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Honors Colloquia: Fall 2010

Click on a course name to read a description.

Course Name
Course Number/Section
Reading List
History, Philosophy, and Poetry in the Dialogues of Plato
HONS 201.30/51
Integrating the Irrational
HONS 201.52/01   
Mathematical Thought
HONS 201.82/01
Post-Communist Europe: Political and Economical Challenges
HONS 301.25/01
Religion and Violence in Medieval Europe
HONS 301.32/01
Interdisciplinary Independent Study
HONS 301.99/01
Advanced Interdisciplinary Study
HONS 491.51/01

All course materials can be purchased at Shakespeare & Co. Booksellers, located at 939 Lexington Avenue.


Course Descriptions

History, Philosophy, and Poetry in the Dialogues of Plato

Although Plato is usually thought of as a philosopher, from the literary standpoint he was a poet, a comic and tragic playwright, and in many ways a writer of what is now called post-modern fiction as well. His written Greek is widely considered the best Attic Greek ever written, even though he writes that is a drug, that a really serious person would pursue it only playfully, for relaxation, and that what is most serious can't be said in written words, like other subjects.  Besides the philosophical ideas and arguments in them, the dialogues are not history, though they are mistaken for it; and Plato is not a historian, though some modern readers — anachronistically — fault him for this.  Nevertheless, they can be used, with caution, as sources for the reconstruction of Greek political and cultural history.  Moreover, a grasp of the dialogues as poetry or philosophy requires some knowledge of their historical contexts.

In this colloquium, we will read Plato in an interdisciplinary way, from the standpoints of history, literature, and philosophy.  On the one hand, this will illustrate an approach that can be applied to other great books and authors.  On the other hand, I hope that students will come to appreciate that what Plato does in the dialogues transcends modern disciplinary distinctions.

No prerequisites.

Grades and Requirements

  • Students must write a short (800-1000 word) paper on a topic reflecting each section of the course: history, literature, and philosophy.  Topics will be suggested/assigned.  These three (3) short papers will constitute 40% of the course grade.
  • Students must also write a term paper of 3,000-4,000 words.  Term papers may be research papers or non-research interpretative papers.  Instructor will provide individual guidance on all phases of term paper writing.  Topics will be suggested, but individual projects will be worked out in consultation with the instructor.  Term papers will constitute 40% of the course grade.
    Policy: All written work may be revised as many times as student wishes and time allows in order to attain the grade desired.
  • Students' preparation, participation, and contribution to in-class on on-line discussions will constitute 20% of the course grade.

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Integrating the Irrational

In order to understand the issues of today, we have to understand the time in which we live.  Global warming, oil drilling in the Arctic, development of unspoiled land, gene therapy, and stem cell research, are a few of the many issues that confront us daily and for which we are called upon to make decisions at the voting booth or through our individual actions.  The Internet and media outlets provide a steady stream of information.  But as the futurist Alvin Toffler wrote:

In describing today's accelerating changes, the media fire blips of unrelated information at us.  Experts bury us under mountains of narrowly specialized monographs.  Popular forecasters present lists of unrelated trends, without any model to show us their interconnections or the forces likely to reverse them.  As a result, change itself comes to be seen as anarchic, even lunatic.

This is especially true now that we have moved beyond modern times and are living in a postmodern age.  The distinction is important: in the modern view, there is an absolute Truth that we can come to discover; in the postmodern view, there is no one truth.

Many issues blend science with culture, often in subtle ways, influencing the choices we make.  Questions regarding reality itself open an entirely new perspective on the issues.  What is reality?  Is what we observe real?  The answers to these questions are not as transparent as one might think.  Reality is a concept that has been the focus of both philosophers and scientists.  Does every object have an essence that defines it?  Or is every object defined only by its constituent molecules?  Reality is also at the heart of the modern/postmodern debate: modernists hold that there is one ultimate reality that can be known by applying scientific principles while postmodernists have replaced the idea of reality with that of hyper-reality - state of endless copies so that the meaning of any original has been lost.

The course explores philosophical and scientific views of reality from antiquity to the modern and postmodern eras.  Additionally, it probes the relationship between scientific thought and the philosophy of the times in which it exists.  The end result is to understand how this can inform the decisions we make as we work to make sense of the issues that confront us.

The course is self-contained; it does not have prerequisites in either philosophy or science.  The lectures provide the necessary background.

Requirements: one written assignment, one oral assignment, one mid-term exam, one final exam

Course Requirements: Take-home Midterm Exam and a final paper (10-12 pages).

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Mathematical Thought

American public education, from the primary grades through college, has historically enjoyed widespread public support.  From those hoping for better lives for their children and economic advancement to immigrants seeking to become “Americans”, public education has been the doorway through which generations have passed.  We will examine the interlocking threads of the history of public education, the expansion of literacy to new groups of Americans (the poor, women, rural populations, all children) and the implications of these changes for American life and culture.  We will be especially concerned with the impact of our current approach to American education on the social and economic structure of society.

