Fall 2010 Stories
What is History For?
The Age Of Irony explores how we continue to be shaped by the past
By Neal Jensen
How do we understand our own history when the gap between what we understand and what actually happens continues to widen?
In the Age of Irony, a year-long program taught by faculty members Sarah Ryan and Susan Preciso, students will examine the pivotal roles of wars and social movements as shapers of 20th & 21st century American life and thought, especially the development of our sense of irony as reflected in politics and culture.
“The first time we taught this program was right at the beginning of the 21st century, not long after 9/11,” Preciso recalls. “It was like irony had disappeared, as a stance to look on our culture and our history.” One of the goals of the program is to help students to develop a sense of irony—the ability to look at current or historical events though a critical but not cynical lens. “Irony is the appreciation of the distance between our words or our ideals or our official pronouncements and the real purpose of things or the real story,” Ryan says. “I think it’s essential for good mental health.”
In order to develop a sense of irony, students need to understand the difference between the popular understanding that our history was somehow inevitable and that it progresses, and a more complex analysis where understanding about the meaning of what happened is in tension. “The ironist,” Preciso says, “tries to recognize both reality and the potential for something better, which the cynic cannot recognize.”
Fall quarter’s study of World Wars I and II and Vietnam leads to winter quarter’s focus on social movements: the Progressive era of the early 20th century, civil rights and second wave feminism. “Through the study of culture as history,” Ryan explains, “we will see how these turning points were and are reflected in our cultural lives.” Through literature, film and other artistic expressions, students will gain an understanding of the cultural experiences of particular times, places and events.
Students will also have the opportunity to develop strong research skills as tools to put current and historical events in context. They will learn to evaluate history, not as a dry set of facts that need to be memorized, but as dialogues between a present and a past and a search for understanding. Students “do history” as Ryan notes, researching and writing about works of art, literature and film though a historical lens, and publishing writings in an online zine. They will gain an understanding of the irony that many artists, authors and filmmakers try to convey through their work.
Preciso and Ryan teach students to become more comfortable with an “ironic stance”—the ability to step back and see what was, and what we wish could have been. As Preciso says, “We want students to perceive themselves not as passive observers, but as actors in history.”
Neal Jensen is a senior who has focused his studies around colonialism and imperialism in relation to global indigenous populations, the Middle East, and U.S. foreign policy. He plans to pursue graduate studies in international relations.