You are here

Core Human Questions Cluster

For academic year 2020-2021. 

Montserrat students creating an art installation with luminaires on campus for the Equinox.
Creating an art installation on campus for the Equinox

Over the course of the twentieth century, Western civilization has faced a loss of hope in material and social progress, an emergence of existentialism, and further disillusionment from countless local conflicts, two World Wars, and the Cold War.   At the beginning of the twenty-first century, we appear to have given up the search for any higher value, goal, or being to which we could dedicate our lives. Instead, we resign ourselves to establishing new dwelling places in a virtual reality. To many, especially the young who should be deeply invested in this issue, a resolution of the riddle of life’s meaning consists in an escape from reality—an escape from life. 
The seminars in Core Human Questions this year will ask the question, How do I find meaning in a chaotic world? Our cluster will think together about how best to renew our search for life’s meaning in our daily reality. We will read texts, watch films, look at art, and in a variety of ways investigate what it means -- and how we might regain that ability -- to find meaning in our interactions with others. Our seminars will study works that range from the past to the present, from single images to lengthy novels, that invite us to reflect about the experience of living in our complex and disoriented world.


Core 1: Mathematics, Chaos and Order

Common Area Designation(s): Mathematical Science

Data and Decision (fall)  

We live a time (for the first time in history, thanks to the internet) where information is plentiful and easy to access for many people. But that information is often unreliable and difficult to interpret, and its sheer volume overwhelms our capacity to think about it effectively. Our first semester will explore some of the tools and habits of thought that mathematicians use to cut through this chaotic fog of information in search of order, with applications to both public policy and personal decisions. In particular, we’ll take a look at the mathematics behind polling, voting, the census, and the electoral college as we head into the fall presidential election.  

Imagination and Precision (spring) 

Understanding and using mathematics and science effectively requires both imagination and precision. But this is also true of literature, art, and other humanistic contributions to our shared intellectual tradition. We’ll see how mathematics has emerged in many cultures throughout history, and we’ll look at the ways mathematics has been used in literature, film, art, and music, with an eye to our general theme of bringing order into the chaos of human experience. While our mathematical tools in the fall semester were primarily taken from probability and statistics, our explorations this semester will take us farther afield, into geometry, chaos theory, logic, and computation.  


Core 2: Public Lives, Private Selves

Common Area Designation(s): Literature

Modern Privacies (fall)

This year-long course will traverse a wide historical arc, exploring the changing relation between private and public life from Ancient Greece to contemporary society. After a range of readings in the first semester examining the modern formation of public and private spheres of experience, we will consider how literature, music, theater, film, and art continue to shape our ideas of the self. Units will focus on topics such as Intimacy and Interiority, Fame and Celebrity, Publicity in Peace and War, Technology and the Self, Gender and Race, and Modern Social Activism. Possible authors Plato, Shakespeare, John Stuart Mill, Jane Austen, James Baldwin, The Beatles, Marvin Gaye, Spike Lee, and Lady Gaga.

Postmodern Publics (spring) 

Continuing our discussions from first semester, this course will focus on how the advent of technology has occasioned major shifts in our notions of publicity and privacy. We will explore how media, mediation, and technology shape ideas of the private and public self in relation to larger social institutions and practices. Units will focus on topics such as Studio and Independent Film, Science Fiction and Virtual Reality, New Environmentalisms, Social Media and Surveillance and Literature in the Age of Reality Television. Possible authors include W.E.B. Du Bois, Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Alfred Hitchcock, Maggie Nelson, Susan Sontag, The Wachowskis, and Christopher Nolan.


Core 3:  Religion and Existence

Common Area Designation(s): Studies in Religion

Existence Christianized (fall) 

When we talk about existence, we mean a state of radical freedom undetermined by supernatural beliefs and entities. So Christian existentialists, that is, Christians committed to this view of existence, seek to rewrite traditional Christianity, treating it not as a set of impossible beliefs imposed by God but as a free decision to grow in a certain way. But what can it possibly mean to be a Christian without creeds, without miracles and without God in the usual senses of those words?  Take the course to find out! We will consider several Christian existentialists, including Pascal, Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky. We will watch the movies: Hiroshima Mon AmourThe Third Man, and Breathless

Existence Without Religion (spring)  

We now turn to atheist authors who delete God and Jesus Christ from existence. We begin with the “New Atheists” who reject a caricature of theism. Next we consider a variety of serious arguments against theism. But theism isn’t just a matter of mere logical argument, so we must also consider theologically literate atheists such as Feuerbach and Nietzsche who strike at the existential heart of Christianity.  Finally, and surprisingly enough, we will turn to the Bible itself, to The Book of Job, for an analysis of the absence of God and for a critique of religion that do not lead to formal atheism. We will watch the movies: 21 Grams2001: A Space Odyssey, and The Seventh Seal


Core 4: Suffering and Meaning

Common Area Designation(s): Literature
C.I.S. Concentration: Peace and Conflict Studies

War, Glory, Death (fall) 

We will read the Iliad of Homer and the Aeneid of Virgil to explore and discuss the conflicts that trigger war and how crises are resolved (or not) in war. Each work offers multiple perspectives on war, glory and death as revealed in a wide variety of battle scenes and family encounters. Analysis of rhetoric in Homer will enhance our understanding of the power of persuasion in all the works we read. We also will learn about visual representations of these works from antiquity up through contemporary art. Selections from Jonathan Shay’s book, Achilles in Vietnam and films such as Night and Fog and Europa Europa will be integrated into this course.

Homecoming, Exile, Memory (spring) 

Does war really end for heroes? What does “homecoming” mean for them? What happens when refugees from war must seek out a “new” home? Are they continually haunted by trauma, dreams, and memories that affect their sense of their identity? How do they transform the past into stories? Has their perspective on “glory” changed? To begin to grapple with these questions, we shall read the Odyssey of Homer, the Oresteia (a trilogy of Greek tragedies) of Aeschylus, the Ajax of Sophocles, and the Aeneid of Virgil.  Jonathan Shay’s Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming, and films such as Le Retour de Martin Guerre and Cold Mountain will be integrated into the course.   


Core 5: The Meaning of Life

Common Area Designation(s): Philosophical Studies

Quest for Virtue (fall)

According to the traditional way of thinking, proper ethical behavior and ethical excellence lead to a meaningful life. Our moral qualities are tested the most in times of crisis, like pandemics and wars. In the course of the semester we will examine what it means to live a virtuous life in times of crisis and whether living in that way would indeed lead to a meaningful existence. We will read the following books: Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, Victor Frankl, Man’s Quest for Meaning, The Book of Job, Selected Dialogues by Plato, and Tao de Ching. We will also watch the following movies: The Thin Red Line, Gandhi, and The Road Home.

Quest for Happiness (spring)

If not highly virtuous individuals, then certainly those who are happy should be able to live a meaningful life. We will examine various sources of happiness, including love, creativity, grace, and sheer luck, and analyze how they may be related to our life’s meaning. In the course of the semester we will read the following books: Albert Schweitzer, Autobiography: Out of My Life and Thought, Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son, Erasmus, The Praise of Folly, Hermann Hesse, Narcissus and Goldmund, and Erich Fromm, The Art of Living. We will also watch the following movies: Casablanca, Everything is Illuminated, and Water


Cluster Director

Core Human Questions:
Predrag Cicovacki, Ph.D., Professor of Philosophy