Learning goals

Through these courses, students will gain an appreciation of how the present world continues to be shaped and influenced by the past, but also of how individuals in the past could view the world in ways that were sharply different from ours today.

By studying cultural traditions at a temporal remove, they will acquire a new perspective on how ideas from different fields can have an impact on events. Students will also hone their skills for analyzing primary sources; formulating arguments about history, philosophy, and culture; and crafting a written research paper. The courses will be comparable to freshman-level college introductory courses.

Session 1: History (Two Tracks)

Track 1: The Age of Jefferson

The Age of Thomas Jefferson spanned the years roughly 1770 to 1820, some of the most exciting and tumultuous in American and European history. During this half century, such world-changing events as the American and French Revolutions and the transatlantic Enlightenment stretched people’s thinking into many new and unexpected directions.

This course will examine a few of these new ideas in the Age of Jefferson. Though we’ll be using Jefferson’s life, travels, and writings as a base, we’ll range far afield to look at how he and famous contemporaries such as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Hume thought about their world. We’ll frame our discussions around a series of questions that Jefferson and his contemporaries fiercely debated. Here are some examples:

  • Nature: Was the new world of America fundamentally different or the same as Europe, and did animals, plants, and people improve or worsen there?
  • Government: what was the proper kind of government for human societies, and how could this be known?
  • Society: was there an original “state of nature” from which all human societies developed? If so, what did that original state suggest for how we should live now?
  • Slavery: Are all humans created equal? How was slavery justified in the 18th century?
  • Reason and Knowledge: How do we arrive at knowledge? What creatures—children, women, “savages”—were considered unreasonable in the Age of Reason, and why?
  • Ancient Greece and Rome: Does the example of the ancient Greeks and Romans have anything to offer to moderns? If so, what?
  • Better Homes and Gardens: After visiting France, Jefferson rebuilt Monticello, making it one of the most famous houses in America. Here he applied “enlightened” theories of architecture. But can people and society really become better through beautiful houses and gardens?

Track 2: Revolutions

“Revolutions are the locomotives of history,” wrote Karl Marx.

As the ongoing turmoil of the Middle East reminds us, revolutions have the power to reshape the political order of the world more than any other social, economic, or cultural forces. Most states today were born out of a revolution.

But what exactly is a revolution? Is it, like Marx believed, the inevitable result of a social conflict? Or does it take determined revolutionaries to make a successful revolution? To have a revolution, do you have to call it “a revolution”?

To answer these and other questions, this course will take students back to the early revolutions of seventeenth-century England, and the revolutions of America and France. We will then make our way up through the revolutions of the nineteenth-century, to the great revolutions of the twentieth-century in Russia, China, Cuba, Cambodia, and Iran. We will conclude by considering the current revolutions underway in the Middle East.

For their papers, students will have the opportunity to study one revolution in greater detail, or compare a set of revolutions. They can also explore the description of revolutions in literary or artistic works.

Session 2: Philosophy (Two Tracks)

Track 1: Evil

There are many books and courses that focus on the good life or the virtues. Yet despite their obvious apparent presence in our life and world, evil and the vices are rarely taken as explicit topics. Here we shall focus on the following three main questions:

  • What is the nature of evil?
  • Are humans by nature good or evil?
  • How should we, as a society, deal with evil?

We shall read philosophical and literary texts that deal with the question of evil at an abstract level and then use other readings that help us consider the more practical implications of the meaning and consequences of evil.

Track 2: Ethics in a Human Life

Ethical questions pervade a human life from before a person is conceived (e.g. How should we think about whether to bring a person into existence?) until after she dies (e.g. How and why do the things that happen after we die matter to us?), and at every point in between. This course raises a series of ethical questions by following along the path of a person’s life – questions that arise before, during, and after she lives it. We will explore the distinctive ethical challenges that a life presents at each of several familiar stages in and around it: prior to birth, childhood, adulthood, old age, death, and even beyond. We will consider how a number of philosophers have tried to answer these questions, and how satisfying answers to them might lead us to a better understanding of the ethical shape of a human life as a whole.