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Explore the human condition with Great Books

There is only one course at the University of Utah that will take students on a journey of studying one of the greatest Greek tragedies studying the relationship between the humanities and theories of evolution to studying aliens and how they communicate. The course will also take students on a powerful exploration of ambition, power, and the nature of evil, with one of literature’s greatest villains. Led by a team of top professors in the College of Humanities, HUM 1500: Great Books, engages students in a rich and rewarding experience that offers insight into the foundational questions and challenges that motivate and vex the human condition.

“The deep and profound experience that Great Books creates comes from reading books together, sharing characters, tragic awakenings, obstacles, funny turns of phrase, lost loves, great battles, and races against time,” said Hollis Robbins, dean of the College of Humanities. “Of course, it is excellent to be introduced and helped through a foundational text by an expert professor and to read late into the night by yourself. But the greatness of a Great Books course is the collective learning experience and the sharing of allusions and histories, and valuing that shared experience.”

Fulfilling the humanities gen ed requirement, Great Books not only allows first-year students to study influential and thought-provoking books, but it also offers them an opportunity to explore their academic interests across a variety of texts and to think and respond critically to enduring questions raised by those texts. According to Mike Middleton, associate dean of academic affairs for the College of Humanities, “it’s a gateway to all the Humanities has to offer.”

The book selections come from throughout history and from a range of authors. Each semester, humanities faculty meet and discuss what books they think will challenge and surprise students, as well as how the themes in those books relate to contemporary challenges even when they may have been written hundreds of years ago.

“Great books are those that engage students in the big and enduring questions that have and continue to shape the human experience,” said Middleton.

The Fall 2024 semester great books will add “Life and Language Beyond Earth” by Raymond Hickey, “Antigone” by Sophocles, “The Chaos Machine” by Max Fisher, "Richard III" by William Shakespeare, “The Marrow of Tradition” by Charles Chesnutt, "Moving Up without Losing Your Way: The Ethical Costs of Upward Mobility" by Jennifer M. Morton, to a growing list that may also include “The Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin, and “Mrs. Dalloway” by Virginia Woolf.

“Of the millions of books ever written, the greatest books are those that have had a discernible impact on other books and fields of study. So, our faculty members choose books that have changed the way other authors write. For example, “Antigone" by Sophocles, has had an incalculable impact on world literature, as has Shakespeare’s "Richard III." Raymond Hickey’s "Life and Language Beyond Earth” is newly influential and ever more urgent as technology brings us closer to possible engagement with other worlds,” said Robbins.

Richard Preiss, associate professor of English, chose “Richard III” because of similar politics happening in today’s society. “Men of ambition claim to speak for ‘the people,’ use humor to mask their authoritarianism, and construct reality with propaganda. Literature shows us how to resist such figures: chiefly, by reminding us that they’re not new.” Preiss says students will get an accessible, absorbing introduction to Shakespeare, as well as to the basic methodology of English by concentrating on key passages in a text and noticing patterns that generate deeper levels of meaning.

Erin Beeghly, associate professor of philosophy who will teach “Moving Up without Losing Your Way: The Ethical Costs of Upward Mobility” by Jennifer M. Morton, says she’s excited to dive into the text with the students and examine its connection with their lives. “It’s an award-winning philosophical exploration of the ethical costs of upward mobility, especially for first-generation college students. The book is beautifully researched and compelling to read, as well as incredibly personal.”

Students looking for an engaging and unique opportunity that develops critical reading, thinking and writing skills, that will support their academic success, and provide a better understanding of extraterrestrial life, can register for Great Books beginning April 1, 2024.

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