Lit Hum, as it is commonly known, is designed to enhance students’ understanding of main lines of literary and philosophical development that have shaped western thought for nearly three millennia. Much more than a survey of great books, Lit Hum encourages students to become critical readers of the literary past we have inherited. Although most of our Lit Hum works (and the cultures they represent) are remote from us, we nonetheless learn something about ourselves in struggling to appreciate and understand them. Why did these works cause previous generations to value them so highly? In what ways are our authors in conversation with each other? How are these books relevant to our lives? In the end, what do we gain from them? These questions offer just a sample of the kinds of provocation that Lit Hum is meant to arouse. Students should not expect Lit Hum to teach them what these texts are about. Rather, it asks students to join a small group of classmates to raise questions and debate answers. Lit Hum seminars should fascinate, delight, and confound. Our hope is that students will return to these books, their beauty, and the profound questions they raise over the course of their lives.
“An unexamined life is not worth living” (Plato, Apology, 38a).
How ought we to live? Our Lit Hum readings asks us to explore radically different moral universes. What do we learn about ourselves in doing this?
Here’s a few of the many questions raised in our Lit Hum readings: How do the power and agency of human beings differ? Why are some people (e.g., women, servants) denied agency? How do the interests of the individual conflict with those of the family or community? What role does story-telling and word manipulation play in life? Do stories get at the truth? Is there a natural way of being human or is human nature constructed? How is gender constructed? What are righteousness and virtue? Is there any good that comes from suffering in life? Is there a truth and, if so, what is necessary to find it? Do we find it through emotions or reason, community or conflict?
In asking us to consider these sorts of questions, Lit Hum encourages us to compare our own assumptions and values to the radically different ones expressed in our readings. It demands that we examine ourselves in relation to our past.