Center Course Descriptions

 

TEXTS AND IDEAS: FREEDOM AND OPPRESSION (2011, '12, '13)

This course examines core aspects of the human quest for freedom—freedom from slavery, from sexual oppression, and from the shackling of the mind—as these came to crisis points in nineteenth century America. It will begin with a critical look back at formative biblical texts and ideas; touch down briefly in the era of the American founders, and on the influences upon them; and culminate in a sustained attention to mid-nineteenth century reform movements, and in particular to the thought and work of Abraham Lincoln, as he and members of his generation, both allies and critics, worked to eradicate slavery from American society. The course will take a close look at contesting ideas of freedom, focusing on the words and deeds of activists, politicians, secessionists, and former slaves. Why did the Bible condone slavery, helping Americans justify continuing the practice? How is the idea of freedom related to the idea of human equality, and is it possible to address one without the other? How are competing ideas of freedom to be judged? What are the moral underpinnings of human progress? The course will take an unvarnished look at institutions of "unfreedom," and at those who rose to do combat with them, including women, African Americans, poets, and freethinkers. Through lectures, the reading of primary sources, and carefully led small group discussions, students will be introduced to a range of transformative figures and texts.


WHY LINCOLN MATTERS: RE-ENVISIONING THE POLITICALLY POSSIBLE (2011)

How was a man with less than a year of formal education able to become one of the nation's most salient political actors? Coinciding with the 2012 presidential election, and with the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, this seminar will involve students in an exploration of Abraham Lincoln's transformative leadership, a touchstone for all subsequent American presidencies. In an effort to understand why his memory still matters, and what contemporary political leaders can learn from his example, we will examine Lincoln's core writings and speeches for historical context, literary and political merit, and impact on the thinking of the American public. We will look at Lincoln's role in the Civil War, his use of political rhetoric, and his impact upon American civil liberties. How did the issues of slavery and race intersect with his development as a public figure? How was he influenced by other figures around him—southerners, abolitionists, former slaves, and social conservatives? And how did he learn to use words so effectively to help produce social transformation? Lessons and warnings applicable to today will enter into our intensive group discussions. In papers and presentations students will examine aspects of presidential leadership of most interest to them and develop their writing and communication skills.


ENCOUNTERING FREDERICK DOUGLASS (2010, '12, '14, ‘17)

Few figures in American history are as compelling or inspiring as the former-slave-turned-abolitionist editor Frederick Douglass, whose eloquence and moral passion resonate still. A complex and at times conflicted figure, his life intersected with some of the most interesting and charged characters of his age, including Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Tubman, John Brown, and many others. This seminar will take a deep and sustained look at the life of this American prophet, probing his thought and character and examining his trajectory through a freighted era. Though he claimed to have written with "the ragged style of a slave's pen," he is now considered one of the most important and original writers of the 19th century. Students will read a selection of his works, as well as several biographies and scholarly treatments, and will explore important questions in the light of Douglass's thinking, for example: How does the religion of slaves relate to the religion of slave-holders? Is there a legitimate use of violence in the pursuit of noble ends? Does there exist, as Douglass believed, a force of progress in history? How do self-awareness, moral insight, and public eloquence undergird the effectiveness of a reformer?


LINCOLN IN TIME: PRIVATE AND PUBLIC TRANSFORMATIONS (2014, '16)

This seminar will engage students in an exploration of Abraham Lincoln's transformative leadership, a touchstone for all subsequent American presidencies, and a map by which to better understand today's complex racial landscape. We will closely explore the personal Lincoln, always in the context of his times and their challenges, and see how a series of wrenching personal crises sorely tested but also helped forge Lincoln's character. Through the study of key texts, through intensive group discussion, and through written and spoken communication, the seminar will present students with a series of questions: Is there a moral realm with which human actors engage for good or ill? How do private decisions and inner resolves impact unfolding events? And how do figures like Lincoln manage to grow past limitations of viewpoint and errors of judgment to embrace universal human values and commitments? We will examine Lincoln's role in the Civil War, his use of political rhetoric, and his impact upon American civil liberties. How did the issues of slavery and race intersect with his development as a public figure? How was he influenced by other figures around him—southerners, abolitionists, former slaves, politicians? And how did he learn to use words so effectively to help produce social transformation? Concurrent with a close study of Lincoln's written and spoken words, and of the political, social, and interpersonal context of his times, students will also wrestle with the vital question of how they can construct their own lives.


ENCOUNTERING MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. (2014, '15, ‘18)

Few historical figures are more revered or transcendent than Martin Luther King, Jr. But as David Levering Lewis wrote more than 35 years ago, America's canonization of King has draped him in such a cloak of mythology that "in a sense we have sought to remember him by forgetting him." This course will seek to vividly remember the human being at the center of the most significant popular movement in US history, one that took up the unfinished legacy of the Civil War and Reconstruction 80 years after the nation turned its back on social and racial justice. Students will explore King's thought, oratory, character, and public actions at a depth that will make him unforgettable to them. We will consider his tenaciously held philosophy of nonviolent social change, and his growth from a southern Baptist minister to a leading civil rights activist to a visionary leader of global human rights and peace. We will ask was he a radical or a moderate, and why did he feel history had "hunted him down," as he once claimed to fellow activist Rosa Parks. In what ways does new information about his inner conflicts and personal flaws change our appreciation of his moral stature? And how do we understand him in the context of his times, amidst fellow activists, adversaries, elected leaders, and critics during one of the most volatile, freedom-advancing periods of American history? We will pay close attention to King’s final three years, a period in which he became increasingly marginalized, lost support among white liberals as well as black radicals, but in the face of war and racism held firmly to his deeply-held non-violent philosophy. Using film and little-known interviews as part of the class research, as well a challenging immersion in some of the most significant King literature, the course, coming in the 50th anniversary year of King’s assassination, will make King and his times newly relevant to our own changed but still violence-prone and haunted world.


EMERSON AND THOREAU: THE LIFE FULLY LIVED (2015, '16, ‘17, ‘18)

This seminar will take students on a personal exploration of the lives and thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, two of the most inspiring figures in American history and letters. Emerson was intensely engaged with society, ever committed to close friendships and community. Thoreau in contrast was reclusive and austere, so alone in his beloved nature that he seemed to lack human warmth. Still, despite growing contentiousness between them, Thoreau considered Emerson his most important mentor, and the older sage considered Thoreau his closest friend. Emerson was at the center of the most searchingly brilliant, progressive, and creative community in 19th century America. His friends kept diaries, wrote letters to one another, explored alternative lifestyles, and served as public intellectuals. And they strove to live fully engaged lives—"to find the journey's end in every step of the road, to live the greatest number of good hours," as Emerson once exclaimed. Thoreau preferred his life alone in the outdoors and yet he too sought the fully engaged life. In his masterpiece, Walden, he implored his readers to abandon lives of "quiet desperation" and to come alive in new ways—to dare to "suck all the marrow out of life." This course will involve intensive reading, personal and expository writing, and active participation in transformative conversation.

Students in this course took part in the 2017 Thoreau Bicentennial exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum in NYC, providing the voice of Henry David Thoreau. The audio excerpts of Thoreau’s journal can be accessed through the below button link.