27 January 2012

La Semaine des Humanities

I GOT THE chance to do something fun this week at the school where I teach.  Each year the CIV puts on something called the La Semaine des Humanities -- a week long  series of lectures, films, presentations, classes, and exhibits dedicated to a particular theme with the area of the humanities.  This year the theme was Les Lumières -- The Enlightenment.

A colleague and I were asked to do a couple of presentations for the 'fête' and since we both teach in the American section of the school we decided to put together something that focused on an American writer: Thomas Paine. Using his great book Rights of Man as a guide, we tried to illustrate how his ideas about political rights influenced the American and French revolutions.  (For example: showing how his essay 'Common Sense' helped spark a revolution in American and 'Rights of Man' helped defend a revolution in France).  My colleague is the head of the literature department so she focused on how Paine used language and literature to get his message to the common people and my role was to put Paine in historical context -- talk about the environment in which he was writing, both in American and in France and comment on how and why the political environment shaped his views (including his reaction to Edmund Burke's position on the French Revolution).  

But then we went a step further. 

We recently met a student on campus who lives in the dormitories and is in his first year of the prépa program (a highly selective post-high school program in science and mathematics).  His name is Nabil Ben Youseff and he is Tunisian -- he lives in downtown Tunis.  Last January, while many around the world watched Tunisia launch the 'Arab Spring', he was marching in the streets, calling for his president to leave the country.  He was, to put it simply, participating in a revolution.  He is a very smart kid who becomes very animated and excited when he talks about what his country did 12 months ago.  The stories he tells are full of such emotion that you could listen to him all day and not get tired of it.

Well, we brought him in to help us tie together Thomas Paine's ideas from 200 years ago with the feelings of Tunisians in 2011.  Our presentation was called:  'The Lights are Still On:  Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, and Three Revolutions."  We gave the presentation twice during the week and if nothing else, we enjoyed ourselves.  Although my Lit. colleague and I did quite a bit of work putting the presentation together, it was Nabil who was the star of the show.  His stories (and hand-made cell phone videos) and experiences put a "real" face on what can often be a "history-book-only" kind of topic.

Loads of fun.  It is a wonderful week each year and this year I was happy to be a part of it.

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