I have loved spending every Wednesday afternoon in their company.