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"Degeneration and the Fin de Siècle" course explores seedy side of literature and culture

November 8, 2001

Young minds come to schools like Carleton College with big questions: How does one escape existential angst? Is civilization facing imminent collapse? Who is to say that man is evolving for the better? Were they living in a different era, these fresh-faced philosophers would have most likely been chastised and deemed immoral. Luckily for them, these students live in a time when professors like Laura Goering not only entertain, but also encourage discussion of these topics.

Goering’s "Degeneration and the Fin de Siècle" course, the only class offered in Carleton’s literary and cultural studies department this term, examines an area of intellectual history often neglected in traditional history courses. Through a unique combination of biology, anthropology and philosophy, "Degeneration" offers students an opportunity to take an in-depth look at a somewhat seedier side of literature and culture.

Nineteenth-century Europe witnessed a period of widespread panic that the prevalence of neurosis, criminality and social decay was a sign that Western civilization might actually be in a state of decline. Writers and philosophers were labeled "degenerates" if they dared to break from the positivist, progressive norm. Even Monet’s impressionistic style was considered proof that the human brain was evolving in a negative direction.

According to Goering, professor of Russian studies, the idea for the course came to her as she was researching 19th-century medical history. "I saw a lot of instances of science getting pulled into politics," she said. One such example was Cesare Lombroso. In his hereditary degeneracy genetics theory, he attempted to give scientific legitimacy to the prevailing notion that there was a class of "born criminals" who displayed certain atavistic tendencies that linked them to primitive stages of human development

Senior Sarah Doire, a political science major from Woonsocket, Rhode Island and a hard-core Sherlock Holmes fan, decided to sign up after seeing posters for the class that advertised crime and the late 19th century. She called "Degeneration" "the most unique class I’ve taken at Carleton."

For Doire, one of the greatest features of the course is the fact that it encompasses so many interest areas. "It really combines a lot of different disciplines in a way a lot of classes don’t – it’s truly a liberal arts class."

Goering agreed that her course is unique in its great scope of study. "It’s a real smorgasbord," she said. While English is the dominant major represented, the class also attracts a diversity of other majors, from history and philosophy to biology and anthropology. "Whatever the students’ interests are, they can find something relevant to the course," Goering said.

Another noteworthy aspect to "Degeneration" that sets it apart from other courses is that in reading the texts, students are able to apply any languages they may have studied in the past. "This class is one of the only opportunities for students to use their languages outside of language and literature courses," Goering said.

Part of the curriculum of "Degeneration" is a field trip to the world-famous Museum of Questionable Medical Devices in Minneapolis. "We went just for the fun of it, but when we got there, we were amazed at how many things actually applied to what was being taught," Goering said. The exhibit on phrenology—the study of the structure of the skull to determine a person’s character and mental capacity—which allowed visitors to actually be tested was particularly amusing, as the class had just been studying phrenology days earlier.

As far as Goering can tell, "Degeneration" is not only a unique course to Carleton, but to all of academia. "In preparing for the course, I really was not able to find any other school with something like it. I did come across a course at a university in England which shared a lot of the same readings, but that was more of a literature-based course," she said.

Since its inception in winter term of 2000, "Degeneration" has tripled in size. "It’s a strange thing to sign up for, I’ll be the first to admit that. But maybe that’s its appeal," Goering said.

Written by Theresa Graif '04