After nearly two weeks of getting over lingering jet lag and diving into Lit Trad III readings, the semester looks promising for the 2016 spring Rome class. Class trips to St. Peter’s Basilica and a few delicious Italian restaurants left most students with the ability to name a few testaments to Rome’s superiority over the U.S.
Delightful though these may be, we have not been so quick to adjust to some other aspects of Italian life. Planning around the sporadic bus schedule and factoring sitting and service fees into meal budgets does not yet come naturally to us. The tap water still tastes strange and, even if we grow accustomed to the limit on Wi-Fi, we will probably never truly accept it.
A lot of students have regarded these as sacrifices which must be made in order to enjoy the other wonders Rome has to offer. The Sistine Chapel is well worth waiting 45 minutes for the bus, and the oddly flavored water is more than outweighed by the abundance of other legal beverage options.
Maybe, however, we shouldn’t frame these things as necessary evils, validated only in their relationship to ancient monuments or artistic masterpieces. None of the things we complain about are insurmountable, and few of them are even objectively bad. Most people live their entire lives without Wi-Fi, and the limited selections of the Due Santi cafeteria are much better than what the children who play the accordion on the metro probably eat. Maybe UDAIR’s fastidious but unlimited Wi-Fi service spoiled us, and maybe Aramark’s short burger lines and rotating meal options left us far too accustomed to a variety of food options, but I don’t think so.
Learning to appreciate or even just navigate new situations isn’t a matter of denying the good things we have in the U.S., but it is about figuring out when and how to let go of them. The same tradition that produced Michelangelo’s stern figures influenced modern ideas regarding the appropriateness of smiling at strangers; the stray dogs who howl through the night are no more than modern parallels to the wolf who terrorized medieval Assisi before St. Francis spoke to it; the fabulous fur coats on every other local woman might not be as popular if Italians kept their heaters running throughout the day.
In and of themselves, these things are worth some amount of contemplation. We don’t have to like them or even necessarily accept them for ourselves, but it would be a waste to fail to think on them.
If the goal of a traditional liberal arts education is indeed to learn about all aspects of Western civilization, it cannot stop at traditional texts and historic events. Understanding how current societies have interpreted and built upon this shared past is just as necessary to a thorough understanding of how ancient ideas have shaped our own. Working backward through history isn’t the most intuitive way to learn about the relationship between past and present, but it is the only way to really decipher the correlations between different cultures.
Learning about Aristotle and Aquinas is integral to understanding the foundations of modern thought, but it would be a pity to lay that foundation and then fail to build upon it.
If the Rome semester is truly the culmination of the University of Dallas’ Core, we owe it to ourselves to cultivate an appreciation for, or at least an acceptance of, the less formal manifestations of culture which we encounter here.
In the meantime, freshmen, prepare yourselves for toilet paper in individual sheets.