Prof. Donald Levine's course on Ethiopian culture connects with Chicago community
On a recent spring day, a group of College students hopped on a bus headed to the Art Institute of Chicago to view some of the museum's spectacular objects from Ethiopia's past. The rich history and culture of this African nation, which many of the undergraduates had never studied, is the subject of an African Civilizations course that also seeks to make connections with Chicago's Ethiopian community.
The students are learning from a leading authority, Donald Levine, the Peter B. Ritzma Professor Emeritus of Sociology, who has studied Ethiopia for five decades and revived a class about the country, which he began teaching in the 1970s.
“Although I've offered this course intermittently from the early '70s, I had not taught it since 2006,” said Levine. “Since then, important new books and videos have become available. Meanwhile, I’ve developed an increasingly coherent sense of Ethiopia as a civilization, which I wanted to share with students to get them past the usual stereotypes of Ethiopia as just a place of famine and warfare.”
To paint a more accurate picture of the country and its culture, Levine arranged the Art Institute visit and another trip to the city’s North Side where students will get to meet members of Chicago’s Ethiopian community.
“This class relates well to our previous class on African civilization,” said Aerik Francis, a second-year student. “You would think that we’d have known more about a country as prominent as Ethiopia.”
The Ethiopian objects in the display case—a cross, a manuscript and a three-part panel covered with religious images—all spoke to a rich Christian heritage that was both indigenous and influenced by artist movements elsewhere, said Kathleen Bickford Berzock, curator of African Art.
“These items come from the highlands region, close to the Red Sea, and show the connections that Ethiopia had with Byzantium, and later with images that came from Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries,” she explained.
On the bus ride back to the UChicago campus, third-year Sneha Thayil said she enjoys the class because of the wealth of knowledge Levine brings to it. “He is very passionate during the lectures about Ethiopia and brings things like his personal ancient coin collection to share, which helps us understand the history of the country better,” she said.
Levine, who holds all three of his degrees from UChicago, including the PhD he earned in 1957, developed his interest in Ethiopia as a young scholar.
“I got interested in Ethiopia in the first place because when I was a graduate student, I met a few Ethiopian students in Chicago. This was at a time when I had been working with Robert Redfield (a distinguished UChicago anthropologist) on ways of comparing cultures, and I was looking for an interesting area to spend time in for post-doctoral research.
“Ethiopia's history and written traditions fascinated me, and I ended up writing a chapter of my dissertation on Ethiopia,” he said.
He spent six months doing research in libraries in Paris and Rome on the way, and three years of field work in Ethiopia. During that time, he also taught courses at the University College of Addis Ababa.
Levine’s research led to a number of publications, including Wax and Gold: Tradition and Innovation in Ethiopian Culture (1965). He also wrote Greater Ethiopia: The Evolution of a Multi-ethnic Society (1974). That book is the only work by an American social scientist to have been translated into Amharic, the national language of Ethiopia.
He is working on another book to be published later this year, Interpreting Ethiopia: Observations from Five Decades.
He has received a number of awards for his work, including an honorary doctorate from the Addis Ababa University in 2004.
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