The Colgate Scene
What are we reading?
The Scene recently asked faculty members to tell us what books they were most excited to be teaching in a variety of courses this fall, and why. Here's what they had to say.
Dante Alighieri, The Inferno
One thing that makes The Inferno fun to teach is that Dante has a highly organized and coherent philosophy concerning proper punishments for various transgressions. A surprising feature is that Dante views such vices as fraud and deceit as more serious than crimes of violence, since in perpetrating fraud, people misuse reason, the gift to humans that distinguishes them from the animals. Students also encounter many of the great figures of Western literature whom they will have gotten to know through the other works studied in Core 151: Homer, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Judas, Brutus and Cassius, Virgil, Mohammed, Cleopatra, Helen of Troy, and Odysseus are all found in hell. As we cross rivers of blood or fly on the backs of mythic monsters from one realm to another, I'm hoping students will enjoy making the trip!
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
I look forward to teaching Woolf, first of all simply because reading and thinking about her texts is such a pleasure. I enjoy discussing with students the ways Woolf's novel explores and illuminates social structures, relationships, and emotions and how she treats other thematic issues such as war, the passage of time, or modern quests for meaning — but equally interesting are Woolf's command of language, her modernist literary experimentation, and the ways thematic and aesthetic concerns are linked in To the Lighthouse.
Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
What do witch trials, UFO abductions, repressed memory, and science education have in common? Venerable astronomer Carl Sagan uses a number of seemingly disparate topics to illustrate historical and present-day risks to society created by pseudo-science and anti-science. One of the goals of the core Scientific Perspectives program is to encourage students to think critically about science as a process and tool for coming to know the world. What makes Sagan's book special is his ability to convey rational skepticism while keeping alive the excitement of being curious and open to new ideas. It also allows for cross-disciplinary conversations about the nature of science and the role it does, and should, play in the search for truth.
Jonathan D. Spence, The Search for Modern China
How can we best understand the challenges of China in the 21st century? Explore China's history. In addition to learning about music and culture, my students in Core: China are discovering new ways of thinking from this one-volume, definitive history. Jonathan D. Spence, Yale professor and China expert, offers a window into the compelling world of China from the late Ming Dynasty, around 1600, to 1998. The photos, glossary, and recommended further readings are particularly winning. And to me, his prose is fluid and harmonious, like the most beautiful music.
Noah Feldman, Divided by God: America's Church-State Problem – And What We Should Do About It
Feldman argues that the First Amendment provided a means by which free exercise of religion could be protected while preventing federal support (establishment) for religion. He thinks that symbolic expressions of religion in public life (prayer in schools) should be permitted; however, government funding of religious agencies is exactly what the framers aimed to prohibit. Why am I eager to discuss this book with my students? Not because I think he is correct on all counts, but because he opens the way to civil conversation about religious tensions dividing Americans from one another.
Linda Gordon, The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction
For centuries, the American West has loomed large in the national imagination, yet popular depictions often differ markedly from reality. Gordon's prizewinning book revolves around a 1904 incident that began when 40 Irish Catholic orphans from New York City were sent to live with Catholic families in Arizona — who also happened to be Mexican. Anglo women in the receiving community saw the placement of "white" children with Mexican families as tantamount to child abuse, and they instigated a mass abduction of the toddlers, which was often carried out at gunpoint. Territorial and U.S. courts ultimately upheld the abductions. Highlighting the different ways racial, religious, and class boundaries were drawn on either side of the continent, Gordon also reminds us of the role of corporate mining, labor strife, vigilantism, and frontier feminism in the West.
Jose Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World
This book offers a reformulation of secularization theory, and argues that the "differentiation" of the secular and sacred realms does not necessarily mean that religion will be pushed to the margins of modern societies. Casanova's argument is theoretically sophisticated, and fleshed out through a comparative analysis that ranges from Brazil, through Poland, to the United States. The best thing about this book is how challenging it is. Students come to our seminar anxious to discuss the book, knowing that only in conversation with me and each other will they be able to grasp its many subtleties and nuances.
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