Course Spotlight: Great Books at Hopkins

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Great Books at Hopkins is a course designed for first-year undergraduates that examines some of the greatest works of the literary and philosophical tradition in Europe and the Americas. With lectures, panel discussions, multimedia presentations, and small seminars, professors from a variety of academic disciplines lead students in exploring authors from Homer to the present.

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Close reading and intensive writing instruction are hallmarks of the course, as is a varied reading list that includes Dante’s Inferno, Cervante’s Don Quixote, and Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.

The course features:

  • An emphasis on close readings, literary analysis and criticism, and student writing.
  • A multimedia approach (including some live opera performances).
  • Close interaction with accomplished Johns Hopkins faculty of diverse backgrounds in the humanities.

Video highlight from past course:
What do books, bass lines, and bees have do with Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas? Watch now and find out.

Find out More…
  • What Does It Mean To Be Human?
    Definitions of the humanities have arisen at many times and places, but the most relevant period is fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Italy, when writers such as Petrarch began reacting to the structure of the medieval university and the emphases of medieval society. The medieval university fitted men for one of three professions: medicine, law, or theology. Theology was called the “queen of the sciences,” its subject considered most important. In the Hebrew Bible and Christian New Testament, the answer to the question “What does it mean to be human?” was to be created “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:26-27).

    Some writers felt the Biblical focus was too narrow because it presumed that Christianity was both morally and intellectually superior to the European cultures it had replaced, including the “pagan” cultures of ancient Greece and Rome. So, these dissident writers decided to go back to the basics of education. Before taking an advanced university degree, the medieval student had to spend time with the studies of humanity—in the university department called the faculty of arts. The arts subjects–language, literature, history, and moral philosophy—prepared students for the specialized study of theology, law, or medicine. Instruction was in Latin, and the arts subjects offered glimpses into societies very different from Europe in the Middle Ages.

    Until the late nineteenth century, to study the humanities at the university mostly meant studying the classics: ancient Greek and Roman literature. In 1877, a British royal commission recommended that the study of English literature be offered to “women and the second- and third-rate men who become schoolmasters.” During the nineteenth century, universities such as Johns Hopkins made the study of literature in English and other modern languages a fundamental component of the modern university curriculum.

    Today, most businesses—including medicine—consider the humanities a vital part of the university education. Humanistic study teaches skills, particularly in the area of critical thinking, that are vital to successful action in the practical sphere, pleasurable to the life of the mind, and valuable to the humane functioning of a society.

  • Why Call These Books “Great?”
    Who defines which books are great? What does greatness mean when applied to books? Institutions of learning, teachers, and intellectuals have traditionally assumed that in any culture certain books were more essential than others. But essential in what way? The criteria have varied over time, and have not always been clearly defined.

    When, around 2,000 years ago, Jewish and early Christian scholars considered the large number of texts that claimed to be divinely inspired, they found some more convincing than others. Some texts seemed more “sacred,” that is, they better reflected these scholars’ ideas about God, morality, and nature. Their selections came to be known as the Jewish and Christian Scriptural canons, from a Greek word meaning ruler, or yardstick. (Muslims, Protestant Christians, and other religious groups later developed their own canons.)

    By the early nineteenth century, the realistic portrayal of human behavior was more important than religious correctness as a measure of literary greatness. Literature in the modern languages, particularly English, French, Italian, and German, finally entered the university curriculum in the nineteenth century, joining the older disciplines of theology, medicine, law, philosophy, and the classics of ancient Greece and Rome.

    Since the 1980s, the idea of a canon of great books has been contested by critics who point out that the authors traditionally defined as great, whether from classical Greek and Rome, the Middle Ages and Renaissance, or afterward, have largely been “dead white males.” This criticism is based in an ideal of representation, the notion that because modern society is composed of diverse ethnic, racial, religious, and gender groups, to go on talking about a canon of great or “classic” books is to espouse an ideology that values white male concerns or voices over all others. Must we assume that other groups produced no great books?

    The professors in this course feel that great books come from as many ages and cultures as there are people and societies. A course in great books should emphasize both greatness and representation. Great books, old or new, by whatever authors, are books that leave one with a sense of achievement, of not having wasted one’s time, of having learned something about oneself, or about people and the world. To paraphrase the Roman poet Horace, great books are those that are both sweet and useful. In this course, each professor selects two books that he or she thinks deserve to be called great. Each fall at Hopkins, faculty and students participate in a new conversation about how well the chosen texts live up to our expectations.

  • What is Critical Thinking?
    Critical thinking is an ideal that animates many courses in the humanities. Critical is an adjective that comes from Greek words meaning judge and judgmental, and is related to the word that gave us the word crisis. A crisis was originally the turning point of a disease, the point at which the patient began either to die or to get better. Metaphorically, it came to mean the decisive stage in a chain of events.

    Critical thinking enshrines the concept that an act of language—say, a poem or a political speech—confronts one with an idea that requires a judgment or choice. Critical thinking presupposes that the sea of language, concepts, ideologies, ideals, and taboos in which our minds swim must be understood and cannot be taken for granted. Understanding an inspiring poem and understanding a rabble-rousing speech are activities that may have similar or identical consequences. Identifying with the hero or heroine of a novel or film is like agreeing with the assertions of a politician: Both involve making choices that one may or may not be aware of.

    How, then, to become aware of the choice? Critical thinking involves identifying the choices implicitly offered to us by an act of language—a poem or a speech—and comparing them according to a criterion (a word from the same family as crisis and critical, meaning a test or standard). The criterion could be moral, psychological, scientific, or extremely practical. The critical thinking required in making such a choice involves not only skills of language and logic, but also self-discipline.

    The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche astutely described the self-discipline involved in learning to think critically. He called critical thinking philology, a word that means both “love of words” and “love of reason.”