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Core Human Questions Cluster

For academic year 2017-2018. 

Creating an art installation on campus for the Equinox


This year, teachers and students in the Core Human Questions cluster will ask the question, “Since work can define, restrict, and fulfill us, how then shall we live?”

We spend an inordinate amount of time doing work of different kinds: that work may be paid or unpaid, drudgery or play, a vocation or just a way of paying the rent, but there is always work to be done. We will examine what the purpose of all this work is--and what its effect is on those who perform it. Utopian fantasies often imagine a life without labor, and it is easy to be lured into thinking that our lives would be perfect if only we could win the lottery and then kick back and enjoy a life of leisure. But could it be that labor is necessary for the creation of a better--or even a functioning--society? Is it necessary for the creation of better--or even functioning people? And at what point is all this work too much? 

We will think about how work defines who we are, and how it can sometimes restrict our choices by removing us from other ways of using our time. But we will also consider that many wise and fulfilled human beings achieve happiness through their labor: they are so engaged in their work that their core identity is in some way linked to it. During your time in college, you will be making decisions about what sort of work you want to do for the rest of your lives: we will think together about how and under what circumstances people find and secure a vocation or calling--that is, work that speaks to their particular gifts and inclinations and so adds up to more than just a job.  


Core 1: Ethics and Politics of Work

Common Area Designation(s): Philosophical Studies

Ethics: What's in it for Me? (fall):  

Each of us needs to work. At the very least, each of us needs to work for a living to meet our basic needs. More interestingly, it seems plausible that each of us needs to work in order to fully develop our potential--to fully become ourselves (whatever that might mean, exactly). But some ways of working make our lives worse, and some ways of working interfere with our ability to “fully become ourselves.” So what do we do about that?  In this seminar, we will explore classical ethical theories from Mill, Kant, and Aristotle to try to answer the question, "What is “work” and what can it contribute to our lives?"

Politics: What's in it for Us? (spring):  

Society needs people to work. There is an enormous amount of “stuff” that needs to happen for a society to function, and it is plausible that the government should play a role in making sure that all of that stuff is happening--that the right people are working on the right things. In this seminar, we will study the contemporary political theories that grew out of Kant and Aristotle: what do liberalism, libertarianism, conservatism, and capability theory have to say about this? What kinds of work should we be required--or allowed--to do?  How does working affect us as citizens? And what should the government do about it?


Core 2:  Movies and the Working Life

Common Area Designation(s): Arts

A Job of Work (fall):  

This seminar will focus on the ways in which movies depict the working life and our relationship to the demands of the professional work we do, the way in which we immerse ourselves in its distinctive details and traditions, and the intimate communities that work fosters. Together, we will look at movies that portray a wide range of jobs and professions. Since this is a film class, it will also provide an introduction to the process of reading movies as texts. Among the films we will look at are Melvin and Howard, Spotlight, From Here to Eternity, Tootsie and Once.

At Odds with the Job (spring): 

Most of the movies in the fall semester imply a basic harmony between work and those who engage in it. In the spring, we will examine movies that are concerned with the tension that arises when we become skeptical about the value of the work we do, of its aims or priorities, or when we feel uneasy about the way our work makes us feel about ourselves. Some of these films imply a profound dislocation--moral or ethical or even philosophical--with the working world in general. Among the films we will look at are L.A. Confidential, The Conversation, M*A*S*H, Taxi Driver and Bicycle Thieves.


Core 3: Our Life's Work

Common Area Designation(s): Philosophical Studies

Theory & Therapy (fall):   

The most fundamental--and difficult--work of our lives is to determine how best to live them. With a focus on the early Greek philosophy of the Stoics and Epicureans, this seminar will take seriously Pierre Hadot’s claim that philosophy is not a subject of study but a “way of life.” Beginning with Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, we will try to see/enact the connection between genuine attempts to understand and find one’s place in the world, and the therapeutic possibility of discovering the true sources of our anxieties and insecurities.

Creativity & Catharsis (spring):   

In conversation with Sartre’s claim that building our lives is akin to constructing a work of art, this semester we will consider the various ways in which we can/must be challenged, transformed, and healed through the creative process and its products. Through texts from Kant, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Freud, we will look at the connections between creativity and freedom, art and philosophy, interpretation and truth. Through a study of existential philosophy and psychoanalytic theory, we will continue to dig at the fundamental link between how we see and who we are/become.


Core 4: Playing at Work in Art & Literature

Common Area Designation(s): Arts  

The Modernist Response(fall):   

At the beginning of the last century, artists rebelled against the atomization of society caused by the Industrial Revolution and urbanization. These artists issued aesthetic manifestos and created transgressive works that played with structure, form, and imagery in a futile howl against a world that they believed was rushing towards its own self-destruction. In this seminar, we will explore modernist art movements--from symbolism to surrealism in visual arts and theater--that reflects the ever-growing alienation of the individual to work and society. We will explore how various modernist artists represented labor and work, ranging from the soul-deadening existence depicted in Melville's Bartleby, the Scrivener to the human automatons in Fritz Lang's Metropolis, and the authoritarian fantasies of the Soviets and Nazis.

The Postmodernist Response (spring):

The postmodern aesthetic rose in tandem with the coming of the Information Age. Some argue that television, and later, computers created a false sense of community and connectivity that merely disguised an ever-growing sense of isolation. This semester, we will examine a range of contemporary works of art, performance, and literature that reflects the disconnect caused by living and working in a world where the liminal space between the real and the virtual--between fact and alternate fact--becomes blurred and indistinguishable. Late modernists such as Rothko and Beckett deconstructed the object past the point of endurance, shattering the boundaries of high culture and opening aesthetics to the post-modern dilemma of indeterminate meaning and decontextualization. We will survey the threads of postmodernism in the works of Pollock, Rothko, Beckett, Handke, Albee, and Warhol.


Core 5: The Archaeology of Roman Work

Common Area Requirement:  Historical Studies

Senators & Ladies (fall):

In ancient Rome, neither lawyers nor priests practiced distinct vocations: instead, men of power might advocate for clients in court or adopt the role of priest when circumstances required. A number of prestigious tasks were reserved for men of wealth and power. Moreover, the wives of elite men were also expected to engage in tasks considered appropriate to their station. These tasks included weaving, some child-rearing, and cultus--a complex array of skills that involved both personal grooming and witty conversation. In this seminar, we will consider the archaeological and literary evidence for elite work in the Roman world, and think about how this work contributed to the power of those who did it.

Slaves & Shopkeeps (spring):  

Archaeology is crucial for the recovery of information about ordinary people in antiquity. In ancient Rome, slaves did much of the manual labor, but they might also be teachers or doctors. They were legal property, but they could practice a trade and sometimes even buy their own freedom. We read about such slaves in ancient literature, but the free poor, who represented an enormous percentage of the Roman population, are virtually absent from that literature. This semester, we will consider the evidence, mostly archaeological, for slaves and the free poor in the Roman world, and we will think about how archaeology can help us recover the stories of those who are not well represented in textual sources.


Cluster Director:

Core Human Questions: Ellen E. Perry, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Classics