Public education did not “just happen”.  We will examine the cultural and political battles over public education in the 20th Century, as expanding opportunity produced great conflict over issues of equity (should all Americans receive the same educational opportunities), funding (who should pay and how much), content (what should and should NOT be taught), and control (who should decide all of these questions).  In many ways, these battles reflect the continuing challenge of change in American society.

As we will see, many of the things that we have taken for granted in American education in the 20th Century (universal public education, goals of equity and excellence) have not only been hard won but have often been uncertain victories.  In fact, the ground under public education is always shifting as different interests gain influence and as the public we are educating continues to change.  This course will ask you to think broadly about society and the effect of our educational efforts.

Because the issues in American public education touch every community and virtually every individual, I expect that you will bring a number of issues to the discussion as well.  Through the assigned essays, you will have an opportunity to explore issues of particular interest to you and to use them to inform our class discussion.

Requirements: Several short essays, which if submitted on time, may be revised; class participation, which will include your preparation for class discussions and your ability to demonstrate a thorough knowledge of the readings; and a final exam.

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Post-Communist Europe: Political & Economic Challenges

Life is thick with risk today.  The swine flu outbreak, terrorist attacks, falling construction cranes, drunken drivers, air-traffic control errors, peanuts in kids’ food, secondhand smoke… The list of threats to life and health seems to get longer, and the evasive actions recommended get increasingly extreme.  There is investment risk, apparently gone haywire in the lead-up to the 2008 financial collapse.  There is risk to safety and security: we feel our society threatened by powerful forces in the environment, climate change, energy crisis, and terrorism.  And the little risks of everyday life like whether to take the chance of waiting for an express train at 42nd Street or to stay on the downtown local.

What makes all these different possibilities seem risky? How do we understand risk today?  How does our sense of risk accord with real probabilities of events  with the implacable randomness of nature?  How can we apply a single concept of randomness to both the nearly impossible (shark attack) or the nearly certain (express train will be slow), and everything in between?  Finally, what does risk tell us about how we think, how society works, and how we think it should work?

In this course, we will explore the history of the idea of risk in relation to the concept of random events.  We will trace the history of thought about probability, the development of the concept of risk in shipping insurance and later life insurance, and the adoption of the risk concept by other fields of great social importance, notably finance and the study of disease (epidemiology).   And we will examine how risk figures in social decision making today, exploring why some people say we live in a “risk society.”  There will be some arithmetic exercises in class, but you will not be required to master complex probability equations.  The course will require extensive reading and writing.

Prerequisite:  One college-level math course.

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Religion and Violence in Medieval Europe

The course proposes to introduce Dante’s Divine Comedy with a study of its classical heritage and those authors who form its cultural background.  The principal texts used  will be Vergil’s Aeneid, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and Dante’s Divine Comedy, all translated by Allen Mandelbaum. The idea of Rome in its historical context is a cardinal point of departure in Dante’s formulation of his political theories and in the content and structure of his poem.  The poetic background will be explored through Vergil’s Aeneid and the figure of Vergil in the Divine Comedy as a poet and as a guide.  In addition, we will study the presence of Ovid, mainly through the episodes and characters in the Metamorphoses that appear in the poem.  The course will also briefly examine the influence of two other epics on Dante: Lucan’s Pharsalia and Statius’s Thebaid.  Finally, the philosophical presence of Cicero’s ethical writings, especially De Amicitia and De Officiis, will also be examined together with references to other philosophers such as Seneca and Cato Uticensis.  Particular cantos from the Commedia will be selected to discuss and illustrate the seminal presence of the classical world.

Students will be required to write three papers: one 4-5 pages in length, one 7-8 pages, and a final paper 10-12 pages long.

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Interdisciplinary Independent Study

Students wishing to take this course will need two readers, from different disciplines, one of whom generally should be a member of the Council on Honors. In principle, the Council must approve the subject matter of such a paper before the student can register for the course. This course may be taken only once and does not count towards the three Honors Colloquia required of every member of the Program.

HONS 301.99 cannot replace any of the three required Honors Colloquia.

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Advanced Interdisciplinary Study

Upon completion of 90 credits, certified Honors Program students may be admitted by the Council on Honors to Advanced Interdisciplinary Studies, with the opportunity of engaging in advanced independent study under the Council's supervision. A project for a thesis or other appropriate report of the results of the student's research is presented to the Council, which must approve it the semester previous to registration. Three sponsors, from at least two departments, one of whom must be a member of the Council on Honors, will supervise the work. The final product must be approved by all three sponsors and the Council.

HONS 491.51 cannot replace any of the three required Honors Colloquia.

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