Honors First-Year Preceptorial: Fall 2013


Instructor:  Bob Baker

Title:  On Dying Well: Philosophical Reflections on the Meaning of Death

Description:  Dying is part of living.  In this course we reflect on what the fact of death means for our lives. We read and reflect on the writing of physicians, philosophers and theologians, some writing thousands of years ago, some writing today. We also read about the meaning and value of life and the nature of killing, terrorism, warfare, and capital punishment. Since writing is a form of reflection and students write not only about these topics but also about themselves and consider such things as how they might like their own obituary to read. Weather permitting we may also take a field trip to a local cemetery to see what we can learn from the gravestones. Among the works we will read are Sherwin Nuland’s How We Die, which won a National Book Award, and various essays and papers by, St. Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, John Locke, Robert Nozick, Martha Nussbaum, John Rawls, Peter Singer, among others.



Instructor:  Suzie Benack

Title:  Goodness, Happiness and Truthi-ness

Description:  In this course, we are going to look at the relation of goodness and happiness – does being morally good make a person happy? Or could we be happier if we threw off the chains of moral constraints? We will examine how some philosophers, fiction writers, political theorists, religious traditions, and psychologists have seen the relation of goodness and happiness. At the end of the course, we’ll also turn to truth(-i-ness). Is there “real” “objective” truth? Or is everything a matter of social convention or personal choice?



Instructor:  Denis Brennan

Title:  E Pluribus, Pluribus:  An Examination of the Divided States of America

Description:  Especially in times of national disaster (Pearl Harbor, September 11th) or national distress (Great Depression, JFK’s Assassination), United States’ citizens embrace the notion of national unity and appeal to the strength which that unity provides.  Despite this inclination, there is good reason to assert that our history more accurately reflects a country which began and remains divided, and which, more truthfully, is a collection of well-defined (and separate) nations – defined largely by regional patterns and ideology.  At a political level, some recognition of this division can be seen in the Red and Blue election maps drawn after every national election cycle; however, the reality arguable is much deeper and built on a more historical foundation than our modern two-party political bifurcation suggests.  From the earliest days of colonial America, the land was divided: Yankee Puritans in New England, Dutch entrepreneurs in New York, Quaker pacifists in Pennsylvania, and Aristocratic Anglicans in the Tidewater. In the Revolution, unity was more an accident of circumstance and convenience than a willful decision to merge as one nation; the causes and meaning of the Civil War are still debated.  This course will require students to examine an alternate perspective of United States history.  We will use a collection of readings and extensive class discussion to survey and evaluate the existence and influence of national divisions in our supposed “United” States of America. The extent to which these (and newer) divisions remain constant and endure offers considerable challenges for the future of our country.



Instructor:  Bernhard Kuhn

Title:  Radical Thinkers

Description:  This course will consider the works of some eloquent advocates of ideas that in one way or another challenge the foundations of traditional Western culture.  We will begin with Machiavelli, who argues that the ethical principles of Christianity and Humanism are incompatible with effective political governance.  We will read Rousseau, who argues that civilization has led not to progress but to the moral debasement of the human species; Karl Marx, who attacks capitalism and calls upon the poor to revolt and establish a communist society; Friedrich Nietzsche, who assaults (among other things) Judeo-Christian theology and ethics, rejects every form of metaphysics, and substitutes “perspectivism” for eternal truth; and Sigmund Freud, who argues that the price of order and civilization is the purposeful mutilation of our instinctual desire.  We will also read the Marquis de Sade who challenged fundamental social mores in his philosophically grounded pornographic writings. We will then look at Edward Abbey, “the desert anarchist,” who mounts a ferocious assault on “industrial tourism” and the development of the national park system, and is accused by some as advocating “eco-terrorism.”  We will conclude with Peter Singer, who champions animal liberation, vegetarianism, and voluntary euthanasia, while charging that all excess wealth is criminal.



Instructor:  Louisa Matthew

Title:  Science and the Imagination

Description: College courses and academic departments suggest that science and Literature are very far apart. But are they? What about the Union College Biology major who writes award-winning short stories based on the history of biological controversies? The MIT physics professor who publishes a novel about a man who sees a ghost? The teaching physician who recounts the (autobiographical) life story of a young man from Sri Lanka who becomes a famous teacher of medical students at Stanford?  The non-fiction writing professor at Princeton, definitely not a geologist, who tackles the entire geological history of the United States?  Two famous Italians: the chemist who recounts the rise of the Nazis and his own life through the lens of the periodic table, and the famous novelist and short story writer who lets the universe tell its own stories? When literature and science join forces, what do they have to say to each other, and to us, and who pays attention?  We will discover that there is more to this than the difference between “fact and fiction”, and it may help us to understand what the term “interdisciplinary” really means.



Instructor:  Hans Mueller

Title:  Conspiracy and Resistance: Self and Society on Trial

Description: We will read about those who conspire, about those who resist, and about those who are put on trial, about winners and losers, in a variety of genres, including such works as Plato’s Trial of Socrates, the New Testament, the Communist Manifesto, Kafka’s The Trial, Scahill’s Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. Who attempts to maintain control? Who fights back? Who conspires against whom and for what reasons? On what basis do we judge individuals and their sometimes fraught relationship to society more generally? Socrates, for example, is revered as a founder of Western philosophy. His fellow citizens famously condemned him to death for corrupting the young. Perhaps his fellow citizens had a point? And Athens was a democracy. Socrates’ student Plato, on the other hand, was not a fan, and designed an ideal state where rulers lie to the common people for their own good. Is Plato’s alternative any better? Are there modern parallels? We will read as much evidence as time permits, formulate well-reasoned opinions, and, after class discussion, you will make your arguments in essays that muster the rhetorical resources of the English language. You will prosecute, defend, and render your verdicts.