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College Row
Marx teaches class
Professor Anthony W. Marx (far left) and students in the First-Year Seminar Conflict and Cohesion discuss the connections between Homer’s Iliad and Osama bin Laden.

First-Year Seminar takes on a world of ideas

Like all First-Year Seminars, the fall 2004 course Conflict and Cohesion was intended to introduce new students to the discussion, writing and research that mark the intellectual life of the college. It was not the first such course to be taught by a team of professors; nor was it the first to foster critical thinking about fundamental concepts in a cross-disciplinary setting. But the seminar was nonetheless novel.

The most obvious distinction was the fact that President Anthony W. Marx was one of the professors, and his office one of the classrooms. “It put me directly in touch with the mission of the college: the education of men and women who will go on to transform the world beyond this campus,” he says. “There is nothing more invigorating than the exchange of ideas that occurs among talented young people discussing the most important ideas in history, literature, art and politics.”

Conflict and Cohesion also was unusual in the number and variety of its professors. The five teachers were drawn from the fields of political science, Asian languages and civilizations, classics, and women’s and gender studies. Perhaps the most significant difference, however, was the breadth of the course’s readings and reference works, which ranged from foundational texts like The Iliad, The Analectsof Confucius, Plato’s Republic, Sun Tzu’s Art of War, the Quran and the Bible, to modern thinkers as diverse as Mohandas Gandhi, Karl Marx, Booker T. Washington, Simone de Beauvoir and Edward Said.

As the reading list indicates, the seminar approached its subject—global conflict, national identity and social cohesion—in the broadest possible terms, both cultural and temporal. “I think there’s something really valuable in showing students that the ancients are not as ancient as we think,” says Assistant Professor of Asian Languages and Civilizations Paola Zamperini, “and that the contemporary ideas are not as new as we tend to see them. Modernities happen all the time.”

To accommodate such an ambitious agenda in a single course, Marx and his colleagues spent almost a year vigorously debating structure and content—deciding what should be included and what had to be left out. “It’s the best reality check in the world,” says Frederick Griffiths, Class of 1880 Professor of Classics and professor of women’s and gender studies, “not just to know what you’re talking about, but also to say why this is interesting, why it matters. You’ve got to campaign for your contributions.”  The discussions didn’t stop with the first class, either, but were an integral part of the ongoing course. “It’s been exciting and challenging to meet with these colleagues before each class,” Marx says, “debating ‘Why did God let evil happen?’ or ‘What was the role of women in an event?’”

Perhaps the greatest challenge Marx and his colleagues faced was avoiding what Griffiths calls “the 30-day tour of Europe” syndrome—briefly dipping into the surface of deep ideas. Paola Zamperini says they acknowledged this liability and told students that they hoped only to provide the vocabulary and the critical apparatus necessary for the students to look at issues in more depth in other contexts. “In the case of China,” she offers, “we made it very clear that we were just dealing with one of the Asian cultures and that there were many other ways in which, for example, the issue of social cohesion was perceived outside of Confucianism. I think we were successful in showing them all the different paths, though we didn’t have time to walk on them.”

Each professor taught the entire range of ideas to one set of students, necessarily presenting material outside his or her normal area of expertise. The corresponding need to learn that material from colleagues was, according to Griffiths, one of the major benefits of participating in the seminar. “Sometimes I found myself in the helpless position of students,” he says, “which is one of not understanding—having to be taught what a text is supposed to be doing, having to have it explained to you. It was an absolute thesaurus of humility, but for teaching new students, there’s really no better atmosphere.”

Heegyun Jung ’08 says that the course’s broad subject matter prompted her to reassess many of her core beliefs. “I had to rethink the common notion of politics—questions like ‘What constitutes a nation?’” she says. “In Korea, where I grew up, all the people belong to the Korean race and speak Korean, but it turns out that sometimes a common race, religion or language is not a requirement for national identity.”

This sort of conceptual epiphany—as opposed to a simple information transfer—is exactly what the seminar aimed to accomplish. “These are profound, important, difficult books,” says Professor of Political Science Uday Singh Mehta of the course’s readings. “I don’t expect any 18-year-old to get it the first time around. What I hope for when I’m teaching is to plant a seed that may blossom five years later, 10 years later. In that sense, I think education is never punctual; it doesn’t happen when you do it. A course that doesn’t tie up all the loose ends is fine, so long as it plants some seeds that then can become the source of fertile confusion.”

A version of Conflict and Cohesion is being planned (and debated among the faculty) for next fall.

Next: Interterm activites jumpstart January >>

Photo: Frank Ward

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