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 (June 19 – July 8)

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?


“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.

Truth, Reason and Belief

Why care about having reasons for what you believe? For some of us, the answer is clear—we want to be in a position to defend our beliefs, and stand up for them under questioning. For others, the answer is not so clear—maybe different people will always have different reasons, and there’s no saying what counts as a good reason to believe anything. Maybe we can never have absolutely good reasons to believe anything.

Such questions plague us if we reflect on our condition as rational animals; we realize that we feel the need to be orderly in our thinking (consistent or logical) and yet we also realize the existence of persistent disagreement and doubt among seemingly reasonable people about what count as reasons for important beliefs. We’ll read recent analytic philosophy concerning belief and knowledge that focus on these matters. The questions we’ll focus on include:

  • Can you believe something and yet think there are no good reasons for thinking it true? Or even overwhelming reasons for thinking it false?
  • Can you decide to believe something at will?
  • What morals can we draw from deep disagreements about what is valuable, what is beautiful, and so on?
  • How can we avoid skeptical doubt about the possibility of knowing about the world around us?

Session 2 (July 11 – July 30)

Racial Identity in the American Imagination

From Sally Hemings to Barack Obama, this course explores the ways that racial identity has been experienced, represented, and contested throughout American history.  Engaging historical, legal, and literary texts and films, we will examine the major historical transformations that have shaped our understandings of racial identity.  We will also explore autobiography, memoir, photography, and music to consider the ways that racial identity has been represented in American society. We will consider the following questions:

  • What is the interplay between racial and American identity?
  • What role do mixed-race identities play in American society?
  • Is race merely a performance?  What does it mean for race to be a “social construct”?
  • What role does class, gender, and sexuality play in the construction of racial identity?

Poetic Justice: Exploring Dostoevsky’s Russia

Russia is where the most beautiful dreams – and the ugliest nightmares – of other places come true. There the doctrines of Christianity, Marxism, and now free-market capitalism, born elsewhere, have developed in fantastic ways, and artistic forms associated with Europe, from the novel to the ballet, have reached a new level and scale. Writing and reading are bound up in Russia with the urge to transform the self, to gain wings that could carry you into another, better world.  At the same time, text and image work to warn believers about the limitations of their own ambitions for reform of the self and the community.

This course focuses on Fedor Dostoevsky’s greatest philosophical novel, The Brothers Karamazov. To understand it in its context, we learn as well about the Eastern Orthodox Christian art that inspired it, the writers who were Dostoevsky’s contemporaries, and the turbulent history that he and his readers experienced. We ask questions such as the following:

  • How can secular art, such as the novel, relate to sacred art, such as the icon?
  • Can a novel really represent more than one point of view?
  • Do people need religion in order to be moral?
  • Is murder ever justified?
  • How does the legal story-telling at a trial relate to the story-telling in a novel?

Marx, Nietzsche, Freud: Master Thinkers of the Nineteenth Century

Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud reshaped our world and thought like few others. And yet, if you talk to modern departments of economics, philosophy and psychology, you will find that their names no longer hold the sway they once did. This class engages in depth with the thought of these three master-thinkers, and asks what they still have to teach us. Why does Marx believe that history has laws, and why does he think capitalism tends towards self-destruction? Why did Nietzsche claim that “God is dead”? What led Freud to the idea that dreams are profoundly meaningful and offer insights into our unconscious?