Of Marriages and Manners: Austen’s Pride and Prejudice


Though sometimes derided as an early form of superficial “chick lit”, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is in fact a sophisticated “novel of manners” suffused with penetrating sociological and psychological analyses of the British gentry of Austen’s day. This course is devoted to the close reading and discussion of Austen’s famous and well-loved novel with an eye towards understanding both Austen’s social critique in general and her assessment of the predicament of women in particular, as well as an appreciation of Austen’s literary craft. Continue reading

‘Rags to Riches,’ American Style: Classics from Horatio Alger and Andrew Carnegie


Although the “rags to riches” motif is ancient and widespread, the American version has attained a unique place in world culture. This course examines two of the most well-known — but often little-understood — American embodiments of the “rags to riches” motif: the fictional characters of Horatio Alger, Jr. on the one hand, and the decidedly non-fictional Andrew Carnegie (who rose from poverty to become one of the richest men in the world) on the other. Readings include Alger’s all-time best-selling novel Ragged Dick; or, Street Life in New York with the Boot Blacks and Carnegie’s “Gospel of Wealth” essays. Continue reading

Introduction to the Qur’an as Literature


Considered the record of the revealed word of God to Muhammad through the angel Gabriel, the Qur’an is the third great scripture of the Semitic tradition and the foundation of all forms of Islam. In this course we will read the Qur’an (as well as supplementary readings) from a secular perspective (i.e. as “literature”) in order to gain an initial understanding of the book, its perspectives on important concepts such as the nature of god and man, divine judgment, prophecy and history, the ideal society, the proper relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims, jihad (“holy war” or “exertion”) and more. No prior knowledge or experience of any kind is required. Continue reading

The Trial and Death of Socrates


The trial and death of Socrates is perhaps one of the most (in)famous events of philosophical martyrdom in Western history. As such it bears and repays close and repeated study in order to understand exactly who and what Socrates was, what happened to him, and what (if any) lessons the ancient event holds for our time. With such goals in mind, this course is devoted to a close reading and discussion of the four Platonic dialogues that revolve directly around the momentous events: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo. Continue reading

Online Socratic Method Seminars in Adult Congregation Education: A Look at Today’s Realities and Possibilities

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For most of its history, “distance education” meant correspondence courses in which teachers’ lessons and students’ responses (if any) were transmitted by surface mail. With the development of the Internet, however, it is now possible for individuals who are separated physically to come together intellectually in shared virtual learning environments — including virtual environments that are beginning to support the most “high touch” learning of all: “Socratic Method” seminars structured to facilitate students’ critical, collaborative, first-hand engagement with classic texts. After providing a brief overview of distance education in general and contemporary online learning environments in particular, this lecture will examine the realities and possibilities of online Socratic Method seminars today and consider the contributions that such seminars might make to adult congregation education. Continue reading

Virtue as Moderation: An Introduction to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics


Among the many ideas for which Aristotle has been long remembered, perhaps the most famous is the idea of the “golden mean” — the idea that virtue is a moderate midpoint between two extremes of vice. In this short Socratic Method seminar, participants will carefully read and discuss passages from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in a collaborative effort to gain an initial understanding of this important idea, as well as to get a general sense of the scope and style of one of Aristotle’s most important works. No prior knowledge or experience of any kind is required. All reading and discussion will be in English. Continue reading

Arts of Affluence [3]: Families and Inheritance (Planning)


Family legacies often have unintended consequences. Through the close reading and discussion of fiction and non-fiction works and the consideration of two films,  this course will explore the types and consequences of family legacies and consider the ways in which such legacies can be designed to help and not hurt. Texts will include: Hughes’s Family Wealth, Hausner and Freeman’s The Legacy Family, Williams and Preisser’s Philanthropy, Heirs and Values and Condon and Condon’s Beyond the Grave as well as Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons, Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and William Shakespeare’s King Lear. Continue reading

God’s Gadfly: A Socratic Method Seminar on Socrates


Because Socrates called his practice “philosophy” (love of wisdom) and because philosophy is nowadays widely considered to be a “secular” enterprise, Socrates is often assumed to have been a secular figure. According to Plato’s famous Socrates’ Defense (or Apology), however, nothing could be further from the truth. In this short Socratic Method seminar, participants will carefully read and discuss passages from Plato’s text in a collaborative effort to meet Socrates on, and in, his own terms: as an annoying gadfly on a divine mission to educate Athens; as a gift from God whose death would hurt the Athenians more than it would hurt him. No prior knowledge or experience of any kind is required. All reading and discussion will be in English. Continue reading

On Human Excellence [1]: Plato’s Meno as ‘Philosophical Drama’


“Can you tell me, Socrates — is virtue something that can be taught? Or does it come by practice? Or is it neither teaching nor practice that gives it to a man but natural aptitude or something else?” With this provocative four-part question begins one of the most compact meditations on human excellence ever composed: Plato’s Meno, a “dialogue” (mostly) between the great philosopher Socrates and his acquaintance Meno. This course will be devoted to a close reading and analysis of Plato’s short text in order to understand both the work’s philosophical elements and its dramatic elements — as well as the interaction between the two — as we seek to comprehend Plato’s ultimate response to Meno’s initial question. No prior knowledge or experience of any kind is required. Continue reading

On Human Excellence [2]: Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics as ‘Practical Wisdom’


“We are not conducting this inquiry in order to know what virtue is, but in order to become good, else there would be no advantage in studying it.” With this statement near the beginning of his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle boldly declares his thesis that philosophy can make one a better person and improve one’s quality of life — a thesis that in the rest his book of Aristotle seeks to articulate and demonstrate. Through close reading and analysis of the text, participants in this course will seek to understand and assess one of the most famous and influential philosophical treatises ever produced. No prior knowledge or experience of any kind is required, although the preceding course in the “On Human Excellence” series is a useful precursor. All readings and discussions will be in English. Continue reading