Honors First-Year Preceptorial: Fall 2011

FPR 100H-01: Goodness, Happiness and Truth
We will spend the term looking at several different ways of thinking about three central ideals toward which (I propose) human beings strive: goodness, happiness, and truth.  Presumably, we all want to be good, happy, and believe what is true --- and avoid being bad, unhappy, and believing in falsities.  Different people, and different cultures, however, give quite different understandings of the nature of goodness, happiness and truth, and different advice on how to achieve them.  Does being good make you happy, or is it easier to reach happiness by throwing off moral restrictions?  Is there any objective moral truth, and, if not, why be moral? Are these ideals real or, as some claim, are they illusions, which serve only to enslave us. We will examine how some key philosophers, political theorists, and psychologists have answered these questions (e.g., Freud, Plato, postmodernists, Buddhism, evolutionary psychology). For each ideal, we will examine what might be built into our biology (human nature) and also the influence of social organization (culture) on our conceptions of goodness, happiness and truth.

FPR 100H-02: Literature, Ethics, and the Environment
In this course we will consider and explore the intersections of human cultures and the environment, with an emphasis on the social and cultural dynamics of the environment and environmental action. Some questions we will consider: What are the ethical questions that we pose and wrestle with as we interact with and within our environment? What is the place of literature in community, literacy, and environmental activism?  To what extent does place matter in our conceptions of what nature is? What are the connections between race, class, and environmental degradation and environmental activism? How do class and gender enter into the nexus of ethical considerations that shape our environment? We will consider both the concept of “nature” as we consider the concept of human culture.  How does the language we use when writing about nature affect what we do in, for, and to nature? A partial list of readings include those by Tempest Williams, Kingsolver, White, hooks, Alire Sáenz, Dungy, Thoreau, Calicott, Evans, Noss, Soper, Tarter, Standing Bear, Running-Grass, Castillo, Maathai, Stein, Light, Rolston, Sullivan, among others. 

FPR 100H-03: Human Being in an Inhuman Age
What makes us human?  What separates humans from animals, and living animals from non-living matter?  What counts as authoritative evidence with respect to the question of the human?  The question of the human has a long and complicated history that we ignore at our peril.  What, in particular, distinguishes us as human, or constitutes our humanity?  How do we reckon with the fact that for centuries being “human” was linked to being male?  Is it language and speech, a desire for freedom, consciousness of mortality, the ability to reason, the desire to exert control over “nature” and our environment, or something else that makes us human?  How do we interpret claims that we can control nature with technology versus the argument that technology and increasing “advancements” are what has disrupted the delicate balance between human and nonhuman elements?   How, also, do we assess and politically understand narratives that claim human beings lack ethical or political superiority to animals?  Does our ready access to technology today erode or enhance our humanity? 
This course will address the history of the problem of the human, in light of these myriad questions, for today's debates cannot be understood without this background.  We will also engage some pressing contemporary concerns in light of their placement within their historical, political and intellectual contexts.  Most of the course will be focused on reading historical texts by authors such as Jean Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, Franz Kafka, Mary Shelley and others.  However, addressing some contemporary debates and some contemporary dystopian texts about the future of the human will force us to think even more deeply about how, why, and when lines are drawn, or not, between the human and non-human, and between various humans (rendering some as “less than” human).  Texts we will read in this section might explore debates concerning the violation of human rights, the advances in human cloning, the use of robots in warfare, how new uses of technology affect our social relationships, and whether striving for immortality is a good idea. 

FPR 100H-04: The Passion Of The Western Mind
Throughout history, some books have changed the world. They have transformed the way we see ourselves - and each other. They have inspired debate, dissent, war, and revolution. They have enlightened, outraged, provoked, and comforted. They have enriched lives - and destroyed them.  This course will select from important contemporary as well as historical writers in the Western tradition who have remained part of the “great conversation” across time and space that still engages us. The premise of this course was expressed by Robert M. Hutchins, former President of the University of Chicago:  “The spirit of Western civilization is the spirit of inquiry.  Its dominant element is the Logos.  Nothing is to remain undiscussed.  Everybody is to speak his mind.  No proposition is to be left unexamined.”  Authors may include:  Homer, Aristophanes, Plato, Aristotle, St Augustine, St. Paul, St. Thomas Aquinas, and selections from later authors.

FPR 100H-05: Living (Critical) Theory
Freshman Preceptorial is a threshold to developing critical thinking and in the way reading and writing skills that can make your life more stimulating at Union and, we hope, beyond Union.  We, as a community of learning, will engage texts and films and examine what they do and how they do it in some detail.  The premise of this course is that a set of critical tools and a critical language deployed in daily activities allow us to better grasp the complexities of living, as consumers and producers of ideas that impact us and the world we live in and impacts the ways in which we perceive and process both that world and those ideas.  More important, this set of tools will empower us in dealing with a world that is ambivalent and ambiguous, bombarding us with multiple, contradictory messages we often lack the time, and knowledge, to apprehend.  Critical thinking is a set of negotiable strategies to become informed about ideas, texts, visual images, and life in general...and to avoid being duped, to the extent each of us becomes less resistant to managing information that contradicts or challenges our belief systems.  In today's world being well informed is key to having clear and discerning judgment.

FPR 100H-06: Artwriting
In this section of the Scholars Preceptorial, we will develop a writing practice centered on the visual arts. How do we move from the sensory experience of the visual to the intellectual activity of reading and writing? How do we use written language to evoke, understand, and interpret objects that are mute and still? Our readings will range from fictional representations of artworks to art history and art criticism, and introduce us to some of the main traditions of writing about art. Our writing assignments will focus on works available to us for our first-hand experience in the art collections of Union College and the spaces and architecture of the campus.

FPR 100H-07   The Self -Evident Truth of Inequality
There has never been a society that was free of inequality between its citizens - political, economic, or social. In this preceptorial we will look at the ways that different people, in different times and places, have understood the causes and consequences of this inequality. Why does it persist? Can it be eliminated, and if so, how? How do our religious or philosophical beliefs determine our attitudes about it? Is a society of true equals possible, or are we destined always to live in a society where some people are more equal than others? Many different answers are possible; the Bible and the Baghavad Gita answer the question in religious terms, Plato and Freidrich Nietzche answer it in philosophical terms, and Karl Marx and Fredrick Douglass answer it in social/historical terms. We will look at the perspectives of those who have found themselves at the top of the structure and those who have found themselves at the bottom, those who have sought to justify it, those who have sought to overthrow it, and those who have sought simply to reconcile themselves to it.