A Matter of Black and White: 20th Century Perspectives on Race


Inspired by W.E.B. DuBois’s famous thesis that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line”, this course will try to understand a variety of 20th-century perspectives on race through a sympathetic examination of a selection of classic works of fiction, nonfiction, and cinema by authors and directors Black and White, including: DuBois himself, Rudyard Kipling, Frantz Fanon, Thomas Dixon, Jr., James Baldwin, and Joseph Conrad, as well as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Prior to the first class, please do the short readings and watch D.W. Griffith’s (in)famous 1915 silent film, The Birth of a Nation … from a perspective as “critically empathic” as possible. Continue reading

How to Read Classic Texts


One of the foundational premises of the Basic Program is that reading is a skill. And that like many skills, one can get better at reading through theoretically-informed practice. In this short course, we will examine the theoretical perspective on good reading contained in Mortimer Adler’s famous How to Read a Book, which we will practice through a close examination of the beginnings of a range of classic texts. After all, if we don’t understand the beginning of a work, how can we hope to understand the ending? Continue reading

Flaunting It: The Logic of “Conspicuous Consumption” in Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class


Although “wealth” has long been subjected to economic analysis (which postulates humans as rational beings) and more recently to behavioral analysis (which postulates humans as emotional beings), Thorstein Veblen’s groundbreaking Theory of the Leisure Class famously subjected “wealth” to anthropological analysis (which postulates humans as social beings). From this point of view, “wealth” is important not so much for what can be done with it or for the internal feelings that it can evoke, but rather for what it can signal to others about the social dominance of its possessor. This lecture will offer an overview of Veblen’s theory as originally presented in 1899 and consider its usefulness in making sense of the contemporary phenomenon of Donald Trump. Continue reading

Could It Happen Here? Now? Dystopian Novels for Our Time


In a time when many believe that contemporary events are unfolding in ways that bode ill for the future, the dystopian classics of youth are the focus of renewed interest as possible guides to “what might happen”. This course will be devoted to a careful, mature consideration of four such classics as we seek both to understand each text as a literary work originating in its own time and place and to glean possible insights into our own time and place. The texts are: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World; Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here; George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four; and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Continue reading

Does Humanity Have a Death Wish? Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents


Although most famously known for his “erotic” theories that postulated a fundamental human drive for sex, reproduction and the continuation of life itself, during the period between the two world wars Sigmund Freud began to consider whether or not humanity also had a fundamental drive for self-destruction — a drive that was exacerbated by the conditions of modern, civilized life. After a brief introduction to Freud’s seminal theory of the human mind, this course will focus on a close reading and discussion of one of Freud’s last books, Civilization and Its Discontents, paying particular attention to Freud’s claim that “the fateful question for the human species seems to me to be whether [they] will succeed in mastering the disturbance of their communal life by the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction.” Continue reading

The Nature of Knowledge: Plato’s Theaetetus and Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy


In an age of “alternative facts”, it is perhaps worthwhile to revisit the foundational texts that have helped establish a longstanding conviction that some “facts” are more equal than others. This course will be devoted to a close consideration of two such texts: Plato’s ancient dialogue Theaetetus and Descartes’s modern monologue Meditations on First Philosophy. In the first, Socrates and his interlocutors examine three different notions of knowledge (and Socrates proclaims himself a “midwife of the soul”). In the second, Descartes claims to demonstrate the indisputable truth of (a) the existence of God and of (b) the existence of the immortal human soul — not to mention of (c) the existence of himself (because he thinks). In addition to seeking to understand each text on its own terms, we will compare and contrast them as alternative approaches to “certain knowledge”. Continue reading

Shakespeare’s “Letter to the Ephesians”: The Comedy of Errors as a “Christianized” (Not “Plagiarized”) Pagan Play


Perhaps because it is one of Shakespeare’s earliest and “lightest” plays, The Comedy of Errors has long been understood primarily as little more than an Elizabethan re-telling of an ancient Roman farce, The Brothers Meneachumus by Plautus. By reading Shakespeare’s work in conjunction with Plautus’s and also Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, however, this course will explore the possibility that Shakespeare not only modernized Plautus’s play but also (and more importantly) Christianized it, thereby giving The Comedy of Errors a much deeper significance than is generally realized. Continue reading

Jesus for Jews (and Others)


Although the figure of Jesus has permeated Western culture for nearly 2,000 years, many Jews and other non-Christians find the figure of Jesus a problematic one, difficult to study and comprehend. As a result, many of the great Western works that presuppose a sympathetic understanding of Jesus remain opaque. This course provides a sympathetic introduction to the figure of Jesus as well as an exploration of some of the challenges that Jews in particular often face in dealing with Christianity’s appropriation of one of Israel’s greatest sons. Readings from the Bible will be supplemented by Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Continue reading